Christchurch Chamber of Commerce Women's Leadership Forum
E nga wahine kahurangi o tenei rohe
Tena koutou katoa.
I’m delighted to have this opportunity to participate in today’s forum, with its focus on building confidence and female leadership.
It’s wonderful to be able to spend some time with women from across Canterbury and join in discussion of issues that are close to my heart.
It’s an opportune time, in this 125th anniversary of Women’s Suffrage, to reflect on where we’ve got to with women’s rights in Aotearoa New Zealand – and to ask ourselves what’s next?
Clearly we have much to celebrate, but progress is not always linear, and we can easily slip back, at any time.
We can see this kind of regression in the disturbing decline in the number of women in governance roles in the private sector – and I sincerely hope that the work of this this network will contribute to reverse that trend.
In 1893, New Zealand led the world in the emancipation of women, and in 2018, our challenge is: how we are going to lead the world again?
We’ll have to work hard to overtake Iceland, which the World Economic Forum puts as number one in terms of closing the gender gap. We’re currently 9th on that index but we’ve lost ground on the index relating to educational attainment where we rank only 43rd.
That’s just one area of concern.
Workplace harassment and abuse, gender bias, and pay gaps now get plenty of media coverage, as do our dreadful statistics for domestic violence. They show us that despite our efforts so far,
“There is still work to be done”.
If we look at today’s topic – building confidence for women in the workplace – it seems to me that there are two aspects to consider: how organisations can build confidence in their employees, and what we can do ourselves.
Networks like yours can make a vital difference, by giving opportunities for women of influence to sponsor and mentor other women who are seeking to advance their careers.
Getting more women into positions of power is essential. A few trailblazers are not enough.
Women will have more confidence when our workplaces take gender equity seriously:
when it is routine to have women occupying at least half of the senior roles;
when those women can set expectations around workplace behaviour, and get buy-in and support from their male colleagues;
when women havethe power to face down harassers and confront gender bias;
when mothers of children do not see a drop in wages in comparison to fathers of children; and
when women are not disadvantaged in pay negotiations and are given the same opportunities for career development.
I could go on, but you get the picture. We are talking about fundamental changes in workplace culture.
From a personal perspective, in many ways I was lucky to grow up with the 1970s mantra of ‘Girls can do anything’, and to have parents who encouraged me to go to university and to believe that I could succeed in any profession I wanted (actually my Dad was keen for me to be an accountant, but that sounded far too dull). I chose law – mainly because I wanted to go to University in Wellington and studying law meant I was eligible for an away from home boarding allowance.
At that time the law schools, and indeed the law profession, were both male dominated. I wasn’t surprised or discouraged by that – I learned techniques to manage it. That isn’t to say that I didn’t suffer discrimination along the way, because I did. But I was fortunate to get through it, mostly by keeping my head down and not making a fuss.
I certainly saw other women whose careers were drastically curtailed because they were unable to operate in a male environment.
If a woman was to complain about sexual harassment or bullying by a man, it would be her career that suffered, not the man’s.
I like to think that a really positive outcome of the #MeToo movement will be that those kinds of repercussions become a thing of the past. That will undoubtedly help women’s sense of self-confidence in the workplace. I hope that you will no longer feel that you have to accept discriminatory behaviour and attitudes and you will feel able to address it.
But let’s face it, overcoming that doubting voice inside us that questions our ability and our suitability for positions, is not so easy.
Like anyone else, when I have been approached to do something outside my comfort zone, my first thought has been “Who me? I can’t possibly do that”.
I am as subject to the imposter syndrome as anyone else.
It was certainly my response when I was offered the role of Governor-General by Prime Minister John Key.
My immediate reaction was astonishment – how could I possibly fit the model of a modern Governor -General? There must be some mistake, surely.
But I was also intrigued. The Prime Minister assured me that he hadn’t mistaken me for someone else and he suggested that it would provide me a unique opportunity to make a positive contribution to my country. That was hard to turn down.
I welcomed the idea that I might be able to contribute to the public good – particularly in areas where I thought I might be able to make a difference.
I didn’t really know much about the role of Governor-General, and there really isn’t a standard career path to refer to.
On taking up the role in September 2016, I was nervous, because there was so much to learn, and it was all very new.
What got me through was my natural curiosity and the strategies that have stood me in good stead in law, business, governance roles, in both the private and public sector.
And that was to ask lots of questions, listen carefully, seek advice, trust my own judgement, and always try and do the best I could as I took on new challenges and opportunities.
So if we return to that question of building confidence in oneself, I think it starts with a willingness to seize opportunities, embrace the new, and to be constantly learning and growing.
Around 10 years ago I was looking for a change in direction in my career. I had spent over 20 years working in the private sector, particularly in governance roles, and I felt like I needed a change. An opportunity came up to get involved in the public sector and I took it. I was offered the role of Chair of the NZ Film Commission. This opened the door to other public sector and government positions.
One opportunity which was definitely outside my comfort zone was to be a chief Crown Negotiator for Treaty Settlements. Although I had lived as a child in the heart of Tuhoe and Tainui tribal areas, I realised I knew very little about the iwi or indeed the history of Aotearoa New Zealand. Taking on that role was like jumping in the deep end – and when I look back on it, without actually being able to swim.
Arrogance is no substitute for confidence. By that I mean that coming into a role believing that you have all the answers is a recipe for disaster. I realised that I needed to listen to read and to learn, and work out how to communicate effectively - even though my messages were not always what the iwi wanted to hear.
In the five or six years I worked on treaty settlement negotiations I learned a huge amount and realised just how much more there is for me to learn. What I tried to do was earn the respect of those I was dealing with.
Confidence is a two-way street, and comes from mutual respect, so it is vital to be a good team-player. Support your colleagues and they will support you.
Remember that if you don’t believe in yourself you can’t really expect others to do so.
Finally, to paraphrase the American feminist Bella Abzug, always remember that the arrangement of your chromosomes has no bearing on your ability to do your job.
We may have some way to go before that kind of thinking breaks through centuries of patriarchal structures, internalised misogyny, and unconscious bias – but we have proved that huge change is possible in the past – and we can do so again.
The challenge for all of us is to do what we can to make gender equity a reality, if not for our own sakes, then for the generations of women to come.