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#17 of Blogging with Friends: Something about a job you have done that other people don’t (or didn’t) understand

For about 11 years, I was on the Board of Directors of a government-owned subsidiary company. For much of that time, I was Chair of the Board. (I didn’t like Chairman or Chairperson, and I thought Chairwoman sounded awkward, so I became the Chair!) Our shareholders were government entities, and a number of their CEOs sat on the Board. Needless perhaps to say, I was the only woman on the Board, although we had women in the senior management group, and I was one of only two company directors who had direct experience working in the same field and with some of the same clients as the company.

It was a small company, with great growth potential – and in fact, great growth during my time in the position. That meant that I worked very closely in supporting the company’s CEO and senior management, at a level of detail that would not have been possible in a much larger company. I had already done the same work as many of the staff members and contractors, had managed client relationships, and reported on risk and business development and growth. I was now on the other side of that, in a governance role, checking on financial and other risks, and was the employer of the CEO. I learned a huge amount about the differences between management and governance, about when it was appropriate to step in, and when I needed to step back and not interfere. It was an interesting and rewarding role, especially seeing my inputs bear fruit.

Friends saw me working on the board a few days a week, and thought it was an ideal, post-full-time-career role. I think they thought it was well paid. It was not well paid at all! But that’s not the topic of this post. What they didn’t think about was that, in New Zealand (as I am sure many other countries), company directors have legal responsibilities under the Companies Act. We were/are required to act honestly, in the best interests of their company, and with reasonable care at all times. If we ignored these duties, didn’t ask the right questions, or behaved recklessly, we could be personally liable and face prosecution. Therein lies the aspect of this job that my friends and family, and many other people, don’t think about. Fear.

Even when I knew we were dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s, that we were financially rigorous about risk, and that we were taking every possible care for our staff and contractors’ health and safety (we were sending people to work in Asia during the first SARs and swine flu outbreaks), I occasionally (perhaps more often than occasionally) felt fear. It didn’t help that, unlike some high profile prosecutions around the time I was chairing the board, our company did not take or use the public’s money (unlike, for example, financial institutions), and – unusually for many businesses – we were not even in debt. So the prosecutions of directors that were in the news could not even have applied to us. Still, that fear was always there. Maybe it was a result of a lack of confidence, or a form of fraud syndrome? Maybe it was simply my level of diligence in the role? I don’t know. But I felt it regularly.

When I stepped down as Chair after six years, I felt some relief, though legally I was still just as responsible for my actions and decisions and, perhaps most importantly, my questions as I had been when I was chairing the board. A year or so later I resigned from the company to go overseas, and the relief was palpable. And not because I no longer had to deal with egotistical men who liked the sound of their own voices and had been promoted beyond their capabilities! Finally, that fear that came from such a level of responsibility was lifted. Even if the directorships boys’ clubs shutting me out of future roles were not still in operation, I admit that I would not be in a rush to invite that fear back into my life.

How Lucky We Are

Three weeks ago, my sister, brother-in-law, and niece came to stay. We had a lovely time, walking around the harbour on the one day we had beautiful weather followed by authentic Italian pizza, introducing my niece to the concept of  yum cha for lunch (it was a hit!), and a day later, going out for Vietnamese for dinner in the city. And on two of the coldest, bitterest days we have had this winter, there were several successful shopping trips. By night, we were cosy at home, with the heating cranked up, nice wine, and home-cooked Thai curry and (the next night) lamb tagine (to round out our international eating tour), and good conversation.

And of course, when we needed some quiet time, we would all delve into our devices, in which we read about COVID-19 cases skyrocketing around the world, and even closer to home (in Melbourne, Australia, where another niece lives). I read about the despair of my international friends in the UK and US at their fellow citizens or governments, or the cautious reopenings in Malaysia and Thailand. And in Japan, my AFS sister was finally released from her Tokyo apartment to visit her in-laws in the country, relishing her day out in the garden. Perhaps because my social media is full of these offshore friends and family, my life has felt particularly surreal, simply because of its easy conviviality, its normalcy.

