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Wellington director Nicola Hankinson talks about her upbringing, career and more as part of an International Women's Day series profiling some of our female leaders
Time to read: 9 mins
Baker Tilly Staples Rodway national technical director Nicola Hankinson
I grew up in a fairly traditional family environment with stereotypical gender roles. Dad was the main breadwinner (he never cooked or did the laundry) and Mum worked part-time as a nurse.
I was lucky to have thrived in the school environment, as girls often do. I loved learning, competing for grades and spending time with others my age. This helped build my self-worth as I came home each day feeling like I had achieved something useful.
In a recent family history lesson (I rang Dad about this article!), it transpired that Dad’s mum was a businesswoman, raising seven children and running a busy central Wellington hotel. My Grandad was an accountant who worked at a meat exporting business during the day, leaving Grandma to run the busy hotel. So Dad genuinely didn’t see barriers to any of his children being able to achieve what they wanted to achieve – whether we were girls (like three of us were) or boys (like my poor brother). We grew up believing that and feeling that support – if we wanted to do something, we probably could.
My Mum has a similar outlook on life. While she chose to stay home and look after us when we were little, she accepted that would not work for everyone. When I was pregnant with my second child, my then boss asked if I would return to work and there was no doubt in my mind that I would. Some people are better suited to raising children and looking after a house than others (like me). While I was home on maternity leave, my husband came home from work and asked what I had done all day (very little!). However, once he started looking after the girls when I went back to work a few days a week he never asked that again – that’s equality right there, having a shared understanding based on sharing roles and experiences.
My husband’s upbringing was fairly traditional as well, with his dad working fulltime as an electrical engineer and his mum looking after the children and not going back to work until they were older. However, he is a fierce believer in equality. In the early days of our marriage, while flatting in London, he came home from work first and cooked dinner, every night. He kept doing this until recently when our eldest daughter started taking over dinner duties. His one expectation, when he was at work all day and I was home with the girls, was that dinner was made. The house could be a disaster-zone but he expected dinner to be ready.
I can see how he engages with our girls and helps build their self-confidence. It gives me great hope for the future – that our daughters will also believe they can achieve whatever they want (I just asked our youngest daughter whether she thought this, and she looked at me strangely – like “yes, of course – what a weird question”). I feel like the social and professional environments they are entering will be even more supportive and embracing of equality than when I was their age, which is quite exciting.
I often think I was born in the wrong era. Technology isn’t my strongest point, and I don’t like the way it forces us to communicate via computers and phones rather than face-to-face. We have a dishwasher in our house that we don’t use – I prefer doing the dishes the old-fashioned way and don’t see why everyone doesn’t. But in terms of how far women have come during my lifetime I feel incredibly lucky – like maybe I am meant to be living in this era.
New Zealand has had a female prime minister for 19 of the past 25 years (the majority of my adult life) and with that comes a raft of strong female role models, pushing through existing boundaries, both real and perceived. I clearly remember the day I heard Jacinda Ardern, who had not long been voted in as prime minister, was pregnant. She has been a fantastic example of being able to hold down a high-pressure job and raise a family. She’s shown that there is no reason you can’t do both, although there’s a lot of truth in the fact that you can’t do it alone.
Our female role models have been great at making themselves available to give advice to other women. I was lucky enough to hear both Jacinda and Therese Walsh (Chair of Air NZ) speak in the early days of their careers. The funniest question I heard asked was, “when is the right time in your career to have children?”. The explanation was politely provided: You will know when it is the right time to have children and your career will be just fine with that. While it is great to have a career you enjoy, and which gives you value, your career shouldn’t define you, it should be just one element of your life.
I have had a huge range of roles during my life, starting out delivering newspapers, sorting mail at the local post office before school, looking after children, telemarketing, waitressing and my favourite job – working in a busy supermarket! I have always loved the sense of achievement and connectivity that working gives you.
My first professional job was at Audit NZ. I started out in a grad intake that can only be described as female heavy, with just three guys out of about 17 of us in the Wellington office. There were quite a few female managers and supervisors but few at director level – in fact I don’t think there were any when I started. I enjoyed my time at Audit NZ, and the immense variety and learning opportunities it gave me. But I was keen to explore the world and headed off for the traditional Kiwi OE as soon as I could.
While contracting in the UK, I had some supportive bosses, both male and female. They gave me great opportunities to keep learning and growing, and lead teams. When it was time to come home, after meeting my husband and saving hard for our return trip, wedding and house deposit, I chose to go back to Audit NZ. I was surprised when they hired me as an Audit Manager, given that I had left five years earlier at a much lower level. But I quickly developed my network of fellow Audit Managers and slotted into that industry again. Nine months later, I became a mum for the first time.
This was the last time I worked Fridays – 15 years and four roles later, I fiercely protect my Fridays. Balancing work and motherhood is tricky, but worthwhile. Initially my expectations of myself were too high. I didn’t want my staff and clients to feel short-changed by having a part-time Audit Manager, so I made myself available at all times. After a few years of this I was burned out. I would answer my phone in the bathroom and eat lunch while running down Lambton Quay between meetings. I also built up a bit of “mothers’ guilt”, feeling bad for missing bath time when I was stuck in the office.
So, I moved to Chartered Accountants Australia & New Zealand (CA ANZ) as Manager of Regulation and Compliance, working for one of my old Audit NZ bosses. CA ANZ was fantastic, I had one staff member, who was generally self-managing, and no external clients, making it easier to be upfront about what I could achieve, and work the hours I was paid to work.
CA ANZ had an active Women’s Development Circle that I became involved with. One year we produced a calendar with inspirational quotes, including one from former United States secretary of state Madeleine Albright, “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women”. I’m a big believer in support networks and, while this support can come from both males and females, it is critical that women look out for one another rather than climb over each other so we can get to whatever we perceive as “the top”.
Next, I had a brief stint at my former audit client, Inland Revenue, which was great but too big for my liking, so I went back to CA ANZ. I was then “head hunted” for the National Technical Manager role at Baker Tilly Staples Rodway. It seemed like a natural fit – very straightforward, honest people, genuinely interested in developing the whole person rather than just getting “bums on seats” to get the work done.
At the time the national board was all male, although there had been female board members who had retired before I started. Five of the eight directors were called Dave! However, I thought there is only one way to change things and that is by being “at the table” or “in the tent”.
In my role as National Technical Manager, I attended all the board meetings and quickly found I liked their approach and ability to balance what really matters (people, compliance with professional standards and doing a credible job) with all the other things boards get tasked with. Last year I was promoted to National Technical Director and now, with two other well-respected females (and mums) from our Taranaki and Hawke’s Bay offices, have my own seat on the national Board.
I feel lucky to have been given this opportunity and enjoy the way our board works as a team, respecting each other’s advice and opinions in making decisions. Balancing motherhood, work and my newfound love of triathlons has been pretty smooth at Baker Tilly. As long as I get the job done everyone is happy. The variety of the role and flexibility in where, when and how I work is great and I’m definitely not looking to move on anytime soon.
I never sat down and mapped out a career plan, but my advice to those starting out their careers is to follow the opportunities that you are offered, as you never know where they will lead.
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