Sometimes, it pays to stand out. While Jan Dawson was working in Vancouver for accounting firm KPMG, she recalls that when the firm shifted premises, senior managers got first dibs on the offices along the outer edge of the floor with views.

Junior managers - of whom Dawson was one - had to make do without windows, huddled into offices in the middle of the floor.

But when one of the senior managers was leaving, Dawson approached her with a proposition. "I drew up a contract, and put it to her that I'd buy her office for five dollars," says Dawson. "I don't think people knew how to deal with the fact I'd bought her office - they just let me move in - so there I was amongst this row of senior managers. I stood out because I was prepared to be different."

A former partner, chief executive and chair of KPMG New Zealand, and now one of the country's highest profile professional directors, Dawson has blazed a trail for women in finance.


Last month she shared her experiences and advice with a crowd of more than 90 finance professionals as the speaker at INFINZ' s inaugural Women in Finance Series event, at the offices of Russell McVeagh in Auckland.

One of her key messages, illustrated by that anecdote from her days working in Vancouver, was for women to understand their value.

Many women, says Dawson, suffer from "impostor syndrome" - the unfounded feeling that they're not really up to the job.

It's an attitude they need to shift, she says, and replace with a real understanding of their value, then constantly remind themselves of that value, as well as others around them.

A fan of Sheryl Sandberg (she regularly dips into Sandberg's Lean In on her Kindle), Dawson says the advice is a variation on the Facebook head's mantra that women must ensure they "sit at the table" - that they actively involve themselves in decision-making - to succeed as leaders.

The first person in her immediate family to go to university, Dawson was encouraged into tertiary accounting studies by her best friend's mum, who also taught her the subject at Westlake Girls' High School.

There were few other women on a pathway to a commerce degree majoring in accounting at the University of Auckland, but after stumbling in her first year, Dawson graduated as a senior scholar in accounting.

A year or so after graduating, she and then-husband Pete took off on their OE - first to London, then Canada. The couple had the first of their two children while in Canada, and Dawson says balancing work and family commitments was made easier by support from her partner, the firm and the wider culture, with new mothers in Canada given good support.

"It was a little bit different when I got back to New Zealand," she says.

I've always taken a long view of my career, although it's also been a relatively wide view, as opposed to a narrow one. Ultimately I knew where I wanted to go and I had to think about what were the right options that would get me there.


"The partners at KPMG were very supportive, but it was people outside the organisation - some non-working mothers, and a few men - who asked 'Why are you still working?' It was because I liked the challenge, I liked the work, and if I could do both things, then why not?"

Another key message Dawson has for women in finance is to consider the long game when thinking about their careers. For example, it was a decade or so before leaving KPMG - where she worked for 30 years - that Dawson decided she'd eventually like to BE an independent director.

While her role at the accounting firm restricted her from taking on directorships, she built her understanding and experience by joining the Institute of Directors. She went on to chair the IoD's Auckland branch and joined its national council - all before her first directorship.

She also points to her experience of turning down a major role within the firm, because it didn't fit with where she ultimately wanted her career to go.

"I've always taken a long view of my career, although it's also been a relatively wide view, as opposed to a narrow one. Ultimately I knew where I wanted to go and I had to think about what were the right options that would get me there."

Dawson has since carved out an impressive governance career. Her directorships include Air New Zealand, AIG Insurance NZ, Meridian Energy, Goodman Fielder, Beca Group and Westpac NZ, where last year she became the first woman to chair a major New Zealand bank.

Few women sit at the top tables of New Zealand companies - last year, NZSX-listed businesses reported that women comprised only 17 per cent of directors and 19 per cent of officers.

Dawson admits progress is slow, but it is happening. She cites figures from the 2016 Women in the Workplace report, by LeanIn.Org and McKinsey & Co, showing that 78 per cent of chief executives now consider diversity a top priority, compared with 56 per cent in 2012.

However, she also points to the survey's findings that women are less likely to get that first critical promotion to manager, and are then increasingly under-represented as roles become more senior, meaning very few become chief executives.

Dawson believes she won't see the playing field levelled in her generation, but perhaps within her daughter's.

Much of the change that needs to occur will happen with time, she says. "And the uneven playing field," she says, "makes it even more important for women to understand their value, know what they want long term, and have the confidence to go after it."

From the INFINZ Journal.