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The Weekend Neos Kosmos : 13 December 2014
SATURDAY 13 DECEMBER 2014 17 Greek woman on board WOMANKIND Vicky Papachristos explains what it means to be one of ‘the bosses of the boss’ METAXIA KLADIS I admit to toying with a few female-power stereotypes as I wait for Vicky Papachristos in the coffee shop she often uses as her home-office. Will she be as intimidating as her resume? She is a chemical engineer turned customer strategist, marketing and loyalty expert, with a 20-year career that has spanned industries as diverse as petrochemicals, banking, sport, entertainment, tourism, IT and retail. She currently juggles three non-executive board roles, while being a managing director in her independent marketing consulting firm. Does she ever sleep? She arrives early for what turns out to be an energising, inspiring two hour interview. Vicky Papachristos is passionate and engaging and fun and ... well, beyond stereotyping. As she unfolds different facets of her personality (a professional, a keen skier and road cyclist, a wife, a friend who will make time for you if you unexpectedly call her up, an advocate for bringing more female talent into high-power, corporate roles), it seems to me I am watching a corporate prima ballerina; it's the graceful movement that are visible, the beauty of achievement that matters. The hard work, the pain and the sweat are still there, but do not really matter, as long as you live your life the way you want it to be. And that is exactly why Mrs Papachristos is the right person to look a high-school girl in the eye and say "I give you the permission to be ANYTHING you want to be". About her board career We, and I am not saying ‘I’, because we are a team of people, the ‘bosses of the boss’. We have one employee, the managing director, who reports to us. We are responsible for the good governance and strategy of the companies we work with, but we leave the managing director to do the job. Our work is ‘nose in - fingers out’. Skills-wise, these are very senior roles. They used to be a very closed shop - a ‘boys club’, to use a worn-out expression. This has started to change. On growing up in a Greek family My parents moved to Australia from a hamlet in Aitoloakarnania. Their passion was to educate their kids and give them a better life. And they did that very well. My brother and I had a fantastic life and education. And we actually chose to go to the Greek school. I loved the Greek school ... and as a grown up, what's important to me is that I get to choose the best of both worlds. The Greek traditions and openness and hospitality. And the Aussie things as well; the formalities, the discipline, the structure. Coming from a working class background, my parents aspired for me to get married and have children. Careerwise they preferred and encouraged me to be a teacher. They never really understood what I did at work. My mother would introduce me and my brother saying: ‘This is my son - he doctor. This is my daughter - she no married.’ Moving to Sydney from Melbourne I gained my freedom. I didn't have to fight against living the life my parents wanted for me as a Greek female. On entering the corporate world It was a collective of moments rather than a single defining one that led me there. I liked the idea of being in charge. The whole culture of working in an office appealed to me. And when I got there, in my first job with Shell, I found out that I belonged there- and I’ve loved it ever since! The most difficult decision she ever made Moving to the USA from Sydney [to set up an Australian start-up in the smart card industry], uprooting to go to a new country by myself, where I had no family or friends - and also, no work colleagues and no office. On what she enjoys most at work I love a green field environment, where what we are trying to do hasn't been tackled before. On being a Greek female business leader in a male-dominated corporate world I haven't felt that being Greek in the corporate world is an issue - probably because I learned early in life to ignore any racial bias. Also, by the time I got to the corporate world, most people embraced the passion and diversity that comes from being Greek as they all grew up with Greeks next door. The female part has certainly been obvious. My general comment over the years has been that is it not a glass ceiling, but rather fibreglass; murky to see through, harder than glass to shatter and you bounce back if you try to crack it. On quotas I am a full believer in quotas. It is rubbish that there aren't enough talented women around for the roles. Women at C-suite are brilliant. They are hard workers, smart and courageous. The way I see it, it's a numbers game - the more women in the corporate world that have familiar faces around them from school and university, the more normal that becomes. There is still not enough comfort with women in leadership positions ... and we have these unconscious biases, even in simple things; when we talk about a CEO, we say ‘he’. Even I have to work hard to say ‘they’ or ‘she’ when I am referring to the CEO. On a way forward to gender equality in the corporate world We have to work conscientiously and diligently at the bottom. We need to introduce and encourage young women to enter the corporate world. We need to ‘give them permission’ to ask for the job, don't just sit around and wait for someone to tell them what to do. And help them develop the right skills-set; for instance they need to learn how to negotiate better. Yes, this is happening but not enough and not fast enough. It is a painful change. I believe women need not complain or be negative about the lack of opportunities but to actively aspire to be in these roles, to put themselves forward for them and also to promote each other along the way. On the gender pay gap in Australia A tough one to fix - as it is systemic in the unconscious bias and history of gender roles. I summarise the actions required to fix it in three points: Knowledge. Courage. Action. Women (need) to have knowledge of what their role is worth; to ensure they are being remunerated at the same level as men - this, in many instances, requires courage. On making a difference I am passionate about getting women into the corporate world. I decided I would start in a place I understood, the Alumni Committee of my high school, MacRobertson Girls High. I am there to introduce these ideas to the girls, when they are starting to think about their careers. When I talk to the girls at MacRobertson, I tell them I want them to go in the corporate world. I tell them they must be the leaders of tomorrow's companies. I ‘give them permission’ to not have to be what their parents want them to be. They don't need to be doctors, lawyers, nurses and teachers. Not that there is anything wrong with that. But being the CEOs and executive directors is also an excellent achievement. On staying organised I have no idea about work-life balance, but I do know that I hate missing out, so there must be a balance there. Otherwise, I would be always working. So, I am very organised, I have my phone and a couple of iPads and I love technology as it is there to make our life easier not harder. My favourite apps are the Fantastical calendar and the audio version of Economist, which I can listen to while I power walk around the park. And then it's about priorities. Work is a priority when I am at work. Ahead of a board meeting, I will study my papers and have notes and questions. Outside work, my husband and friends and giving back to the community are my priority. You come to a stage in life when you choose what matters to you. On what success means Success for me is when I am working on the things where I can make a difference and to be able to orchestrate a change, an improvement… And it means to be able to have choice. The biggest challenge for the Greek diaspora To retain, continue to learn and engage with the Greek language and culture. This has to be active as no one is going to tap you on the shoulder and say ‘Hey you, go and be more Greek!’. I suppose this challenge has many parallels to women in the C-suite. *Vicky Papachristos holds non-executive director roles with GMHBA Health Insurance, EFTPOS Payments Australia Limited and Mount Baw Baw Alpine Resort, where she is also the chairman - or, more appropriately chairwoman.
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