The Full Panel Discussion, Bringing Equality to the NZ Workplace

While most of us—about 83% of us surveyed—believe we have a diverse population, only two thirds of us believe we have a diverse workforce. While we know about it, we talk about it—some of our panelists today have been working in this space for years—it would seem that we are slow to make change. The time is now. A similar proportion of us know that this is wrong, especially as we do know the benefits of diversity in the workplace, particularly in leadership where, particularly with women, this is an area that is under-represented hugely.

The benefits of diversity reported through our survey were vast, from helping the company bottom line to helping retain staff. People are more content if they are able to be themselves.

In 2018, we’re living in a time where people, companies, brands value authenticity. So why is it that it’s still so hard for some people to be 100% authentic, 100% themselves? The world is heading in the direction of true authenticity. People want everything in their lives to be a true of expression of themselves: their jobs, their brands, and their relationships. Alignment of values has never been more essential to doing business and attracting the best people to your workplace. It’s a win-win for everyone.

There is no doubt that it is a good time to be female in New Zealand, to be a young female in New Zealand. We have so many good role models, including our four panelists today, and, of course, our Prime Minister who is doing things a little differently, to say the least. A Prime Minister who, on the world stage at the UN and in the US, recently talked about doing politics differently.

Jacinda Ardern talked about kindness, about how there’s no place for dirty politics. It has been said before, feminism isn’t about making women strong—we are already strong; it’s about changing the way the world perceives that strength. We’ll talk with our panelists about that today: To be kind is no longer to be seen as weak.

Today is not about being anti-male, for those lovely gentlemen that have joined us in the room this afternoon. Far from it. We don’t know what we don’t know, right? Our research shows us that men just don’t notice the lack of diversity as much as women do. Today is not just about gender either, although that is perceived as being the biggest diversity issue from the research; we’re talking about age, ethnicity, sexual preference as well, whatever comes up today. It’s also about helping us recognise that we do have a diversity issue in New Zealand business and perhaps shut down some of our unconscious biases. Perhaps you’ll go away today and consider walking in other people’s shoes and come up with strategies to do better, much like many of you in the room have done today.

I want to kick off by asking each of you what your own personal challenges have been with diversity in your chosen workplace.

Mai Chen: I think my main challenge has been the constant presumption from people that they will underestimate you. You have the intersectionality going: you are a woman, you’re not very tall, and you are also Chinese. In my case, I was an immigrant and when I came to New Zealand at the age of six I could not speak any English. So, the difficulty is that people look at you and you can see it instantly: They’ve never met you but they’re already thinking, ‘So, is she here to make the tea? What the hell is she here for?’

I can remember when I started New Zealand’s first boutique law firm with a former Prime Minister, people used to announce when we were instructed by clients to go to their offices ‘Oh, Sir Geoffrey Palmer’s at reception with his PA’, and so it was really difficult. I remember once I said to the receptionist at PWC, ‘No. I’m not his PA. We’re law partners’, and she just looked at me like, ‘What’s the difference?’ She wasn’t prepared to call them and change that. It didn’t matter to her.

So, I guess the issue for me has been trying to use the experiences that I’ve had as fuel. Bic Runga told me, ‘You’ve just got to learn to laugh about it, Mai, and you’ve got to use it as fuel to make you go harder. Otherwise you just get angry and you end up with a chip on shoulder, and then you’re no fun because you’re just striving and you’re grumpy’.

So, having said all of that though, I just don’t want you to underestimate that it is just harder. It’s harder when you look like this. Before I used to think I was just imagining it, but now that I have been in partnership with tall, white, male former Prime Ministers, I know that it really is true that his life was easier than mine. As you navigate things, you just need to be aware of the fact it’s going to be a bit harder, you need to be more strategic—and, most importantly, when people say to me ‘Why were you inaugural chair of Global Women?’ ‘Why did you set up New Zealand Asian Leaders, SUPERdiverse WOMEN?’ Because I know that people like us need more help.

