This NFP helps women in need re-enter the workforce

Thursday, 01 October 2020

Denise Cullen photo
Denise Cullen
Freelance Journalist

    Vicki Hartley, chair of NFP Dress for Success, which helps women return to work, is concerned by the impact of the rising incidence of domestic violence.

    Back in the 1960s, my mum was one of the first female police officers in the Yorkshire police force and I’d always been raised to believe women can do anything. So it was a shock when I started out in the 1990s as an auditor at a chartered accountancy practice in London. It was a very male-dominated environment and we were told women couldn’t wear trousers. In my third year, one of our team wore a pair of culottes to an audit. It looked like a skirt, but not quite, and the client complained. Can you imagine? Later, as the youngest female assistant manager, I was told I’d never become a partner because I was going to leave to have babies. That was when I decided my career path didn’t rest there.

    Branching out

    I switched to investment banking, first working at UBS in the equities market area, where I qualified as a derivatives and futures trader. I liked the complexity — the numbers and working with smart people. There was lots of yelling, but I didn’t find that too bad because as an auditor, I’d grown fairly thick skin and was used to defending my opinions.

    I moved on to work in the derivatives area of Deutsche Bank. After three years, I thought, “This is not for me anymore.” I decided to go to Australia.

    I touched down in Cairns during the 2000 Olympics and spent a couple of months working my way down the coast as a backpacker. When I reached Sydney, I made a deal with myself that I’d make a decision towards the end of the six to nine months whether or not I’d stay. I found a job at QBE where I got really good mentoring and training.

    Then I worked in a senior finance role at Challenger for nine years. They asked me to do the AICD Company Directors Course because they wanted me to sit as an executive director on some of the subsidiary boards — property and infrastructure trusts, shopping centres, a finance company and a wind farm. The course material provided a useful toolkit to challenge some of the other directors and highlight why it was my responsibility to do so, even though this wasn’t always popular.

    When I left Challenger, I was preparing to become a full-time company director, but many of the people interviewing me were male, and much older. I felt like they were looking for that token female. I didn’t get the feeling that if I was appointed I would actually be listened to. Luckily, I was approached to become the CFO of an impressive fintech called Lendi. I was inspired by the founders of the organisation and really wanted to get that “C” on my CV — to have a C-Suite role. Finishing up in the Lendi role coincided with the Dress for Success CEO’s maternity leave, so I took that on for six months, so I could add CEO to my CFO.

    Rising rates of domestic violence during lockdown are a huge concern. Up to one in 10 Australian women who are in a relationship have experienced domestic violence during the pandemic.

    Vicki Hartley GAICD

    Danger in the home

    A close friend of mine, Kay Schubach, published Perfect Stranger, a book about her domestic violence experiences. She’d become an advocate for Domestic Violence NSW and they were looking for directors to join the board. It was time to use some of my skills to give back in the not-for-profit space. I’m still on that board. I didn’t know much about the sector, so it was a steep learning curve, which involved talking to lots of people. Last year, I visited our refuge in Wilcannia, in the far west of NSW, which was grounding.

    Rising rates of domestic violence during lockdown are a huge concern. Up to one in 10 Australian women who are in a relationship have experienced domestic violence during the pandemic, with two-thirds saying the attacks started or worsened during this time.

    As a board member, I have the power to positively influence this situation. Every board should have a family violence policy for their staff, which allows them to take leave or relocate. Facilitating different payment arrangements is also important. Given issues of financial coercion and control, helping a woman set up a second bank account so she can access funds gives her the resources to leave a violent relationship.

    Securing partners

    One of the challenges we’ve recently been dealing with is women living in our refuges who are on precarious visas, with no income or benefits. The refuges were struggling with COVID-19 social-distancing requirements, so as a board we made a decision with management to move some of the clients into short-term accommodation. We used the organisation’s reserves initially. Then we approached the NSW government to say, “We’ve moved these people out and we can afford to house them in separate accommodation to comply with requirements, but we can only afford it for so long. So we really need you to help us pay for this.” Which, to their credit, they did.

    I joined the board of Dress for Success five years ago and became the chair in January. Dress for Success empowers women, helping them get back into the workforce by providing beautiful clothing. The clothes are donated by businesswomen or corporates. Because if you walk into that interview not looking the part, you’re on the back foot before you’ve even started. Dress for Success also provides other skills such as mentoring, coaching, resume writing and interview practice. If clients don’t get the job, we work with them on why. When they do get the job, they come back for a week’s worth of mix-and-match clothes.

    For people aspiring to be non-executive directors, it’s important to keep going, to get really good experience and be open to doing things that don’t seem a natural fit. Say yes, and don’t put things off. If there’s something you really want to do, don’t say, “I’ll do it when I retire.” There will never be a good time.

    In 2019, I took a sabbatical to travel around the edge of Australia in a camper trailer with my husband. I did all my non-executive director work on the road — including 5.30am Zoom calls from a WA national park in the pitch dark. I was worried about the impact this would have on my relationships with other directors. But one thing COVID-19 has demonstrated is that you can be a non-executive director remotely. That’s opened up a lot more opportunities for people who want to do directorship slightly differently.

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