Joan Withers
Professional director
1953

Trailblazing business leader and professional chairwoman

Stuck at home as a housewife in the 1970s, professional director Joan Withers bought a Bernina knitting machine and learned to make jerseys to earn what was called "pin money".

"The expectation in the 70s was that women would stay home - while the children were at pre-school and then go back potentially - that was the expectation I had," she told the Herald last year.

"I wasn't someone who was brought up to be ambitious or to have big aspirations either academically or career wise. I was going to stay home with Jamie [her son]. I really became conscious a few years down the track that a big part of life was passing me by."

Despite leaving school at 16, getting married at 19 and becoming a mum on her 21st birthday Withers went on to become chief executive at Fairfax New Zealand (until 2009).

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She now chairs the boards of The Warehouse and Mercury Energy and is a former director of ANZ, TVNZ and Auckland Airport.

She was also a director on the board of failed carpet company Feltex, in the news again this week after the Supreme Court allowed former shareholders to challenge them again in court over a 2004 prospectus forecast.

After her time as a stay-at-home mum Withers eventually went back into the workforce as a part-time sales rep and copy writer for Suburban Newspapers and rose through the ranks to a senior management position.

Backed by the company she did an MBA and then moved to a smaller organisation (private broadcaster Radio i) as chief executive, to put her new knowledge into practice.

"I'm not ambitious," Withers says. "I think it's because people keep giving me promotions and opportunities that I've felt an enormous responsibility to do the best I possibly could. Equipping myself by getting the degree was another way of achieving that.

"The challenge for employers is making sure women don't drop out because it becomes too tough or they believe there are too many compromises to be made."