A recent study showing women make up only a quarter of board members in the private sector has prompted a debate on whether mandatory quotas should be introduced to bring the number up.
An AUT survey of New Zealand's top 100 companies revealed 24 per cent of board members were women.
The Commonwealth Women Parliamentarians, the Human Rights Commission, Global Women, and the Ministry for Women hosted a debate on Wednesday night in the Beehive at Parliament on the issue.
Former National MP Marilyn Waring, Labour MP Louisa Wall, businesswoman Joan Withers and National MP Anne Tolley were on the panel.
Professor Waring teamed up with Ms Wall to argue the case for quotas. Professor Waring said countries like Norway proved they could work but only if the right women were appointed.
"In particular parts of the world they are filling up the board with your wives and sisters and daughters. The other perverse consequence is appointing the 'safe' woman. Because they do not bring diversity and do not change the culture."
Ms Tolley and Ms Withers took the opposite view. Ms Withers said having more women was good for a company but enforcing a quota would not help anyone.
"Forcing the momentum by mandating time-bound achievement of percentages risks having women appointed to the wrong role for the wrong reason - being appointed to fill a quota is personally demeaning," she said.
"If women are appointed for the wrong reason and without the skills and experience they need for that particular role and they struggle to deliver value for that board and get traction for their input that is incompatible with good governance and it risks reinforcing the prejudice of the dinosaurs who do still exist who don't truly understand the formidable talent pool that they have available to them."
The government has promised women will make up half of all state-sector boards and committees by 2021. Women had up 45.7 percent of public sector positions at the end of last year.
But, in the private sector the disparity was clear, with 20 of New Zealand's top 100 companies having no women representation at all.
The debate also reached the wider issue of workplace culture, and whether a quota would change this.
Ms Wall argued it would.
"At the end of the day [women] provide opportunities about how businesses are going to conduct themselves, how resources are distributed. A step-change is needed to achieve gender-balance in the boardroom and diversity because a reliance on goodwill has resulted in painful, incremental progress.
Ms Tolley said it would not.
"Focusing only on a numeric representation of women won't bring about effective change and too often where quotas are imposed the quota is negotiated and is only 10 or 20 percent - once reached it can become the ceiling," she said.
She said there were better ways to get more women on boards.
"We have to change the structures wherever necessary, in order to break into that old boy network and that mates recommendation for positions by setting targets and ensuring training and selection criteria are gender-sensitive.
"There are many thousands of meritorious women - they just have to look harder to find them.
"Recommendations in the NZX's Government Code regarding diversity, I believe need beefing up and some action to ensure it happens. I believe that's the first place we should be pressurising for change."
By Emma Hatton