Kathryn Wilson: I grew up the youngest of three girls and my mother brought us up. My father unfortunately passed away when I was seven and my mother brought us up to be such big thinkers, optimists, the pie in the sky (mum’s cup is still overflowingly full) and we could be anything we wanted to be.

I think it helped also that I was the youngest, and my oldest sister was super intelligent and clever and amazing and went off to do a double degree in science and IT, and then by the time it got to me it was like ‘Do what you love’, ‘Do what makes you happy’.

I think going into an industry as well that is, at the end of the day, female-led. My heroes that I was looking to when I graduated university 2001, were showing at London Fashion Week and were female-led. That is something that I’ve always really looked up to and really excited to become part of the industry, being in that female slant.

I was 22 when I started the brand. It was a time where the industry was all shifting, moving off shore, shutting down. At a footwear industry AGM board meeting, they all just looked at me and said, ‘Pick another career, it’s dire. Everything is moving offshore’. So, I was told not to do it…

What sort of people said that to you, Kath?

Unfortunately my heroes in the fashion industry, because they had had a really successful career in New Zealand, manufacturing in New Zealand.

It was, it was a sad time, but because I was 22, when someone tells you no, what do you do? Prove them wrong. My chin went higher, and my shoulders went back. So I was quite determined from a young age to make it happen, whatever that took, and the sense of having to manufacture offshore was just what it was going to be. I learnt Italian, I spoke between 10:00pm and 4:00am if I had to, over Skype or whatever it meant.

The only thing that I did struggle with on that international scale would be the age, and – I guess it does come up in some parts of Asia with manufacturing, or even out of Europe – the female thing. If I went with a colleague who happened to be a 40-year-old male and I would say, ‘What’s the production schedule and how are we looking for timelines?’, they’d answer to Richard saying, ‘It’s likely to be four to five weeks’, and I’d be like ‘I’m over here. I asked the question.’

With all respect of people that have had such a different circumstance in different industries and different careers, I’ve really had so much support from both female and male within my industry, but I think I’ve obviously almost used it to spur me on a little bit like what Bic was saying. Not that it makes me angry, but it makes me want to prove them wrong.

June McCabe: I was adopted and raised by my grandmother and I’ve been working for over 40 years. So, I had the influence of a very strong matriarch. Our grandfather had died when she was 38 and she died at 84, so for a lot of life she was her own person. So, I grew up seeing and watching this very strong woman and a woman who didn’t take much from men, actually. I remember hearing conversations on the phone about moving the cows and telling the guy to move his #*@! cows. As a Maori woman in a relatively white community, she didn’t have any qualms coming up against some of them. So when I moved from Kaitaia to the big smoke, I was coming from that kind of background.

I characterise the challenges around diversity by different decades because it seemed to shift. In that first working decade of my life, it was about my age and often it was about being the youngest person in the office. In the 70s in the public service arena, if you did your work faster, you were not the flavour of the office. So you had to drag it out. When a person like me comes in and goes ‘Why is it taking so long?’, you want to just get it done and then suddenly I was up against all these people resisting me because I was getting the work done too quick. But then I got promoted quickly and everyone was asking how that happened.

Then I’m the Maori woman getting promoted and it’s all it’s about the Maoris: ‘Let’s give them some quota system in the workplace’ (not just the fishing). So that was the next decade.

So, it went from discrimination for age, because I was youthful and thoughtful and wanted to prove myself, and then it was the ‘80s, which was all about bi-culturalism. Then the next period of time was interesting, because that was about not being Maori enough. I was brought up by my grandmother who’s very cultural, but I was brought up to be white, not obviously physically but in my outlook and in my education. So, then I had another struggle in that time, which was I’m not Maori enough because I haven’t got my Te Reo and my whakapapa as you see beautifully today with the younger generations.

But within all of this, there’s always one example where there’s the guy standing at the door saying, ‘You only got that job because you are Maori’ or ‘Well, you know whoever you know’.

