20 March 2008

Girls Can Do Anything!

By Justine Munro

Justine Munro, a management consultant with experience in the corporate, non-profit, indigenous and education sectors in New Zealand and Australia, recently gave a speech at the 125th Jubilee Dinner of her school, Wellington Girls' College. She shared the speech with us and we asked for permission to reprint it. Justine's reflections on the old career advice of "Girls Can Do Anything" make for fascinating reading.

I've been given the honour, at this 125th Jubilee Dinner, of speaking tonight about my journey - as a Wellington Girls College student who was lucky enough to obtain a Rhodes Scholarship and carve out a fairly interesting career since then. I'll do that, but I also want to place it in a context, of a woman born in the 1970's and coming of age in a time where "girls could do anything". Here tonight, we're lucky to have women from many generations, and I hope that these reflections can be of interest, and possibly relevance, to many of you, despite the very different courses that our lives may have taken.


But before I start, I just want to say how proud I've always been to have gone to Wellington Girls'. Wherever I've gone in the world, I've always loved people asking me where I went to school. I reply with great pride - "Wellington Girls' College".

I believe in public education; I believe in big, busy, multi-cultural schools; and I believe in all-girls' education as an option.

Wellington Girls' gave me a wonderful launching pad, I had a blast here, and it makes me very proud to be linked in to the community again.

Girls can do anything

I'm going to start my reflections by showing you a poster which to me was the backdrop for my whole time at Wellington Girls'. Here it is:


Some of you might remember this: it was produced apparently by the Vocational Guidance Council of the Department of Labour which did a terrific job at getting it into every classroom, every corridor, every office in the country. We said that phrase all the time, 'Just remember: "Girls can do anything!"' - and I even remember it as a debating topic - poor you if you had to argue the negative!

Anyway, here it is, with little cartoon figures of smiling girls dressed up like Bob the Builder, doing all the things that, in the olden days, people used to think only men could do - being builders, plumbers, surveyors, scaling the ladder to success. How crazy we thought they'd been back then, and how great it was to be a girl growing up now!

Early years

So - girls can do anything - that was our mantra, and off we went. The world was our oyster, as my darling grandfather used to say, and it really never crossed my mind that anything could stop me. I think at that point I was going to be NZ's first women prime minister - damn!, that one got away - but you get the gist.

So from school I went on with a wonderful cohort of Wellington Girls' students to do a law degree at Victoria, and from there was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford University. That scholarship was best known at the time for having been given to David Kirk. It rewards not only academic achievement but also sporting and cultural achievement and community service. I'd been hugely encouraged and supported in all of those areas - as a debater, a fencer and Head Girl - in my time at Wellington Girls' and that had given me a wonderful start.

Getting the Rhodes and going to Oxford was a defining point in my life. It was a tremendous honour, it let me build some wonderful friendships and networks, it opened doors, and it reinforced a very strong sense of duty, to give back and to repay amply the investment and trust that had been made in me.

From Oxford, I was wooed by an international strategic management consulting firm, McKinsey and Company, and went to Sydney where I got together with my husband, Matt Crockett, a West Australian Rhodes Scholar who was also new at McKinsey. From there, I went back to the law as a specialist indigenous lawyer, flying in small planes around remotest Australia and sitting out at night under a big wide starry desert sky. It was awesome.

Children & recognition

And then, we decided to have children. Whilst I knew that there would be some changes involved - and I did have some visions of myself floating around making biscuits and having morning teas - I never expected that it would fundamentally change the trajectory I'd been on.

And I found myself, about two years into it, with an eighteen month year old and a new baby, totally exhausted, yet bored to tears, asking in frustration, "Why did you all tell us that "girls can do anything" when we so patently can't? How am I going to be the mother I want to be to these children, and achieve my potential in my career, let alone be a balanced and giving wife, friend and daughter? How can I change the world when I'm about to drop dead with tiredness and the baby needs a nappy change?"

And in the thick of it, I actually remember telling my good friend, Tanya Thomson, who'd also been at school with me, that I was seriously contemplating heading right on back down to Wellington Girls' to confront those teachers, tell them that they were raising false expectations, and demand to set the girls straight!

Well I didn't quite get that far and I've calmed down quite a bit over the intervening five years. I've had a chance to reflect on that message as I'd taken it on, and what I think now is a more useful way of approaching life.

I recognised that I'd interpreted "girls can do anything" as meaning, first of all, "girls can do anything that a man does". You see those little women running up and down those ladders: they're not redefining the game, they're just dressing up in the same clothes the men wear, they're playing the same game the men are playing.

And the other interpretation of "girls can do anything" actually meant "girls can do everything". Not only would I now do all the things I'd seen my mother doing, I'd do all the things I'd seen my father doing too. And because you've always got to do everything better than your parents, I'd do it all even better.

