Rachel Farrant is used to being the only woman in the room, but says the door is open for more to join her.
Farrant, 43, is the only female partner in the Wellington offices of accounting firm BDO and the sole woman around the board table at infrastructure firm Fulton Hogan.
Her appointment to Fulton Hogan’s board in 2011 came after it actively went out looking for somebody younger, with a finance background, and “they were looking for some diversity at the boardroom table”.
Farrant says there is plenty of support for women looking to follow her into the boardroom. She counts the Institute of Directors’ Mentoring for Diversity programme as key to expanding her knowledge of boardroom mechanics and extending her portfolio to include Government-owned telecommunications provider Kordia and the Wellington Museums Trust.
“Women are getting more opportunities than men in some respects,” she says.
But there is a gap between the number of women coming up through the ranks and those in the top echelons of business.
“I don’t know where they go in between.” Farrant, who has two young children, says technology makes it easier to stay on top of client work and connect with the family if board commitments take her out of town, and board meetings are set down months in advance, leaving time to iron out her schedule.
She says it may come down to having the confidence to back yourself, with women tending to be more self-critical than men.
“We have lots of managers that are women but I’m the only partner in Wellington. And I can’t quite put my finger on why.” She does see a boardroom mentality that seeks to fill a vacant director’s seat with someone who is winding down a career as a business executive, lawyer or accountant.
“I think in general the whole business landscape of New Zealand does need a diverse range of people, so it would be disappointing if all the governance roles in New Zealand were taken up by people who were almost in their second career.”
That’s not to say women should get a board seat without the right skills.
“I wouldn’t ever want to move to a quota system.
“You need to have people there because they are contributing, they’ve got the skills, they’re there because they’re able to make the company better.
“I think if we got to a point where we were saying ‘we need to have two women on every board’, I just don’t like that as a concept. I think you just don’t want to be there as one of the two token women.
“I’ve never had any problems on the Fulton Hogan board.
“I contribute as much as anybody else and they’re more than happy to hear what I have to say.” She says the male-heavy workforce at Fulton Hogan now has two women on the executive team – Theresa Mlikota as chief financial officer and Di Walsh as executive general manager, people.
“All the management and board would say that it’s making us a better company just because those people have got such fantastic skills, not because they’re women.”
Farrant says becoming a director was a natural progression from her work as a partner in an accounting firm.
“Having said that, just because you are a partner in an accounting firm doesn’t necessarily make you a good director.” It is also a well-trodden path in the Farrant family; her father, Ian Farrant, was an accountant and professional director for dozens of public and private companies, including Fulton Hogan.
She says that connection did put her on Fulton Hogan’s radar but it had been a decade since her father’s involvement and she jumped through the same hoops as anyone else before being appointed.
Farrant says directorships give her the opportunity to be involved in the business rather than just standing alongside advising.
She says getting to know the business, particularly Fulton Hogan, was a steeper learning curve for her than getting to grips with the boardroom process.
“I’m not an engineer; I’m now much more au fait with asphalt plant and quarries.” It was veteran director John Spencer, the mentor the Institute of Directors paired her with, who advised her to get out and kick some tyres, she says.
When he was appointed as chairman of KiwiRail, Spencer spent a week riding the train up and down the country and encouraged her to do something similar at the companies she oversees.
“It’s very hard to manage a business if you don’t know what it looks like.” She also sounded out Spencer on how to select the right organisations to direct, which she says comes down to passion.
“There’s no use being in something that you don’t really want to be there for.
“Don’t get me wrong, I’m not absolutely passionate about asphalt or quarries – although I’m getting more passionate about it – but I am passionate about the fact that we design roads and the things that we do with that stuff.
“I’m passionate about the fact that Fulton Hogan’s doing an amazing job on Christchurch.
“I’m passionate about when I see somebody on the side of the road fixing the thing, it’s like ‘yeah cool, Fulton Hogan’.
“I’m passionate about the business.”
• Number of male directors on NZX-listed companies: 569
• Number of female directors: 96