So, it’s a constant journey about proving that you’re more than that. The current decade, the challenge is being just you, because if you’re not attached to something like a big corporate, then who are you? If you’re not attached (in the Maori world) more tribally, then who are you? So, it’s really been an interesting journey if you think about it like that, and the great thing about it all for those of you yet to get to my age, it’s fun because you grow into your wisdom.

Kiri, tell us about moving into the family empire.

Kiri Barfoot: My grandfather founded Barfoot & Thompson in 1923, so we’ve been going for 95 years, but it was my grandmother who was actually the first woman in New Zealand to get her real estate license. She got her license before my grandfather did, so really she was the first of the family to get licensed, which is amazing.

Going back to me and my upbringing and nurture rather than nature, my mother was a doctor and she got to be a doctor when no other women were doctors. They went to university to meet the man of their dreams, that’s what they went to university for.

Mum was very successful, she only worked part-time but she made more than dad did, and she played golf the rest of the time. But I saw my dad’s bank statement one day and I saw mum’s and I thought, ‘oh wow!’ But I didn’t want to be a doctor because I could kill somebody and the magazines were full of pretty bad pictures of things gone wrong, so I decided real estate was much easier and I really like business.

But, of course, it is a family business and nepotism is not my favourite word, but you do want to prove yourself because you don’t want to think everyone looks at you, especially when you’re a woman with the older men going ‘Well you’re only there because of your dad’. ‘You’re the boss’s daughter’. But my father, he was also known as ‘the boss’s son’ as well, so it’s a generation thing and it’s not a sexist thing. That’s just the way it is in a family business.

Really, you go up through the ranks, property, management, sales, and you don’t really notice men or women in different roles. It wasn’t until I got to be a branch manager that I’m sort of looking around the room going, ‘Oh, where are the women?’ You go to the queue for the toilets and there’s no queue for the toilets, whereas finally now there is a queue for the ladies’ toilets, but we’re still not there yet in terms of equality.

Mai, you in particular have been working and studying, auditing this space for a very long time, can you tell us a little bit about some of the things that you’ve done?

Mai Chen: I think it’s important to start with the definition of diversity, because here once again the focus has been on women, but of course we all have a gender and we all have an ethnicity. If you look at the dictionary definition of diversity, it means difference. We’re all different and actually in the 21st century, we really need to stop talking about women’s issues; we need to talk about our identity. We all have a different identity.

We are in Auckland right now and right now half of the population are Maori, Pasifika, and Asia, and of course that’s only one aspect of identity. There are many others, but we’ve got more mixed-race marriage, we’ve got more people coming through with more complex identities, and of course then there’s globalisation—which means that you might be born in one country, you might be educated in another, and you might work and live in another place.

So, I think that we need to move away from just talking about diversity and inclusion, to talking about identity and inclusion. I remember when I wrote an article on the case for the ‘Pale Stale Male’, I got some very interesting correspondence back. It really was by way of saying that actually, diversity is about difference and actually there is an issue which is related to women and that is about getting all of the talent pool around the table. It isn’t acceptable that in a lot of our companies still, we just don’t seem to have women at the top table, particularly in public sector boards. But if you run that out to ethnically or visually diverse women, well that problem just gets so much worse. We’re talking about pay equity at the moment. If you actually analyse the statistics it goes like this: white man, white woman, coloured men, coloured women.

I set up SUPERdiverse WOMEN because I think it was important to give visibility to intersectionality. I think the whole way we look at difference is frankly, too simplistic. It isn’t just about gender, it’s about a whole range of things, and when I meet people who are LGBTQI and abled/disabled and they’ve got a whole pile of things going on, that makes life more difficult.
So, a lot of people still say to me, ‘Oh this is a good thing to do’, but I think it is very important for us to be clear about the reasons why we do it. It’s really good for business. It’s good for business because we need the best talent at the table. We need to ensure that we’re reflecting our customer base, which is transforming. We’ve got major companies that have a predominantly women consumer base that don’t have any women on the board. Go figure. How does that work? I don’t know.

