Sophie brings a raft of experience from her career as a corporate lawyer, acting for Australian and international operational businesses in sectors including pharmaceuticals, yeast manufacturing, pulp and paper processing, retail and consumer goods both in Australia and the UK. Currently Sophie is an executive director of her family’s agriculture and tourism business, Silos Estate. In addition to her role with NAWO, Sophie is also Chair of RSL NSW; a Non-Executive Director of Big Fat Smile Group and Peak Care Equipment Pty Ltd; and Deputy Chair of the Shoalhaven Women’s Resource Group.
Sophie joins NAWO at a time when we celebrate 10 years as an incorporated association, whilst looking ahead at how we evolve strategically for better gender balance in operations. With over 62 corporate members and our individual memberships up 25%, NAWO’s offering to both our organisations and individuals continues to strengthen and now is the perfect moment to welcome new leadership, ideas and governance.
What attracted you to NAWO and to apply for the role of Chair?
I have always been passionate about helping women and supporting women to build their lives and careers. I currently work with organisations supporting women coming out of prison and drug and alcohol rehabilitation; and supporting young women with the costs of their post school education and training, and I previously worked with an organisation supporting women migrants and refugees. Throughout my careers as a lawyer and business owner, I have actively mentored women, and am particularly drawn to supporting women to move through senior roles to executive levels.
NAWO as an association is so interesting to me – I think what is really unique is that it works from both ends. There are many organisations working with women in helping them grow their skills, to become more confident, to network, to take senior leadership roles; and there are other organisations which work with companies to better support women into senior roles. But working to support women from both angles at once, as NAWO does, is very rare. So that’s what I really love about NAWO – to be tackling the issues, and opportunities, from both ends. Having the companies on board and working with women at the same time – it is so inspiring and a great way of doing things and something I really wanted to be part of.
I also think it is exciting and relevant that NAWO talks about gender roles as opposed to women specifically, that the intersections of different identities is firmly on the agenda. Further, the fact there are men involved with NAWO at all levels supporting the work NAWO does is vital and another point of difference from many other organisations.
Mentoring is a cornerstone of the NAWO offering – a transformative experience for both our volunteer mentors and those mentees who are selected to take part in our program. Can you share an experience of mentoring or being mentored in your career and the impact it had on you?
I’ve never had a formal mentor myself, although there were several people I worked for in my legal career who were available to me whenever I needed them and the Chair of the first Board I joined, which I still sit on, has always supported, advised and encouraged me, for which I’m very grateful. I’m a big believer in the impact of mentoring, and have been a mentor myself, both in formal mentoring programs, and in a more informal way. I’ve been delighted to see the women I’ve mentored grow in confidence and build their careers: several are now partners in law firms, non-Executive directors, and one has started her own architecture practice. I currently mentor several women at different stages of their careers and find that I get as much out of the mentoring process as they do.
Being a mentor forces you to reflect on your own journey, and I often find that questions my mentees ask me make me stop and think about my own practices in the Boardroom and in business, and consider alternative ways of approaching issues.
We are increasingly recognising the importance of male allies in our network. What is the importance of male allyship for gender equality?
I have experienced the impact of male allyship in both my professional life and my board career. As an external facing lawyer at a big four consulting firm, PwC, I saw similar challenges in professional services as we see in operations. PwC had programs to get more women into senior levels, and male allies were key to gaining traction with these and seeing women succeed at the firm.
And thinking practically, you can’t effect change without male allies because the reality is at least 50% of your workforce or more are men – positive change is not going to happen without men on board. Most importantly, senior male allies can bring the young male allies along with them, triggering that generational mindset and cultural change.
We foster the importance and power of unwavering commitment to inclusive leadership with our members – it’s the first of our NAWO Nine Levers for Gender Balance. Can you talk about how you lead inclusively?
