Sisters are doing it together


 Last updated 05:00 22/06/2014

Women of Influence

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We’ve all heard the stats: less than 20 percent of directors and executives from NZSX-listed companies are women.

And the gender pay gap in New Zealand is still 10 percent. While there have been controversial attempts to level the playing field in some industries – think gender quotas, or “man-bans” as some dubbed it – one promising strategy is female mentorship; women at the top of their game fostering the careers of newcomers.

The idea flies in the face of Queen Bee Syndrome, a term coined by American researchers in the 70s to describe high-achieving women who refuse to promote their female subordinates.

The theory is still covered by the likes of the Wall Street Journal and alternately backed up and debunked by contemporary workplace studies.

The Queen Bee would rather align herself with male colleagues, because that’s where the power lies. Loyalty to her
gender is just not on the agenda.

But does being a man or woman really make any difference when it comes to guidance? Three successful New
Zealand women talk about what female mentorship means to them, the women they credit with having their backs, and their hopes for parity in their own industries.

Jacinda Ardern and Annette King

GUIDING HAND: Jacinda Ardern has leaned on Annette King for helping suviving the rigours of Parliament. Photo: KEVIN STENT/Fairfax NZ

Insults and accusations fly around the Parliamentary chamber one Tuesday afternoon.

Labour list MP Jacinda Arden is grilling Finance Minister Bill English, and sitting to her right is MP Annette King, scribbling notes and listening intently.

Since Ardern entered Parliament in 2008, King has provided her with guidance and advice on how to survive a career in politics.

“There are so many things that are such an unknown when you come into a place like this,” Ardern says later that afternoon.

“Not only does it have its own rules – literally, it has its own set of rule books you have to come to grips with – there are so many nuanced things about the environment and quirks to the place, it can be a really daunting place to come
into. Having people you know looking out for you is great.”

King first entered Parliament in 1984, and her experience and insights are invaluable to Ardern.

“In politics, there’re lots of types of advice you can get. Some of it is purely political, sometimes it’s personal, and sometimes it’s a bit of both. You know that whatever advice you’re getting from Annette, it’s always about her wanting to look out for you.”

This has included help with policy development, tips on getting to grips with her portfolios, and throwing punchy interjections around the house during question time. When Ardern took over the party’s Children portfolio from King last year, King helped her come to terms with the work underway and the main policy issues.

“Rather than some people who might get territorial, it was really helpful to have someone who encouraged me to carry on that piece of work and add in my own ideas as well,” she says.

“With politics, you’re all working as a team, but at the same time you’re judged as individuals and on your individual progress. I think having someone who has such credibility in their own right, but who’s not worried about whether you doing well will impinge on their own success, is what makes a really genuine mentor.”

Politics is incredibly demanding work, says Ardern. And everybody has their own agenda.

“It’s a competitive environment; both when you’re running against a counterpart from another political party, right down to when you’re looking to be selected as a candidate within your party.”

With these pressures, she says having a female mentor is particularly valuable. King gives her advice on how to balance her professional and personal lives, whereas a man might not feel comfortable doing so.

Historically, Parliament has been steeped in male culture, with the first woman taking a seat in the house 79 years after it was founded. Women now make up just a third of all sitting members, despite accounting for more than half the population.

Aside from the all-round mudslinging that comes with the territory, Ardern believes female politicians advocate for each other, and together are actively trying to improve the under-representation.

Last year, Labour floated the idea of women-only shortlists for certain electorates, aiming to have women make up
half its caucus by 2017. While the proposal was later dropped, it indicates politicians are thinking of ways to address the imbalance.

In the meantime, Ardern is glad she has King on her team. “She’s someone who has always been really full of fun and life and has a fantastic political career, but has picked up things along the way she’s willing to impart. I look at her and think, I would be happy to model that.”

Charlotte Ryan and Jana Rangooni

IN THIS TOGETHER: “Jana has given me advice about being a mum. She’s got a son, I’ve got one child.” Photo: LAWRENCE SMITH/Fairfax NZ

After four years of tunes and chat, Charlotte Ryan’s tenure at Auckland radio station bFm ended with a short and sweet tweet: “TODAY IS MY LAST DAY hosting Morning Glory on @95bFM. It’s time to pass on the reins & new adventures. Thank you for listening xx.”

The tone was nostalgic, but it belied how Ryan was really feeling: “I was s***-scared.”

The decision to move to Mediaworks-owned Kiwi FM in late 2012 was a big call for Ryan. She had built up a loyal band of listeners with her weekday show Morning Glory, and stepping into the unknown was a daunting prospect.

But in her first meeting at Mediaworks, Ryan met Jana Rangooni, the general manager at Radio Live, and Rangooni’s comments gave Ryan a quiet confidence she was making the right call.

“Instead of telling me what she thought I should do, she asked me what I thought I should do. She didn’t say, ‘come across’, she asked me where I wanted to go. I loved that.”

Rangooni has been a mentor to Ryan since then, providing advice on managing her workload, tips for interviews, and opportunities to try different styles of broadcasting.

Rangooni’s mentoring style is nurturing and relaxed, but the guidance is pragmatic, says Ryan.

