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Lead with success > On Reflection > Girls Can Do Anything!

Girls Can Do Anything!

By Justine Munro

Justine Munro, a management consultant with experience in the corporate, non-profit, indigenous and education sectors in New Zealand and Australia, gave a speech at the 125th Jubilee Dinner of her school, Wellington Girls’ College. She shared the speech with us and we asked for permission to reprint and abridged version. Justine’s reflections on the old career advice of “Girls Can Do Anything” make for fascinating reading.

“I’ve been given the honour, at this 125th Jubilee Dinner, of speaking about my journey – as a Wellington Girls College student who was lucky enough to obtain a Rhodes Scholarship and carve out a fairly interesting career since then. I’ll do that, but I also want to place it in a context of a woman born in the 1970s and coming of age in a time where “girls could do anything”. Here tonight, we’re lucky to have women from many generations, and I hope that these reflections can be of interest, and possibly relevance, to many of you, despite the very different courses that our lives may have taken.

Girls Can Do Anything

I’m going to start my reflections by describing a poster which to me was the backdrop for my whole time at Wellington Girls’. Some of you might remember the poster: little cartoon figures of smiling girls dressed up like Bob the Builder doing all the things that, in the olden days, people used to think only men could do – being builders, plumbers, surveyors, scaling the ladder to success. How crazy we thought they’d been back then, and how great it was to be a girl growing up now!

The poster was in every classroom, every corridor, every office in the country. We said that phrase all the time, ‘Just remember: “Girls can do anything!”‘ – and I even remember it as a debating topic – poor you if you had to argue the negative!

Early Years

So – girls can do anything – that was our mantra and the world was our oyster. It never crossed my mind that anything could stop me. I think at that point I was going to be New Zealand’s first women prime minister – damn!, that one got away – but you get the gist.

From school I went to do a law degree at Victoria University and from there I was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford University. That scholarship was best known at the time for having been given to David Kirk. It rewards not only academic achievement but also sporting and cultural achievement and community service. Getting the Rhodes and going to Oxford was a defining point in my life. It was a tremendous honour, it let me build some wonderful friendships and networks, it opened doors, and it reinforced a very strong sense of duty, to give back and to repay the investment and trust that had been made in me.

Children and Recognition

And then after being wooed by an international strategic management consulting firm and finding and marrying my husband, we decided to have children. Whilst I knew that there would be some changes involved – and I did have some visions of myself floating around making biscuits and having morning teas – I never expected that it would fundamentally change the trajectory I’d been on.

I found myself with an 18 month year old and a new baby, totally exhausted, yet bored to tears, asking in frustration,

“Why did you tell us that ‘girls can do anything’ when we so patently can’t? How am I going to be the mother I want to be to these children, and achieve my potential in my career, let alone be a balanced and giving wife, friend and daughter? How can I change the world when I’m about to drop dead with tiredness and the baby needs a nappy change?”

And in the thick of it, I actually remember telling my good friend who’d also been at school with me that I was seriously contemplating heading back to Wellington Girls to confront those teachers, to tell them that they were raising false expectations, and demand to set the girls straight!

Well I didn’t quite get that far and I’ve calmed down quite a bit over the intervening 5 years. I’ve had a chance to reflect on that message as I’d taken it on, and what I think now is a more useful way of approaching life.

I recognised that I’d interpreted ‘girls can do anything’ as meaning, first of all, ‘girls can do anything that a man does’. You see those little women running up and down those ladders in the poster, they’re not redefining the game, they’re just dressing up in the same clothes the men wear, they’re playing the same game the men are playing.

And the other interpretation of ‘girls can do anything’ actually meant ‘girls can do everything’. Not only would I now do all the things I’d seen my mother doing, I’d do all the things I’d seen my father doing too. And because you’ve always got to do everything better than your parents, I’d do it all even better.

And the other part – ‘girls can do anything’ actually meant ‘girls should do everything’. We owed it to ourselves, our mothers, our daughters, to our peers and everyone who’d ever believed and invested in us to do it all. Sure we all joked about superwoman, but really, that’s who we had to be.

Well, it’s pretty obvious that this was heading for a road-smash. And I definitely did go through a few phases here: embracing full-time motherhood, which, it is good to know, is really not for me; taking on part-time work that bored to me to tears; and being really angry at the generation before – where are my role models? Why aren’t the women who’ve gone before and broken through the glass ceilings reaching back to help us? What has really changed?

Ultimately, what I have discovered, however, is that there is a group of women who are, often quite quietly, modelling a new way. Their focus is not so much on the ‘doing’, or even on the ability to do. What matters is the outcome. The line then is not ‘girls can do anything’, or, as I took it, ‘girls should do everything’, but that ‘girls and women – and men – can create a life they want to live’.

Hard Won Insight

Some of the aspects of this were:

  • If you can’t win at the game as it’s currently defined, create your own. Sure, try very hard to make your workplace flexible and appreciative of difference, but be prepared also to create your own business, your own non-profit, your own networks, and make them work for you and for people like you. You’ll be responding to challenges and opportunities the old games cannot, and pretty soon, they’ll be coming to you.
  • Get rid of this idea of the divide between “work” and “home” – the person I have to be and the person I want to be; the things I have to do and the things I want to do. You can work in a way that reflects your values and your priorities. The whole thing is your life and it has to feel good.
  • We need each other – we can’t dream big and do big by ourselves; we can’t step on others as we clamber our way to the top; we need to partner, to collaborate, to support; to reach out – forward to those who have gone before and back to young people coming through.
  • And on a really personal level, we all need time out, time for ourselves, time to turn our minds off. You can’t be a good mother or a good friend or an inspiring leader if you’re an exhausted wreck.

And the responsibility for creating this life – well, it’s up to us. There is no sense in which my generation are victims, and the opportunities are here for us to take. Those mothers of ours and their mothers and their mothers who fought for the right to vote, to equal pay, to reproductive freedom – they helped create them. And it is up to our generation to be bold, to be brave, to be resilient, and to be true to all the parts of ourselves, to take those opportunities and craft them into a life we want to live.

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