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Taking the opportunities

Dame Patsy Reddy. PHOTO/GETTY IMAGES

In honour of International Women’s Day [March 8], SOUMYA BHAMIDIPATI talks to some of Wairarapa’s inspiring women. She asks the governor-general of New Zealand, Dame Patsy Reddy, what it’s like being a woman at the top.

She’s been a lawyer, a lecturer, a CEO, and the country’s third female governor-general, but Dame Patsy Reddy started out like most other young Kiwis.

“When I was a child, I didn’t have any strong career expectations,” she said.

“My parents were school teachers. I kind of knew what I didn’t want to do.”

Born in Matamata and raised in Hamilton, Dame Patsy went on to study law at Victoria University.

“You always want to do things differently from your parents,” she said.

“I did it without really knowing a lot about it. It sounds a little bit random, and it is.”

Dame Patsy describes herself as an “opportunist”, having sought and taken chances whenever she could.

“All my life, when opportunities have come along, I try to seize the opportunities,” she said, “Sometimes it’s been hard.”

Then, in 2016, along came “the ultimate opportunity” – she was invited to become the next governor-general of New Zealand. She would become the third female to be appointed to the role since its inception in 1840.

Dame Patsy said she didn’t like public speaking or being in the limelight, however, she decided to take on the challenge.

“I didn’t think it was right for me initially.”

While there had previously been only two other female governors-general, she noted women had already begun to be more valued in the workforce. Of the six people to have most recently held the role, half had been female.

“It’s a dynamic situation because we live in a dynamic society,” she said, “It’s been very different to what it used to be.”

She said she often looked at the photos of previous governors-general which adorned the walls of Government House.

“I often go along that line and think, ‘what would life have been like for you?’,” she said.

“One of the challenges for women, even now, is that we are judged by what we look like.”

She described a conversation with her predecessor, Sir Jeremiah Mateparae, during which she asked him what he would wear to official occasions.

“He said, ‘I wore the same outfit every time’. I’m thinking, ‘Well if I do that, it would be odd’.”

She noted more significant challenges would have been faced by Dame Catherine Tizard, who became the first female governor-general of New Zealand in 1990.

“My goodness, it would have been tough in her time. She was a real trailblazer.”

Dame Patsy studied in the 70s and had joined the workforce by the 80s. During the 90s, there was still an under-representation of women in senior roles in most fields, she said.

“Studying law, probably only about 10 per cent of my class were female.”

When she entered the workforce, she found a slightly better, but still skewed, ratio.

“It took so many years. Lots of women studied law in the 80s, [but] it wasn’t flowing through to the professions or to senior roles.

“You have to keep pushing. We have to keep normalising this, at all levels of our society.”

Dame Patsy has been inspired by different women at different points of her life.

“My first famous female role model was the queen,” she said.

“There were periodically women who became heads of state, but they were unusual. It wasn’t commonplace.”

During her university days, she was inspired by second-wave feminism and the likes of Jermaine Greer.

“She was outspoken, glamorous. She was articulate. She motivated a lot of us to think about pushing boundaries.

“Equality, that was our cry.

“She made a wake that the rest of us could follow in. There’s lots of women that have done that over time.”

In more recent times, Dame Patsy said movements such as #MeToo, Black Lives Matter, and even the impact of covid would continue to bring change for women and other marginalised groups, both within roles such as hers and in wider society.

“It’s really changed in the last few years,” she said.

“We will have a representation in governor-general that more accurately represents the demographic of New Zealand.”

Her advice was to support women in the community and to recognise the value of other people.

“I felt very much alone when I first joined the workforce,” she said.

“Even when I did find some, I didn’t really have the tools to communicate with them.

“I’m a great believer in teamwork.”

She also encouraged women to believe in themselves and to speak up when something was not right.

“I also think now young women can more safely call out bad behaviour. You do have to be brave, and you do have to push yourself to the next level.

“You don’t know what you’re capable of until you try it.”

Dame Patsy’s five-year term as governor-general will come to an end in September. While she had no concrete plans for the future, she intended to take the opportunity to spend more time with her husband, Sir David Gascoigne, at their home in Wairarapa.

“We very much enjoy our house in Greytown and the lifestyle,” she said.

“I’ll be spending more time in Wairarapa … I really have an open book in front of me.”

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