Speech to  ‘Women on Boards’ Wellington Breakfast

1 November 2017

Hon Heather Roy

Welcome Ladies.

It was a great honour to receive the Women on Boards 2017 Inspirational Excellence Award earlier in the year. I have to confess to originally being a reluctant participant. Nanette Moreau, Commissioner of Utilities Disputes – of which I am Chair – nominated me. It is fair to say that I’m not really an awards participant, but Nanette was determined!  I’m pleased now that she did and I do find it hard to explain why I felt this way – perhaps it was my Presbyterian upbringing where just getting on with the job is prized above being acknowledged? Odder also when I consider that in my Governance and Consulting work I am constantly telling organisations and those I work with that acknowledging and celebrating success is important. Sometimes it’s hard practicing what you preach! So, thank you Nanette and thanks also to Women on Boards for the award and providing the platform to celebrate the success of New Zealand women.

And for my second confession of the morning, when I received the award in May I did say that I felt a bit of a fraud. There are so many impressive kiwi women doing so many amazing things I wasn’t sure that I was most deserving. I also don’t think I’m a very good feminist – not of the 1960’s bra burning type anyway! I’m not an advocate of special or favoured treatment, of quota’s or blaming men for our woes. But I am an advocate of women having equal access to opportunities, and from there gaining roles on merit. So, with all of that in mind I’m posing the question Can Women have it all? My presentation this morning is “Women can Do Anything.”

Who has seen the movie “Hidden Figures”?  I watched it for the second time over the weekend and when we lament about the lack of progress we may feel women are making it is worth thinking about how others have made things so much better for us. Set in the early 1960’s, “Hidden Figures” tells the story of these three strong, intelligent black women who managed to succeed in their respective NASA careers despite segregation, discrimination and the attitude amongst even their own men-folk that women might not be capable of holding down important roles. It does put in perspective many of the issues we face today, and at the same time is absolutely inspirational about how we can achieve gains in the workplace.

We are all products of our upbringing. This manifests itself in different ways in each of us. For some it means doing things the way we have always done them and are confident about. For others it is deciding to do things differently. By way of an example of the second response to upbringing, my parents are hoarders. I can’t for the life of me work out why my mother still keeps all of my old school exercise books – my writings as a five year old may be cute but totally useless, yet she refuses to throw them out! In response to this behaviour, I tend to throw things out sooner than I sometimes should.

There are of course many people who are influential in our lives and I’m sure that each of you can think of one or two now – perhaps family members, teachers or family friends. When I was Associate Minister of Education I was frequently asked to speak at School prizegivings. In my speeches I usually talked about the influence good teachers had on the lives of their students.  I would ask these audiences of both students and parents to think of the one teacher who had made a significant impact on them. When I looked into the audiences I could hear most people mutter the name of the one teacher it had been for them.

Often the students looked a little perplexed but I think it was too early for them to realise where that influence might take them in the future. For me that teacher was my 6th and 7th Form English teacher. She instilled in me a love of literature that lasts to this day. As well as that she took a real interest in my career choices, prodding and prompting me to broaden my horizons. This teacher, who sadly left teaching and went on become the President of the PPTA for a time was probably disappointed in my choice of political party (ACT), but she told me how much she had enjoyed watching my progress over the years.

The other woman who has been very influential for me is my Mother.  As the eldest in a family of 6 children I had to pave the way a little. Mum and Dad, neither of who had undertaken tertiary education, thought that getting a job was more important than going on to University, so they didn’t feel going to study Physiotherapy was perhaps my best choice. However, they didn’t try to stop me either. Where Mum’s influence was very strong was in her community participation and in giving interesting things a go. Both Mum and Dad joined school committees, church committees and they still – now into their 80’s – help those in their community less fortunate than themselves.

Mum, for as long as I can remember had a theory that it is good to try one new thing each year. One year it was Toastmistresses, another it was going to night classes to learn how to use a computer. When she was 75 she began volunteering at the local community radio station – as a DJ. She would protest if I said she was a strong role-model for her children and especially her daughters but we have all inherited the ‘not afraid to give it a go’ gene or attitude – whichever part of the  nature vs nuture debate this falls into.

I’ve actually had a remarkably unplanned and adhoc career path. Physiotherapy, Pharmaceutical company research, Army, Politician, Professional Director and Business Consultant have little more in common than the fact that several start with the letter P. What I can say is that I’ve been very fortunate to have been in a position to grasp opportunities when they came along, some before I had children, others when they were little. I have been lucky to have had a husband who has always supported whatever my latest plan was.

When thinking about what I was going to do with my life as a teenager I was very influenced by a poster that appeared on my 3rd Form Science Lab wall. Some of you will remember a ‘Girls Can Do Anything’ poster, produced by the then Department of Labour. It was black and white and had a pie chart with 8 segments containing photos of young women doing male dominated jobs such as police, army, mechanic, truck driver. I was absolutely fascinated by the thought that I could do something like this. I decided I was going to be either a policewoman or in the Army. The problem was that when the time came to apply I found I wasn’t tall enough or heavy enough, there being height and weight restrictions. Fortunately today that isn’t the case – common sense, testing for fitness for role rather than black and white parameters of height and weight and changing societal standards have partially won the day.  So instead I went into one of the caring professions and became a Physiotherapist.