It was especially useful last year when she hosted a Sunday night Radio Live show, No Place I’d Rather Be.

Each week, she talked to a handful of locals from somewhere in New Zealand, finding out what they loved about their hometown. “It was a really awesome show,” she says.

“But it was a lot of work and preparation in the sense of finding four or five people from a small town each week, so you had to do a lot of cold-calling.”

Ryan was spending up to eight hours a week preparing for a one-hour show, and on one instalment was struggling for contacts.

Enter Rangooni, who emailed all her contacts nationwide, telling them to get in touch if they knew someone in the area.

“Some fellow broadcasters wouldn’t do that, because they wouldn’t want someone talking to their contacts or something. But she was just so sharing.”

On top of that, Rangooni met regularly with Ryan to give her feedback on the show.

“She met with me probably four times within a year, which I thought, as a little old s****y show on a Sunday night that probably got no listeners, was amazing.”

While Ryan says gender is not the most important factor in choosing a mentor, Rangooni has provided her with some wisdom a man might not have given.

“Jana has given me advice about being a mum. She’s got a son, I’ve got one child. I went to her and was like, ‘How do you weigh up everything?’ She gave me tips [on being] organised: ‘What you need to do is plan your meals,’ and so on.”

Until meeting Rangooni, Ryan had little exposure to senior female role models in broadcasting. She landed her first gig at Channel Z in Christchurch while studying teaching, and took up a job at the student radio station RDU after graduation.

“To be honest, thinking about my work environment back then, in commercial radio and then at RDU, it was all male.
I was one of very few females.”

Aside from bFM, she had a stint at a record label, where she often found herself as one of two women in meetings of up to 12 people.

Ryan believes the gender balance in radio is slowly improving, but she is the only woman at Kiwi FM, aside from two volunteers.

“I definitely think it’s getting a lot more even, because a lot more bosses are probably aware they can’t have a staff full of men,” she says.

“For me, being a female, it’s really admirable to see a woman like Jana in that senior role. I hope there’s more of that in the future.”

Nicola Gaston and Beate Paulus

OUT IN FRONT: Dr Nicola Gaston, centre front, with some of the scientists helping to organise this year’s Association of Women in Science conference. Photo: KENT BLECHYNDEN/Fairfax NZ

One of the most motivating pieces of advice scientist Dr Nicola Gaston ever received was being told how to dress.

It was 2012, and Gaston was leaving her job at Industrial Research Ltd to take up a lecturing post at Victoria University. She was invited to give a farewell address and discuss her scientific work.

Around the same time, Gaston, president of the New Zealand Association of Scientists, was invited to attend a workshop for senior female scientists.

There were two scheduled speakers: the chief executive of the Royal Society of New Zealand; and a stylist, talking
about how to “dress to influence”.

It got Gaston thinking about the discrimination female scientists face, and inspired her leaving speech.

Her talk, Why Science is Sexist, drew a crowd that packed the room and filled the doorways. She didn’t slam her colleagues for being sexist – none of them were – but said that until there was equal gender representation in senior scientific posts, women wouldn’t have the same career opportunities as men.

Part of Gaston’s argument, which she has taken online at, is the dearth of visible role models. Of the five mentors she considers have played an imperative role in her own career, one was a woman – Beate Paulus, a scientist she worked with in Dresden, Germany.

“Mentoring in science involves a lot of showing by example,” Gaston says.

“Working on journal articles together and discussing results is a strongly collaborative process, and I guess one thing that stands out is the importance of mutual respect and trust when you are working together with someone on a
research project, since you have to be comfortable testing your ideas before they are fully formed.”

Yet, Gaston believes a man could have offered the same support Paulus provided, and says the mentor’s sex is not a critical factor.

“You get very much the same kinds of interactions, at least in my experience, with male and female mentors,” she says.

“You need a person you’ve got a good relationship with, and would do for you what they would do for anyone else.”

By Gaston’s count, just eight of the country’s 28 chemistry professors and none of the 22 physics professors are female.

The disparity is often attributed to the lifestyle choices women are making, or indeed have little choice but to make if they want a family, including career breaks to have children.

“The metaphor we have is the leaky pipeline, with women not proceeding through the pipeline all the way to the top,” Gaston says.

Researchers have demonstrated a more obvious discrimination.

One study published in 2012 found that when 127 biology, chemistry and physics professors evaluated the CVs of men and women, men were considered to be significantly more competent and hireable than identical female applicants.

Women were also offered less mentoring and a lower starting salary.

“Not only should it be equally possible for a woman to become a scientist as it is for a man, it should be equally easy for a woman to become a scientist as it is for a man,” Gaston says.

“And it’s not the same thing.”

This year Gaston is taking part in the Association of Women in Science conference, where female scientists from around the country will convene at Victoria University to network and discuss the issues they face in the workplace.

“If we had equal representation at the professorial level in science, then I don’t think there would be a need for an Association of Women in Science. I don’t think there’s anything inherently woman-ish that needs to be discussed,” she says.

“But I think the fact that women are in a minority as soon as they get into senior levels in science, and even for younger scientists, who see this imbalance… I think it’s just healthy to get people together to talk about these things.”

– Sunday Magazine

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