On August 10, we at Victoria Women in Business held our first ever event. We invited a range of inspirational Wellington women who come from very diverse backgrounds:
- Mei Fern Johnson: Partner at law firm Russell McVeagh
- Lauren Mann: Editor of Wellington Woman Magazine
- Yasmin Merwood: Project Manager at construction contractors McKee Fehl
- Barbara Horne: Senior Partner at BNZ
In addition, we were lucky enough to have a special international guest, Dr Sofie Pelsmakers. She kindly contributed her time to the event before departing on an international flight.
The theme of the night was “Your Experience as a Woman in Business”.
The speakers were asked to share how they excelled in their field, challenges they faced, how they overcame them, and advice for choosing a career.
Many of the women on the panel came from fields that are male dominated. This meant that sometimes they were the only woman in the room. Dr Sofie Pelsmakers is an environmental architect who found it hard to establish herself as a respected member of teams when she was the lone woman. She felt as though she had to speak up more and fight for her opinion to be heard. Sofie noted that a lack of women in certain fields leads to a lack of female leaders to aspire to. Yasmin Merwood also works in a male dominated field: construction. She is a project manager at McKee Fehl and, like Sofie, had experienced a lack of confidence from colleagues in her ability to do her job. She highlighted how women are boxed into being “kind and caring” and therefore are not expected to “argue, push a point or ask for a payrise”.
Both women had also experienced tension when the topic of children came up. Sofie shared her experience as an environmental architect and an academic. However, people assume that her part time work means that she has children at home to be cared for. In fact, she has no children. Yasmin recollected how she had been asked in two previous job interviews whether she was planning to have children (which, by the way, is illegal). This question was asked as her plans would affect her chance of being hired. This highlights a very old fashioned expectation that a woman will bear children and favour this over her career. There needs to be an acceptance of the modern day working women who has the choice between career, children or both!
In comparison, Mei Fern Johnson had a very positive experience with her employer when she decided to have children. Mei Fern is a corporate commercial partner at Russell McVeagh and has three children. She spoke about how she was on maternity leave for a large amount of time as her children were born so close together. Instead of this being a hindrance to her career, Mei Fern was still highly sought after as a partner for Russell McVeagh. She recalled how on the day of the Succession and Admission meeting where her application for partner would be reviewed; she broke the news to her boss that she was pregnant. She did so thinking that this may affect her chances in securing the job. However, her boss assured her that it would not make a difference and he was right. This is the kind of boss that we all hope to have and are entitled to in 2017.
We were lucky to hear these experiences from women who have all paved their way within their fields in their own right. In addition our speakers imparted the audience with some wise advice on how to succeed as a woman in business.
Lauren Mann is an entrepreneur who rebranded and launched Wellington Woman magazine as beautiful and informative pages we see today. However, her path to greatness was not smooth sailing; it took a lot of hard work. She came to our event after 24 hours of no sleep and an issue just gone to print. Wellington Woman Magazine is becoming exceedingly better known, capturing readers’ attention and making a name for itself. This is a result of the hard work that Lauren and her team put in. Lauren handed a few of us some copies of her magazine. Flicking through the pages, one could easily forget how much work goes into creating each issue.
It was refreshing to hear the speakers be so honest about their experiences and advice, they did not sugar coat anything. Barbara Horne (BNZ) graduated with a degree in commercial law and business administration, which she considers a very standard degree. What I thought was really valuable to hear was that this was a foundation to build her career from, not necessarily the be all and end all of her skill set. I feel as though many students and graduates struggle with the thought that the degree they take entirely dictates and limits their options in the future. As proved by Barbara, this is not at all the case. Transferable skills are so crucial in the working world. The importance of the practical skills you build in analysis, decision making, communication and time management (to name a few), should not be underestimated.
At the end of the speakers presentations the floor was opened up to the audience for questions. One young woman asked, “when did you know what you wanted to do?” This is something that many students fret about. We feel pressured to decide what we want to be before we even embark on a degree. Therefore, being halfway through one and still having no clue can be incredibly daunting. Barbara responded that she may be a Senior Partner at BNZ, but she still doesn’t know what she wants to be when she “grows up”. You find out what you like through different experiences. Her perspective was supported by Mei Fern, who gave some fantastic advice. She recommended working in positions two years at a time. This way you can gain experience, learn about what you like and dislike, and then try something else if you find that it’s not for you.
Lauren added that she has only recently discovered what she wants to do by chance of overhearing a conversation at a party. The group was speaking about film production and it was her yearning to be a part of that conversation that lit the spark for her career ambition. It was very important for the young people in the room to hear this from successful women who they can look up to. It is a reminder that everything is not set in stone and you don’t ever have to have it all figured out.
It was fantastic to have such a variety of influential and knowledgeable speakers at our first event. We appreciated how candid they were about their own experiences and how they were able to provide the audience with solid and useful advice. The event had a great vibe with the speakers being relaxed, humorous and approachable. This broke down the barriers often imposed at other professional events.
This event gave an introduction to the executive behind the club and a taste of the exciting event calendar to come.