By: Raewyn Court
“In the NZX50 there are more CEOs named John than CEOs who are women” is a catch cry that’s been thrown around lately with the aim of highlighting the dire statistics on women in leadership roles in New Zealand.
The 2017 NZ Census of Women on Boards found that only 137 out of 618 directorships were held by women in the Top 100 NZ Stock Exchange companies last year. Just six of the Top 100 had half of their directors as women, many had none, and the numbers have increased just 1 per cent a year over the past 10 years.
A young woman on a mission to change this balance is Alexia Hilbertidou, 19, who founded her company GirlBoss New Zealand three years ago while at Albany High School. She was inspired to encourage and empower young women, particularly in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) fields, by her experience of being the only girl in her Year 11 digital technology class and later the only girl in her advanced physics class.
“As well as feeling isolated and at times intimidated, I felt concerned that other young women were limiting their future career options by avoiding the development of these skills,” she says. “I was also shocked to discover that only 2 per cent of NZX50 CEOs are women and I strongly believe my generation needs to make inroads into long-established statistics like this. I thought, ‘what can I do?’ So I started with a conference that had 370 attendees. I realised then that many young women were on board with the mission.”
Hilbertidou thinks a huge factor in women being under-represented in leadership is subconscious bias.
“There’s an interesting test which at GirlBoss we call the ‘Google Image Check’. Type ‘boss cartoon character’ into Google Images and look at the results. This is what society has taught us a leader ‘should’ look like. It’s up to us to challenge that thinking.”
Lack of role models is also a factor, she says, “because young women cannot be what they cannot see. If young women imagine in their head what a boss or a coder or a chairperson looks like, and it is so far from what they see in the mirror, then it can be a huge barrier to them. At GirlBoss we work with like-minded organisations to provide representation and mentoring to young girls. Our vision is to create the biggest pipeline of top female talent in New Zealand and close the gender gap in leadership, and we’re always looking to partner organisations who share that vision with us.”
Women make up only 13 per cent of New Zealand’s engineers. Hilbertidou says research shows many women leaders have STEM backgrounds, and believes that girls becoming interested in STEM subjects at school might eventually result in more women leaders.
“Consider the Forbes 2018 list of top 10 most powerful women leaders, such as Angela Merkel, Melinda Gates and Sheryl Sandberg. All but one have either a STEM degree or work in a STEM field now.”
GirlBoss has more than 9000 members and at least 3000 ambassadors. The role of an ambassador is to create initiatives to inspire and equip their communities.
“They might create a GirlBoss Club at their school or invite role models to their classrooms to boost the confidence and resilience of others. We believe that leadership skills are developed by execution and best honed when girls choose for themselves how they can best serve their communities.”
Hilbertidou says GirlBoss is supported by “fantastic corporate organisations who sponsor our in-school and weekend workshops so we can provide our workshops free to schools across NZ. We also collaborate with companies to connect them with our best and brightest female tech talent.”
GirlBoss runs two types of workshops. “GirlBoss LEAD” is adapted for different ages but primarily focuses on discussing potential challenges so girls are equipped with the resilience they need to persist. Older students are taught networking, interviewing and personal branding to engender confidence in professional settings. The Changemaker workshop focuses on the power of STEM as a tool to lead and change the world.
GirlBoss tracks young women’s career interests in STEM, and through surveying and by working with researchers at University of Auckland’s Faculty of Engineering, Hilbertidou knows that more than 90 per cent of those attending are more likely to go into a STEM career after workshops.
“Once girls understand that they can fulfill their passions and make a significant impact with STEM, they’re keen to learn more. We’re launching an online platform in early 2019 to ensure the supports are there to move them from inspiration through to execution of their career dreams.”
Hilbertidou hopes she’s helping start a movement among young women to become more confident, resilient and ready to become leaders in the future.
“That’s my aim. I’ve shared our message with more than 30,000 people in schools, businesses and not-for-profits in the past year, so I really hope that young women gain courage from this. In almost every case, 100 per cent of attendees at our conferences say they have more confidence in their ability to create, problem-solve and lead.”
More than 350 nominations have been received for the inaugural GirlBoss Awards, and Hilbertidou says these are all trail-blazing young women aged 11-18 who defy stereotypes and lead change in their communities.
“Our winners and nominees will become role models to others and will be aiding others to believe that they can do it too.”
“We’ve been developing a disruptive online platform, which will provide a bridge between our members and corporate organisations. Now we’re reaching out to visionary corporates who want to see genuine and organic shifts in diversity numbers. I envision a nationwide and, in the future, international pooling of support and resources to build the capability of young women.”
Anyone can join GirlBoss for free at www.girlboss.nz