By Verity Craft

Earlier this year, Professionelle’s Better Work Stories event took place. Moderated by Hannah Ockelford, it featured senior speakers from a variety of industries. Hon. Paula Bennett, then Deputy Prime Minister; Inspector Tracy Phillips; Senior Police Professional Conduct Manager; Claire Neville, Head of Operations Northern for NZ Bus; and Susie Barnes, Wing Commander in the NZ Defence Force, were all in attendance. Aside from a lot of laughs (mostly care of Phillips) a few key themes came through… so what can we learn from this amazing group of women?

We’ve already come pretty far…

One panelist recalled how she was laughed out of an office after announcing that she wanted to join the then all-male section of her chosen field. Another was asked the age old question, “Who’s at home looking after your daughter?” by a man who had left four children at home himself.

Stories like these are all too common and, unfortunately, still happening in many workplaces around the country. However, all the women on the panel were instrumental in contributing to changes in the cultures that had allowed those incidents to happen. Some were even the first women appointed to their positions.

But we’ve still got a way to go

With the Daily Mail “Legs-It” front page demonstrating just how differently women are still seen (can you imagine anyone using a headline about Bill English and Malcolm Turnbull’s legs?), and the countless comments on new Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s outfits showing just how much the media love to focus on appearances, all the women highlighted that there is still a way to go. Feisty, stroppy, a little bit too forthright… all words used to describe these strong women, even in leadership positions. Where a male colleague may be described as assertive or angry, women are called aggressive or emotional.

There’s nothing wrong with using your gender to get a promotion…

…Especially when it’s to represent the 51% of the population that has been under-represented for a long time.  As Bennett said:

I said to John Key – women are 51% of the population and we don’t represent them enough…. I love that there’s a difference in genders. How can you not represent women?

And sometimes you have to be strategic

One of the panelists recalled giving a suggestion for how to approach a meeting, only to be shut down by a male colleague. He disagreed, and proceeded to suggest the same thing but in a slightly different way.

The 10 year old inside of me was saying ‘this isn’t fair!’ but I chose to be strategic. Instead, I said ‘That’s a really interesting perspective; I think we should run with it and would like your support.’”

Naturally, people wondered why she didn’t challenge her colleague. The speaker advised that it’s about the situation you’re in.

That time, I was in control and was able to still get the outcome I wanted. I may not have taken that action in every other case!

Once you’re up the ladder, it’s your responsibility to help other women up

All panelists agreed on the importance of this, and relished the opportunity to improve their professional environment. One said,

It’s quite good once you get to be this senior and you get to dictate [the culture] – I have zero tolerance now. Even if something is inching towards being sexist, I will call people on it.

Barnes, particularly, said that she believes in strong role modelling for younger females, and that the NZ Defence Force is focused on increasing diversity across the organisation.

Currently 16% [of the force] is female across the military. We have a goal of 25% by 2025.

However, in Barnes’ branch of the military, females already represent 45%. More important to Barnes though, is how women are treated once they’re in the military.

I always make sure I support other women coming through.

Bennett agreed, sharing that the women in the rest home where she worked as a teenager were the ones who pushed her to study and go further. As Deputy PM, she mentored a variety of politicians (both elected and aspiring) taking their success extremely personally, as well as supporting teen mums whenever possible.

I’m so lucky to be in such a privileged place. Now I have a responsibility to be someone else’s someone.

Key advice from our speakers:

Be brave

  • Fake it till you make it – shoulders back, put your big girl pants on
  • Ask yourself “Why not me?” – take a deep breath and just go for it
  • Back yourself – feel the fear and do it anyway

Be you

  • Be authentic, or people will see right through you
  • Understand what really drives you – then just go for that, so your career doesn’t feel like work

You’re worth it

  • When you go for jobs outside of your existing company, don’t tell them how much you’re being paid – you should be paid what the job is worth
  • Learn to ask directly for what you want

Enough already

  • Done is good enough – often it’s better than perfect





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