I see my role as Chair as very much a team effort. I like to make sure that every board member has a voice, as do our executive team and our incredible volunteers. As NAWO is reliant on the commitment of our volunteer State Committees in creating our member value, as Board members we need to make sure we are out there hearing their voices and if we are not, asking why not?
Having such a broad group of volunteers with different operations (and lived) experience brings a wonderful spectrum of skills, roles and perspectives. NAWO is unique in having this diversity and I am energised to be working with this amazing network.
Our Nine Levers also focus on our members organisations supporting successful work/life integrations, how do you run a business, volunteer in multiple NED and board capacities and raise two young girls?
It’s a constant juggle and not one I could do without a lot of help. I realise I’m very privileged to be able to afford a weekly cleaner, and fortunate to have a husband who is flexible and who is very happily as involved in the nitty gritty of our family and home life as I am. In running our own business, my husband and I have managed to build flexibility into our lives, so we can do a number of different things in our work and family life. That does mean that our work tends to blend into our family life and vice versa, but I think that one of the really positive things about Covid has been an acceleration in acceptance in workplaces that people have lives outside work that can’t be divorced from their work lives. It’s become much more common to see people’s families, pets and homes in the background of work calls, or for people to be open about building their work around family commitments, which is a real positive, both for men and women. It has forced that interplay between work and home life out into the open and I am hoping this shift will remain. And it is not only women who are seen juggling the mental load, men are hopefully more able to speak up about home and family life commitments. Organisations who don’t embrace this will fall behind.
What are your ideas for NAWO and the direction it is taking?
I will be listening and getting to know the NAWO team for a while. As a new Chair coming in from outside NAWO I very much see my role as first amongst equals and being part of a collaborative team, so building relationships is key and, I’m looking forward to getting to know our people and members.
From my early discussions with my Board colleagues and management, I can see that NAWO is at a point in time where we are becoming more known and as such being approached to do many exciting things. The challenge will be that as our profile grows so do the opportunities, and with everyone involved being extremely passionate about what we do and wanting to see better gender diversity in operations, it will be tempting to take up every one of those opportunities, without remaining focused on purpose and sustainability. Ultimately, we need to be checking in with the board and state committees on what it is we do and don’t do, where we see the next 5-10 years of NAWO and how we build our profile alongside our strategy. It’s an exciting time for me to come on board.
What do you see as the highlights and achievements of your career?
Professionally, looking back I see one of those key moments as gaining my law degree and being admitted as a lawyer – that’s where it all started for me. More recently, I’m really proud of the family business I run with my husband. There have been times in our business where you hit a sweet spot, with your employees, your marketing, and supply chain all working in sync and those moments are really satisfying! I also really enjoy my board career and there have been a couple of particularly memorable moments on my boards where the organisation has reached a point where the board has had to make significant strategic change and tough decisions in order to see the organisation remain sustainable into the future. Being part of those strategic decisions and then seeing the organisations grow and thrive has been really rewarding.
Probably my biggest personal highlight is my role as Chair of RSL NSW. I am the first female Chair and only the third woman on the board in 100 years, and as an independent director who hasn’t served and was appointed externally, being elected by the Board as Chair is a real compliment. I feel honored and humbled, and very fortunate that there are some brilliant male champions at RSL NSW committed to changing our diversity and better reflecting our veterans’ membership. It’s a terrific role and one I feel is complimentary to my work with NAWO.
How do you take time away from your multiple commitments and relax?!
I am lucky to live in the beautiful Shoalhaven on the south coast of NSW, with my family, dog and a mob of alpacas. We have easy access to many beautiful spots and love to go for family walks. I also love to read, travel for work and holidays, and choral singing: and I hope to be getting back to those last two soon!
I am really thrilled and delighted to be joining NAWO, meeting everyone and getting to work. I am aware I am stepping into big shoes thanks to the legacy Megan McCracken leaves and am looking forward to seeing what is possible for NAWO and the difference we can make with all our organisations.