Much later, after a stint overseas, I was lured into Politics. My husband Duncan joined the ACT party and I decided I could help in a behind the scenes capacity. With few young candidates and even fewer female ones I was eventually talked into standing for the party as a candidate. I agreed on the proviso that I would be given only a very low list position and therefore have no hope of going to parliament. Others however, had other ideas and in 2002 I was elected. I enjoyed the party work and loved the opportunity to talk about my philosophical opinions on any range of topics. But I was terrified at the thought of speaking in parliament and worried that I’d let my side down. Then there was the issue of how to juggle family life and 5 small children with my political duties.  Somehow it all came together and my public speaking has improved considerably.

During my time as a back bench MP I decided I could now join the Army. The height and weight restrictions had gone and I passed the necessary fitness test quite easily. I do seem to be drawn to male-dominated professions, but can say with my hand in my heart that I never felt being disadvantaged by being a women in the Defence Force. There were a few older soldiers who still thought that this was no place for females, but most embraced the different skills women brought to the roles they play and teams more capable as a result. Later, I was very proud to be appointed as Associate Minister of Defence and to be able to improve the environment in which our Defence Force personnel operate.

We’ve heard much about politics over the past couple of months. This was the most fascinating election I can remember.

My reflections           

There are several questions I’m often asked:

What was it like? As I’ve already mentioned, terrifying to start with and then very rewarding. You can achieve things as a back bench MP but the real opportunities come as a Minister.

How did I survive? Quite easily really. My advice to those new to politics is to be yourself. Find your own style, listen to your instincts and your own niche. And get out of Wellington often, listen to those those who elected you.

What did I achieve? Many things, but amongst those I’m most proud of are making Student Union membership voluntary through my private members bill, introducing Aspire Scolarships to allow students from low income families to go to a private school,  helping constituents with immigration issues, and getting a small South Canterbury school two extra classrooms for their burgeoning roll by getting a shipping container in to the school as a classroom.

Do I miss it? Not nearly as much as I expected to. I miss the good people I met and the platform MPs have to raise important issues. But, there’s a big world beyond the Beehive and it is good to part of that too.

These days I am a Professional Director and I have a boutique Consulting Business called Torquepoint. So my working week is half Governance work on the three boards I Chair (Medicines NZ, Advertising Standards Authority and Utilites Disputes). My consulting work takes up the rest of my week. Torquepoint works with organisations to test their strategies using Business War Games. The military tolls my business partner and I learn’t in the Army have excellent utility in the corporate world.

One of the things I do now and really enjoy is coming into contact with younger women who make contact with me for career advice and mentoring. It’s very rewarding being able to share your knowledge and experiences. There are however a couple of myths that continually emerge from these conversations and I’d like to spend just a couple of minutes on them:

Myth 1  

Women struggle to get ahead because of the Old Boy’s Network. Don’t get me wrong – there is definitely such thing. But it is easy to let that become an excuse and get in the way of breaking down barriers and breaking through glass ceilings. We women often congratulate ourselves on our superior collegiality compared to our male colleagues and this is often the case. However my personal experiences from working in many male dominated areas is that there is also an Old Girls Network that is alive and well and it can be equally destructive to (particularly younger) women moving ahead. I have no easy answers to how to move beyond this situation, but understanding an entire problem is the first step in being able to solve it.

I am a great believer in mentoring and I have two people that I can talk to about just about any work related issue and who provide me with sage advice. Both are men.

And in my previous political life there were two people who provided me with wise career guidance, reassurance when needed and challenged me to think outside the square and push boundaries. One was Sir Roger Douglas, the other was Richard Prebble. People are frequently surprised by this – they think of these men as being hard-nosed and hard-hearted. They are not! My point is that it is not uncommon for women to guard their patch and power too. Life is never quite as black and white as it is often portrayed.

Myth 2    

Diversity means ‘gender diversity’ – we’ve got to get more women into career X, or more women around the board table. In some cases this is absolutely correct. Boards that have a relatively even balance of men and women do seem to perform better on average. But true diversity is actually about diversity of thought, and gender is just one of the components. Ethnic background and age, a difference of skill sets around the board table are also very important. If we are thinking specifically about Boards, they must be representative of the organistations they govern. The “this isn’t a board for trainer wheels” isn’t helpful to developing emerging directors and I believe boards have a duty to help develop the directors of the future, not punish those with no experience now.

Thinking back on all of my roles, my most important job has been that of Mother.  I think I have shown my two girls that they can do anything they turn their minds to. The signs to date are good anyway. And perhaps even more importantly I hope I’ve shown my boys that girls can do anything. They are respectful of women and encouraging of what the young women close to them want to achieve.

So, I firmly believe that women can do anything … but we shouldn’t confuse this with women doing everything. It just isn’t possible to do everything and remain sane. So, just like our men folk, if we are working we sometimes miss our children’s first steps, or their school performance, or first musical concert. This doesn’t make us bad parents – it means we are human and have to make choices. Fortunately we live in a country where this is largely possible. I think we women are very good at one thing – beating ourselves up about what we can’t or haven’t done. Instead we should focus on what we want to do really well, and when we get there we should celebrate that success.