No women CEOs in NZ's top fifty companies - tragedy or hope?

It’s 2016, and the number of female CEOs in New Zealand’s top fifty companies has finally reached… zero.

So began a story this month in The Pantograph Punch.

It is true, it is extraordinary and when I thought it through for a minute it is also exhilarating.

Now, exhilaration is not the reaction one is supposed to have to men ruling all our mega-companies from Fletcher Building through to Air New Zealand and The Warehouse. But here is why I reacted in this way.

Ruling a mega-company is taking the reins of an enormous finite game that is knitted into the status quo from almost every angle. You can’t move without people jumping up and down and screaming at you to make sure they are protected. Imagine how it feels to be Theo Spierings, the CEO of Fonterra (a dairy cooperative, which is by far the biggest supplier of NZ milk and also operates in Australia). Milk prices go down, and farmers say they are “the victims of ‘immoral’ cuts to milk pay outs.” One of your plants leaks wastewater into groundwater systems and an Environment Court judge accuses you of being a “laggard” in relation to “the adoption of appropriate technology” and “putting productivity ahead of the environment.” Consumers are shocked to learn that you are “allowing GM stock feed to be fed to our cows,” and you are advised to stop this practice or risk “consumer backlash.” You must work all day alongside the other big boys, under the relentless pressure to make sure your organisation doesn’t fall behind. The bigger your business, the further there is to fall and the greater the pressure.

It doesn’t sound like much fun to me, even for $4.49 million dollars a year (which, yes, is an absurd salary). So maybe it is good news that something about who we are as women means we are not at this particular table. Isabelle Stengers, the Belgian philosopher has said that she “never accepts answering the question ‘power’ people always ask… What would you do if you were in our place?” as she went on to say, “I am not in your place! And it is not by chance. A society where I would occupy any kind of power position and still think and feel as I do would be a completely different society.”

Of course there will be some direct sexism behind the latest news about our mono-gendered CEO scene, and women do (on average) spend more time caring for their families and doing housework than men do. But surely it is also in part a refusal amongst women who could, to play the game required to get into these positions. It may not be a conscious refusal, but just a stubborn clinging to the ways of women – in which you look out for others, do not assume you have the best answer, and are less attracted to large scale wheeling and dealing than men are. It would be far more tragic to have women running these companies and then find nothing has changed, than to find them absent. At least while women have not simply done “what it takes” to gain power, we still have a strong feminine archetype in play.

So when I consider our country’s increasing glorification of competitive finite games in which winners are rewarded and losers left behind, I am exhilarated by the hope that maybe women are saying, “Nah, not my gig”.  

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