And the other part - "girls can do anything" actually meant "girls should do everything". We owed it to ourselves, our mothers, our daughters, to our peers and everyone who'd ever believed and invested in us to do it all. Sure we all joked about superwoman, but really, that's who we had to be.

Well, it's pretty obvious that this was heading for a road-smash. And I definitely did go through a few phases here: embracing full-time motherhood, which, it is good to know, is really not for me; taking on part-time work that bored to me to tears; and being really angry at the generation before - where are my role models? Why aren't the women who've gone before and smashed these glass ceilings reaching back to help us? What has really changed?

Ultimately, what I have discovered, however, is that there is a whole group of women who are, often quite quietly, modelling a new way. Their focus is not so much on the "doing", or even on the ability to do. What matters is the outcome. The line then is not "girls can do anything", or, as I took it, "girls should do everything", but that "girls and women - and men - can create a life they want to live".

Hard won insight

Some of the aspects of this were:

  • If you can't win at the game as it's currently defined, create your own one. Sure, try very hard to make your workplace flexible and appreciative of difference, but be prepared also to create your own business, your own non-profit, your own networks, and make them work for you and for people like you. You'll be responding to challenges and opportunities the old games cannot, and pretty soon, they'll be coming to you.
  • Get rid of this idea of the divide between "work" and "home" - the person I have to be and the person I want to be; the things I have to do and the things I want to do. You can work in a way that reflects your values and your priorities. The whole thing is your life and it has to feel good.
  • We need each other - we can't dream big and do big by ourselves; we can't step on others as we clamber our way to the top; we need to partner, to collaborate, to support; to reach out - forward to those who have gone before and back to young people coming through.
  • And on a really personal level, we all need time out, time for ourselves, time to turn our minds off. You can't be a good mother or a good friend or an inspiring leader if you're an exhausted wreck.

And the responsibility for creating this life - well, it's up to us. There is no sense in which my generation are victims, and the opportunities are here for us to take. Those mothers of ours and their mothers and their mothers who fought for the right to vote, to equal pay, to reproductive freedom - they helped create them. And it is up to our generation to be bold, to be brave, to be resilient, and to be true to all the parts of ourselves, to take those opportunities and craft them into a life we want to live.

Role models

So what does this life look like? Here are just a few women I know who inspire me:

First, my friend Maria Clarke, a lawyer who recently set up NZ's first sports law firm - Maria Clarke Lawyers - and has just been appointed to the legal commission of the International Association of Athletics Federations. Her national body clients include the Academy of Sport, Bike NZ, tennis and surf lifesaving and she represents elite athletes including the Evers-Swindell twins and Valerie Vili. She's wowed them all with a creative and responsive approach to legal services they'd never find at the big law firms. But part of the reason for striking out on her own is that Maria also has two gorgeous boys and a wonderful husband that she wants to spend time with, and so she does it all on three days a week. And Andy, her husband, he works four days a week as a teacher so that he gets his share of time with the family.

Another friend - Jacky Toepfer. Jacky's background was in travel, but when she was at home with her kids she started taking regular sanity breaks at the local pool. She started to really get into her swimming, met a whole group of new people and ended up representing NZ at the World Triathlon championships, coming 14th in her age group. And what Jacky had learnt around health and fitness, she started to teach others - myself included - developing fitness and nutrition regimes for busy mothers and school students, as well as elite athletes. She's put that all together in her just-launched business, Dynamic Health.

And myself, well, I've started my own consulting practice in the social services/ non-profit space, and I'm working on a number of projects with some great people and organisations including the New Zealand Institute; a new community investment firm, Investing for Good; and the Springboard Trust, an education non-profit on which I'm a director. I work three days a week, but the thing I still look forward to the most is my Wednesday morning mother help at Devonport Primary!

I could go on, but you get the picture - that here are women whose focus is not on doing anything and everything, keeping up with the boys and more. Here are women whose focus is on building, step by step and together with their families, a life they want to live.

And of course, rising to this big challenge requires skills and capabilities and support. Here, I want to bring the thread right back to Wellington Girls', because I feel that this school gave me so many of the skills and experiences I draw on today as I craft a life I want to live.


In closing, I feel very privileged to be a Wellington Girls' old girl, and I feel privileged to be part of the generation I am. We've got a lot to contribute and - watch this space.

Thank you.


Justine Munro, Director, MAIA Consulting

Justine Munro is a management consultant with experience in the corporate, non-profit, indigenous and education sectors in New Zealand and Australia. Justine has led a number of projects in these sectors with clients including the New Zealand Institute, the University of Auckland, and a McKinsey & Company/ Knowledge Wave Trust initiative. She worked previously as a consultant with McKinsey & Company and a lawyer specializing in indigenous issues. A New Zealand Rhodes Scholar, Justine has an M Litt degree in Law from Oxford University and a LLB (Hons) degree from Victoria University of Wellington. She is a trustee of the Springboard Trust.

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