Vanisa Dhiru is the new national president of the National Council of Women NZ. Founded by Kate Sheppard 121 years ago, the organisation is marking Suffrage Day with a new 'Gender Equal NZ' campaign.
1 What do you hope to achieve with the National Council of Women?
New Zealand is now ninth in the OECD for gender equality. We used to be first. Part of that is because of our violence statistics.
One in three New Zealand women combat some form of violence in their lifetime whether it's physical, emotional or sexual. We're launching a Gender Equal NZ campaign because the gender space has changed. Younger people often don't feel like gender binaries fit for them and we need to know to how gender inequalities harm.
2 But you are a council for women, aren't you?
Yes but the fact is gender stereotypes hurt everyone. When we tell boys they can't play with dolls, say, we're really stopping them from practising being dads.
Having conversations about why men are told to "man up" but women aren't told to "woman up" may start to alter our attitudes.
3 Have you ever suffered discrimination?
Yes most commonly around my name - how it's spelt and how it's said. People see it and make judgments about, "Is she born here? Does she sound like a Kiwi? Will she know what I'm talking about?"
Names are important because they mean so much to people. My surname Dhiru is my granddad's first name which Dad took instead of Patel when he came to New Zealand, so it's special to me. I've also felt gender discrimination when I've walked into a board room and someone's assumed I'm there to pour the coffee when actually I'm there to chair the meeting.
I am young, 37, so people sometimes wonder if I know what I'm doing. I used to feel the need to prove myself but I don't bother any more.
4 You're a young, ethnic woman who has spent your career fighting for a wide range of causes. Which is dearest to your heart?
I feel most passionately about gender. Kate Sheppard formed the National Council of Women to fight for gender equality three years after winning women the right to vote.
I don't understand why we're still fighting for pay equity 121 years later.
We've become a very complacent society. There's not enough passion for changing the causes of gender inequality.
Volunteering statistics are not growing because we all think, "They don't need my help." Life is busy and we're very individualistic.
5 What was your childhood in Palmerston North like?
I grew up in a tight family unit. My parents both worked seven days a week in our grocery store so everyone in the local community knew us, and I grew up in that customer service environment.
I was definitely in the "geek" crowd at school. I was quite introverted but with encouragement from my teachers got involved as a school warden and on the student council. My parents didn't want my brother and I to be self-employed. We were expected to go to university. I did design and marketing and went to work for NZ Trade and Enterprise.
6 Most of your career has been in governance. How did you get involved from such a young age?
My boss at NZTE suggested I get involved with some community work so I joined the board of the YWCA. I was 25 and didn't have a clue about governance.
It gave me insight into organisational strategy, how to create visions and then work backwards to create action plans. I also did a leadership course with the New Zealand Leadership Institute which helped me to formulate a plan for how I could get in the best position to make change. I decided I'd be a CEO of a not-for-profit organisation within seven years. I did it in five when I became CEO of Volunteering NZ at age 30.
7 Was it a big shift from the board table to the CEO's chair?
Yes. It's exactly what the literature says - the CEO is the meat in the sandwich between the staff and the board. I realised I could help shape the conversation at the board table, but ultimately I wasn't the decision maker so the tables had turned.
I've been on about 12 not-for-profit boards like Dress For Success, Trade Aid Wellington and chaired the Inspiring Stories Trust. Being both a CEO and chair helped me define my skill set. Organisations have different life cycles and I like to be involved at the point where you can build momentum or create change.
8 Does New Zealand have a culture of volunteering and has it changed over the years?
We do. The way we volunteer has changed internationally. Charities are more structured now so people are able to inject their skills in new ways like virtual volunteering or on boards.
Volunteering is increasingly being seen as not just a way to give but a way to gain back as well, from skills and connections to friends and fulfilment.
9 Why did you enter the Miss India New Zealand competition?
I realised that if I wanted to be a CEO I had to be get better at public speaking. So I looked for a sponsor I could give some profile to. Trade Aid was a good fit with its work creating trade opportunities for Indian women.
I didn't win, that's no surprise, but I wasn't interested in being a model. The pageant gave me more confidence. I joined Trade Aid Wellington as a board member and spokeswoman telling the Trade Aid story to a multitude of community groups. I also MC'd events like Diwali and gave talks on sexual reproductive rights in schools and universities for the YWCA.
10 Did you find that awkward?
When you've got a subject that's hard to talk about or a little bit icky you do have to try a lot harder to make it feel normal. We were talking about the female condom which was a key advocacy area for the World YWCA at the time. We tried to make it more casual, create safe spaces and connect with the audience, maybe doing the odd joke but not being ridiculously humorous.
11 What do you get most angry about at the moment?
When people say abusive or bullying things online that they wouldn't say if they had to front up in person. I've seen it happen to friends and colleagues. It's particularly vicious around race and gender and really upsetting. If it indicates what people are really thinking then we have a lot of work to do.
12 What achievement are you most proud of?
Being a mentor to a lot of young people moving on to the next stage of their career. I always make an effort to meet with someone who asks for my advice or support because there were people that did that for me at pivotal moments in my career.