10 Top Women Talk About Their Lives and Their Careers

On the face of it, there’s never been better time for women to combine their corporate career with having family. According to the Equal Employment Opportunities Trust, there are more women in our boardrooms than ever before – 12.4 percent last year, up from nine percent in 1997. And women’s share of jobs in the top three tiers of management has reached 28.8 percent, up from 24.6 percent in 1998. The new corporate catch-cry, work-life balance, seems tailor-made for women with children.

But when Management magazine interviewed 10 of our most respected professional women, we found those combining corporate career with child-rearing are the exception. Not because they can’t; indeed many employers make significant concessions for their senior female staff. The irony is, at the very time those concessions are available and women can afford the support systems they need, they choose to take the skills and contacts they’ve acquired in the corporate world, and fit them into new way of life.

It’s not just case of “having it all”, the phrase coined in the ’80s to describe women’s dual career and family ambitions, but more pragmatic reality of “making it work”.

Women at the top aren’t so naïve as to deny that there have been compromises along the way. The phrase “quality time” exists to assuage the guilt of working mothers, and almost every woman I spoke to wished she’d taken more time off after the birth of her babies. Many, for instance, underestimated the level of physical exhaustion involved. But, understandably, they don’t buy the studies suggesting that children of working mothers suffer, and when they make changes to their working lives, it’s on the basis of shift in their personal ambitions.

The traditional choices – have children, then drop out or stagnate, or else don’t have children at all – don’t appear to apply to New Zealand’s top women. It is not like the United States where study recently published in Harvard Business Review showed that 42 percent of corporate women and 33 percent of high-achieving women aged 41 to 55 are childless. Data from Statistics New Zealand shows that, here, just 12.4 percent of female legislators, administrators, managers and professionals aged 40-54 are childless, compared with 9.5 percent of all women in that age bracket.

The proportion of childless women is the same when measured across only the most senior positions. In other words, there are large numbers of women in high-earning positions who have children, even if they’ve stepped off the corporate ladder.

Some choose to stick with the corporate job, but adjust their hours and their personal support structure to fit with family responsibilities.

They’ll breastfeed at work if necessary – which might conceivably appal their bosses, simply because of the trickle-down effect such behaviours might have on the lower orders. (My prediction – compulsory breastfeeding areas in all offices in 10 years’ time.) Others take the skills and contacts they’ve acquired in the corporate world, and move into their own businesses – often contracting back to their former employer.

One factor is consistent across these top women’s lives – they’re choosing their own balance. And they’re doing it not out of guilt, but for themselves.

Jane Freeman
Principal, Jane Freeman Consulting
Director, Air New Zealand and Sheffield
Mother of three

Combining work and family is “really hard, whether you’re at the top or not”, says former BankDirect and e-Solutions chief executive, Jane Freeman. “The person who suffers is you – you want to give your best to the family and the job.”

Freeman made some tough decisions about her working hours when she was at BankDirect. “I decided I wasn’t going to work from 7:30am to 8pm. I used to work late once week, and twice week I’d go in early. I didn’t make habit of working on the weekend. It was really hard walking out the door at 5.30pm, but I had lots of women working with me and I wanted to set an example.”

Freeman says former bosses Ralph Norris and Theresa Gattung were very supportive. “But if I could do it again, I’d have taken more time off with my first child. The longer you’re mother, the more you realise it’s important.”

Last year, she decided to step away from the daily corporate grind, for her own sake more than for her children’s. She says that although combining work and family is difficult, that’s not the reason women leave. “I don’t think [women] aren’t there because it’s too hard – rather, they’ve chosen to do things differently, I could still be doing it if I wanted to, but this was the right time for me [to go].”

In the context of the quest for work-life balance, she says, “there’s not lot of balance in being working mother at the top of an organisation”.

Heather Shotter
General manager, group marketing, sales and communications, Sky City
Mother of six

Heather Shotter has arguably taken “having it all” to extremes – six children and top job in one of the country’s most respected corporates. But she is sanguine about her achievements.
“You cope because you want to. I’ve always wanted to have family and I’ve always wanted to work. Everything you do that’s worth it is hard work. You build the life you want.” Shotter’s corporate life is less flexible than most – Sky City is open 24/7, and she can’t always choose her own hours. But she believes that balancing work and family is easier now than it used to be, when fewer women were doing it.

“More people are [combining the two] now, and the more common it is the more it just becomes part of how you structure job. As result of what I do women who work with me do it, too.”

Cindy Mitchener
Director, Mitchener Cammell
Mother of one

Cindy Mitchener sums up the key to successfully combining career and motherhood: “a nanny and an attitude”. The attitude was her determination to make it work, even if that meant taking young baby to high-powered meetings. After her daughter was born, Mitchener continued in her high-profile career as national media director and deputy MD at Saatchi & Saatchi, followed by stint as chief executive at the ill-fated e-Ventures.

The e-Ventures board included luminaries such as Telecom chairman Rod Deane, entrepreneur Craig Heatley, and Warehouse chairman Stephen Tindall. But Mitchener had no compunction about rescheduling board meeting that clashed with kindy party.

“In way it’s easier when you’re the chief executive. Those very, very senior guys actually get it. Stephen Tindall has sign in his office saying ‘The most important thing you can give your kids is time’.” The demise of e-Ventures was her cue to set up new business with partner Sue Cammell, offering operational services to start-up technology companies. She hasn’t stopped working, but she values the flexibility of her new role.

Mitchener’s husband is an artist, working from studio at home. “I’m lucky,” she says. “It would be incredibly difficult if you had two parents in nine to five jobs. I’ve tried very hard to organise life to minimise [the guilt]. But sometimes I wish that when my daughter was really little I’d taken more time off. I had three months fully paid leave from Saatchi & Saatchi, but I never really stopped. I probably had post-natal depression, and I didn’t recognise it.

“I had no idea how tired I’d be. [If I did it again,] I’d say to the office, ‘Don’t call me’. And I’d be even more rigorous in my timekeeping.”

Diane Foreman
CEO, Emerald Group
Member of the Business Roundtable
Mother of four

“I’ve always worked, since my first baby was six months old,” says Diane Foreman, whose children range in age from five to 22. For much of that time she has been in the enviable position of owning the company – she was CEO at family business Trigon Plastics, and now runs Emerald Group, the family investment company with interests in hospitals, furniture manufacturing and retail, tourism and property.

“I love

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