We’re also going to talk about millennial customers—but, frankly, when you have an average age of Pasifika which is 22, of Maori that’s 24, of Asians which are 29, and of Anglo Saxon which is 41, it’s pretty clear which part of the ethnicity base is growing. So, that’s why I set up the Superdiversity Institute, that’s why I set up SUPERdiverse WOMEN: to give visibility to the fact that there is a whole customer category out there.

They are visually diverse women and they don’t always want the same things. Then finally I set up New Zealand Asian Leaders because I said to the then CEO of Auckland Council, ‘Why are there no Asians on CCOs [council controlled organisations]?’ I said, ‘They’re eight of the biggest companies in New Zealand’, and he said, ‘Oh we can’t find any that are qualified’. Now, where have I heard that before? So, I thought, why would I get angry? Get even. So, I set up New Zealand Asian Leaders and now people are saying to me ‘My god, where did you find all these people?’ (we’ve got 270 top Asian leaders) and I said ‘Well, I lifted a rock’.

What are the barriers, June, that stop women from becoming leaders, partners, directors, CEOs etc.?

June McCabe: In my observation and in some of the mentoring work that I do, it’s that there’s for whatever reason, a general ‘I’m not good enough’ thing going on— the imposter syndrome. It’s the self-belief, it’s that self-awareness that can then help you understand what you can do to help you feel more confident about you. That then leads to a place you want to grab in the space of leadership, in the space of difference, and what holds us back generally is ourselves, from that opportunity, from that space. Now, that’s just at one level. There’s other things that preclude women being able to avail themselves of corporate careers. A decision to have families, all of those things are real life things, but by general observation it’s how little we know about who we are.

The magic is about having confidence, right? So, if you imagine confidence as the middle ground, and above that is arrogance and below that is despair. What happens in life is we flit between that and we have moments of despair, we have moments of confidence, moments of arrogance because we think we know it all. But what I think we try or should try, in order to be confident in a leadership context, is hold the space of confidence. And to hold that place of confidence is about doing the work you need to do – and this is not a man/woman thing – you’ve just got to do the homework.

It’s when we’re feeling weak that something someone says, and you go, ‘Oh, woe is me’ and shrivel up, or ‘I couldn’t possibly hold that person to account for how I’m being treated, because poor me’, right?

So, I think we can have it all but there’s a bit about the work we need to do and not to think about that in any other way than being in self, and that’s the identity point that Mai says, because I get that. Because we’re in identities in everything we’re doing on a day to day basis: one minute we’re mum, next minute we’re taxi driver drop off, whatever.. We’re in an identity in a moment, but what’s seamless across all of those identities? Self, confidence in self.

Kathy, you do leadership differently at Kathryn Wilson. Tell us about your inclusion and the way that you run your business.

Kathryn Wilson: Well, I talk about that I’m accidentally in business because it came about from a passion and at 22, starting something out of an idea of a love of a product. It happened to turn out okay, that other people thought the product was as beautiful as I did, and so we grew really organically. I was six years in before I dropped my fulltime job designing clothing for Caroline Sills and just focused on the footwear fulltime.

So, by the time I’m 10 years in, we start to have maybe a handful of staff, and we’re now 15 years and we’ve got 20, and they are my equals because I’ve grown with them. The business has grown in such a nice organic flow that they’ve been part of so many major milestones where I’ve gone, ‘Shall we do it?’ and they’ve gone ‘Yeah’, and they’ve gone ‘Great!’

So, it’s almost my little cheerleaders with me that have been. There’s no hierarchy because we’ve celebrated together, but I’ve learnt so much from them and obviously the skillsets we’ve needed to come on board to grow the company have added their own things outside of my area of expertise.

I wouldn’t even claim to be stepping on toes, so in terms of running a business in leadership that I completely see them as equal. They happen to be women. Funny enough we work with shoes, we all love shoes. But in saying that it’s really important for me as I’m a mother of a four-year-old, I’ve actually got another one on the way crazily enough, and so I totally understand.