We walked into stores displaying COVID-tracing bar codes, and – along with 99% of Kiwis – didn’t scan them. We ate in crowded restaurants. We weren’t bothered by the crowds, or by the occasional sniffle or cough from someone else. So far (and I always say “so far” because I am well aware that nothing is certain), we are free of community transmission. And as we hugged hello and five days later hugged good-bye, I knew how lucky we were and are, to visit friends and family, to be able to travel freely within our islands.

I do however feel a degree of survivor’s guilt, whenever I think of my friend isolating in DC on her own, and my sister-in-law and another friend going through cancer treatments on opposite sides of the world, and a niece about to give birth in a pandemic in Australia. Rest assured, I am not taking our freedoms for granted. I know it could all go away again soon.

But we’ve now been out of lockdown longer than we were in it. We’ve had approximately 80 days since our last community transmission case. It feels completely surreal, that today we are so free, and yet the pandemic rages offshore. John Clarke, aka Fred Dagg, told us in the 1970s, “We don’t know how lucky we are!” He was right. With a cultural inferiority complex, mMost of the time, in New Zealand, we don’t know that. But today? Yes, the difference today is that right now we know just how lucky we are.

Taking the plunge

I’m in the midst of a big change. I’ve taken the plunge. Decided it was time. Decided if anyone has a problem with it, it says more about them than it does about me. Still a bit nervous, but not enough to stop doing it.

It was the lockdown, you see. Seven weeks when I only saw my husband, or neighbours on walks, or friends/family on Zoom. Gradually, as the weeks went on, I got used to it. Became fascinated by it. Realised I quite liked it, in a strange – to me, at least – kind of way. Then our lockdown ended, our communities declared COVID-free, and I had no reason to be shy, to stay inside, to stay away from people. I took tentative steps out, feeling a little exposed.

I hoped it was obvious enough to seem deliberate. I was aware of the double standards around it. Fine for men, but questionable for women. Fine for blonds to show theirs, but not for brunettes. I waited a bit longer. I was coping so far, and the longer I waited, the more it became something that seemed doable. Great reactions from a friend the first time we met post-lockdown encouraged me to continue.

Winter helped. Cold weather encourages hibernation, scarves and hats, shoulders held high around our necks keeping us warm. But that made me wary of taking the next step.

Finally, last week, it was time. I couldn’t delay any longer. Time to see if I could really do it, or if I would backslide, leaving the big decision for another day, month, year. So I took the plunge, dived in, got rid of the old, and emerged anew. Looking fresher, younger even, which was unexpected. Looking authentic. Surprisingly, to me at least, feeling authentic. Feeling free. I didn’t see that coming.

In case it wasn’t obvious, I have embraced the grey/silver/white. It first started appearing in my mid-20s, so it has been with me a long time. I don ‘t regret colouring. I’ve heard (and seen) a few self-righteous mid-50 year olds possessing only a smattering of greys and silvers in amongst their mostly dark hair criticise those of us who have coloured. But they didn’t have to face that in their 20s or 30s or even 40s. So I don’t criticise anyone for colouring. I just always knew it was coming. I didn’t want to be my aunt, who coloured her hair jet black into her 70s. When she finally grew out her dye, she had beautiful soft white hair. It was rare to see a Thai woman with grey or white hair, but the black hair on 70-and-80-year-olds never looked natural or right to me.

Ultimately, colouring perpetuates the image that ageing is a bad thing, that women need to be young or appear young to remain attractive. I knew that of course. But peer pressure and judgement is powerful. I’ve read people who have said they are embracing the grey because they don’t care, using a hashtag #greyhairdon’tcare. It’s not that they don’t care about their appearance, as implied by judgemental others. What they don’t care about is society’s obsession with youth, particularly for women, and society’s obsession in controlling how women should look and behave. They – perhaps I should now say WE – don’t care about the peer pressure, the double standards (the “men look distinguished, women look old” lying distortion of beauty), the way our appearance is so often related to value. It’s so wrong. It’s so sexist. It’s so discriminatory. I’m so over it all!