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What inspired you to become a professor?

I wasn’t inspired to become a professor although I did aspire to be one after a period in academia. I moreso drifted from legal practice into academia. At first academia provided a way for me to accommodate the other aspects of my life including having a child with special needs at a time when it would have been almost impossible to have a professional career. Then came the fortunate happenstance that research and teaching, and after a while, taking on leadership roles, was what I really was drawn to doing. Next, finally figuring out in which area of corporate law and governance I might be able to say something unique, and finding a scholarly identity.

Why are there still so few female scholars conducting corporate governance research?

Actually there are quite a few really excellent female corporate law and governance scholars in our Australasian region and also more generally. Mostly in law though, rather than finance. An Australian colleague, Professor Larelle Chapple, has done some interesting work around the dearth of women scholars in finance - likely similarly reflected in corporate governance. When I started out, I remember my male head of department suggesting that I stay focussed on intellectual  property and leave the rough and tumble nastiness of corporate law to the men. I really think he meant well. I have to say with one or two notable exceptions, the nicest people I have met in academia have been corporate governance academics. So that is one piece of advice I am glad I did not follow.

Part of the reason some women shy away from corporate governance is the belief that it is connected to avarice and greed and that it is more noble to become an academic in fields like human rights or international law. Despite the fact that academia is bulging with aspirant PhDs in those fields with limited academic posts. Studying corporate governance is a way to understand corporations and then bring about necessary change. Corporate governance can be about harnessing and sharing the benefits of the greatest organisational vehicle, generating value that humankind has yet to witness. For that reason we have established a research centre at the University of Auckland which studies those questions and also capitalism more broadly.

Why is there an underrepresentation of women in corporate leadership roles? (are they the same reasons?)

I do believe the underrepresentation of women on boards is a consequence of the underrepresentation of women in senior corporate roles. For both boards and senior roles, we try to show that having female representation will improve corporate performance. But why should Ginger Rogers have to dance backwards and in heels to get a place at the table? The cut and thrust of corporate life is generally considered not to align with the inevitability that many or most women will balance working life with family responsibilities, in particular at certain life stages, so women may not persist in climbing the corporate ladder. Rather than half the people of the world changing their life trajectory to address this, true change will not take place until corporate culture shifts, perhaps with greater recognition that leadership roles are about developing the skills, knowledge and experience to make good decisions, rather than performative presenteeism. The move to purpose as a means of alignment, and towards viewing the corporate form as facilitating an infinite game, should encourage inclusivity. By this, I mean that rather than playing a finite and competitive game within corporations, the form itself with its potential to exist in perpetuity does make possible an inclusive and cooperative approach within the organisation, even though corporations themselves compete.

What advice would you give to aspiring female leaders looking to break into traditionally male-dominated industries in the fields related to corporate governance?

Find your unique voice. Realise that the life experience and qualities you bring to roles will equip you to make good decisions. Empathy gives you the ability to understand how others will be thinking about issues. You can become a powerful persuader if you can align others’ world view with your desired outcome. Being resilient really means just keeping going despite inevitable setbacks. And follow your own trajectory so that you get to where you want to be on your own terms. There has to be a certain amount of self belief that women sometimes have to foster more than men. But still stay humble and always be open to learning and changing. It is surprising how the things that are the most challenging and difficult often ultimately lead to transformative outcomes. Although it may appear to be trite, lots of people are talented but talent has to be combined with hard work.

What future trends or developments do you anticipate in the area of women's representation in corporate governance and academia?

Like publish or perish for academia, the market at its best is a harsh but fair taskmaster. As more evidence emerges that the characteristics that women in general bring to decision making, especially to the skill sets of some boards and leadership teams, improve performance, then the rationality of shifting organisations and academia to truly accommodate women and our life trajectories will happen. But we have a long way to go.

Susan Watson holds a joint appointment as Professor of Law at the University of Auckland Faculty of Law and the University of Auckland Business School, where she is the Dean. She is also the current President of the Corporate Law Teachers Association. Her research is on corporate law, corporate governance, corporate theory, and corporate history, focusing in particular on the development of the modern company form, and the implications of that development on our understanding of the modern company, and also on corporate governance. She also researches the role of the board, and on the relationship between corporate constituencies.

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