At the interview process it’s like ‘What’s important to you is important to me.’ So I’m never going to watch your hours, I’m not going to be looking at when you’re coming and going, I couldn’t care less about your task sheet. It’s if you’re doing your role well, it’s going show soon enough in a team meeting on a Monday if you’re dropping the ball, so I’m not going to be there to micromanage that. If your family comes first for you, it comes first for me. You’re welcome to go and do things when you need to.’

So, that’s just me growing and I’ve had to probably learn the hard way sometimes because, of course, some people can take advantage of that, but then I have been lucky enough to have amazing and supportive people. Even at advisory board level, people that have given me the guidance to grow without stepping on my toes or telling me yes or no, there weren’t too many brakes on in terms of my big ideas either.

So, I still like to think like an optimist, pie in the sky, and ‘shall we give it a go?’ Most of our team meetings are like, ‘This crazy thing has come up. What do you guys think? Shall we try it out?’ I’m so open to other people’s ideas because as far as I’m concerned, I’m still at the beginning of my career as well.

So that inclusion, has that paid off typically with your employees?

Kathryn Wilson: Absolutely. I’ve got Julia whose been with me nearly nine years. She started essentially as an assistant and is now Head of Design and Wholesales, so also with her career and her opportunities that she’s had, I hope I’ve been able to give her her dream career. Working in a creative industry where we all essentially love the outcome of the product, is the cherry on top, but they are able to be so happy doing something that they love every day. Again, with my mother’s upbringing, that’s all there is to life really. We’re here for 30,000 days, make them good ones at best. I think it’s almost built around this happiness of doing something you love, it’s a short time and make a good go of it. I hope everyone feels that way when they’re on board. But yeah, we do have a really great longevity in that sense that most of the team members have been with us four years plus.

You’ve talked to me before about how you work with seven different countries and most of the people there are men, so they’ve in a way had to learn to work with you?

Kathryn Wilson: We were laughing about that because Carly said, ‘Have you had to learn with different things?’ I said, ‘No. They’ve had to learn to work with me’. I’m not very formal and I’m quite open and in different circumstances that can be against you as well, but I see it the complete opposite. At the end of the day I go to Italy, I’ll go to China, I will spend time in their homes and I will much rather have dinner with them around the kitchen table than be at any fancy hotel lovely restaurant.

So I’m much more inclusive than possibly some other people they deal with. And that goes for everything. I’m kind of a cuddler and I know that that’s an awkward thing when you go for in the cuddle, and they don’t know what to do, but that’s a cultural thing.

It’s just also I love that feeling of the energy you get from people when there is that high-fiving kind of energy. But it’s just something that they obviously learn how New Zealanders work and how we’re not necessarily price driven. I’m very different to a customer from another part of the world that would be all about price. I’m about quality, it’s got my name on it. They’ve had to learn with me being so different to others.

Fantastic. Kiri, as the first female director of Barfoot & Thompson, what’s your leadership style?

Kiri Barfoot: Well, firstly I’m not a cuddler so we are different. Especially when you meet, – it’s usually men for the first time – they’re coming in for a meeting and you can see they don’t quite know what to do. It’s so much easier if you’re man, you just put your hand out, so I just got used to putting my hand out. People sometimes come in for the kiss and you’re like urgh! So, you’ve got to put your hand out because that keeps them away. I hug people I know but people I don’t know, it’s just a bit awkward.

So, the kiss thing can be awkward too, right?

Kiri Barfoot: Some guys just like to kiss you, and it’s like, ‘Ew! I don’t even know you’, so the hand thing’s really good like that.

Anyway, so my leadership style, I’ve learnt to have a really good support team around you, and even to get to being a director wasn’t easy. It wasn’t a given, especially being a woman, because there was a certain director of Barfoot & Thompson who said, ‘We’re never going to have a woman director’. So, even in a family company you get that.

Women were salespeople in the ‘60s, and one woman, she was so successful she was number one in the office, probably the top 10 in the whole company out of 200 people. She earned way more money than her husband. Her husband didn’t like it and basically said, ‘You can either leave your job or I’m leaving you’, and so she left unfortunately. So that was way back in the ‘60s and divorce was a pretty bad thing to do.

We employed our first female manager in 1980 and but today still only 25% of the management team are women, so I’m used to working with men and you just get used to it. I went to university, most of my friends were men, we all did accounting, and I was just one of the boys.

But my leadership style is that I like to talk to people, collaborate, get different ideas; I really like diversity of thinking. Someone said to me once, ‘It’s great the directors finally think the same’, I said, ‘No it’s not. It’s not because we don’t want to be doing group think’. At that point there were three directors. Why do we need three directors if we all think the same?

So, we’ve got to make sure that we do think differently. We can agree on some things and some things you have to just let go and think, ‘Okay, we’re not going to get agreement on that but hopefully next time, or we’ll keep working on it.’

So, you do have to be open to what other people are saying and not have a closed mind. You might go into a meeting thinking ‘This is what’s going to happen, this is the outcome,’ but then you hear other people’s opinions and you can change your mind and that’s okay.

It’s okay to change your mind and I think a lot of people don’t like to admit that they’re wrong, but you’ve got to think beyond what you think in the way of your world. You’ve got to think the better thing for the company or your community, or whatever business you’re in.

I just like to see the best person for the job, it doesn’t matter if they’re man, woman, or something in between.

Yeah, because the last thing we want is tokenism, right?

Mai Chen: This diverse thinking is really, really important and it is not the same thing as ensuring that you’ve got the whole talent pool around the table. Just because you’re a woman doesn’t necessarily mean that you are also a diverse thinker, although the fact that you are of a female gender is a predictor of diverse thinking.

I think that we need to evolve our own thinking about the importance of diversity and inclusion, because we are not going to survive in this 21st century world that is volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous, unless we have the best diverse thinkers around the board table.

I’ve just written the inaugural Diverse Thinking Capability Audit of New Zealand Boardrooms.

I had the idea after a BNZ board meeting and I just realised as I reflected on the calibre of the conversation, that I really only want to sit on a board where people can bring all of themselves to the table and where we’re not always agreeing.

One of the interviewees said that building a board, a good board, is like the Avengers—you only need one Hulk. So I’ve created criteria for diverse thinking boardrooms and one of the criteria is, does this board agree all the time? Because if you do, then what are the rest of you doing on this board? Why are you all here? The difficulty though is that we sit in a culture where we like to be agreeable.

Confrontation is hard, right?

Mai Chen: It’s really hard and women tend to find it even harder because of the stereotype that we’re supposed to be agreeable and we’re supposed to be nice. So what you’ll find is that if you get the same behaviours between men and women, the men will be assertive, and they’ll be ambitious, but the women will be aggressive, difficult, stroppy, and not a fit.

How many of us have had calls saying, ‘oh well, X woman has been recommended for a board, but I’ve heard she’s bloody difficult.’ To which I’ve usually said, ‘No. I haven’t found her difficult. I have however found her strong-minded and sharp thinking, and that’s exactly what you need for your board’.

So, if you want to download The Diverse Thinking Capability Audit, go to, put your name in and you can download it for free.

There is a summit on about diverse thinking governance. We’ve got now 60 of New Zealand’s top company directors and chairs who’ve signed up to the importance of diverse thinking, but if you now are going to take the learnings from today and apply it to your companies, you need to be recruiting, not just for top talent in the way that we have always defined it, not just to get all of the talent around the table.

You can’t just apply a skills matrix, you also have to apply a diverse thinking matrix, because if we don’t have diverse thinkers around the boardroom then you are not going to win in the 21st century; you are going to slip behind and you are going to lose.

Read part 2 in the January/February issue of M2woman out January 2019.

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