Women of Influence alumni: Jo-anne Wilkinson

“I think today women still have to make a decision about career and taking time out to have a family and how much time,” says Jo-Anne Wilkinson.

Nominations have opened for this year’s Women of Influence awards. Presented by Westpac and Fairfax Media, the awards acknowledge and celebrate women who are helping to shape the future of the country. We profile some of the awards’ alumni in a weekly series.

Jo-anne Wilkinson was the joint winner of the Women of Influence 2014 award for Social Enterprise. Wilkinson is a co-founder of the Foundation for Youth Development, which she started with husband Graeme Dingle. Wilkinson remains a board member among other roles.

How did you start out in your line of work with young people?

I had accepted a challenge from Graeme Dingle, who is now my husband, to join him on a traverse in the Bering Strait in Alaska. That was in 1992-3. I was a practising lawyer at the time and I felt comfortable in my little zone. Despite my reservations I thought I should do it because otherwise you end up not pushing your boundaries.

Having gone up there we kept coming across these little villages where dysfunction was just rife and we felt incredibly lucky to be New Zealanders. When we came back we just felt we couldn’t hide behind the fact that we were a small generous resource rich country and things would sort themselves out, and we decided to do something about it.

What drives you in your work?

It is seeing the kids everyday and seeing their lives changing. They go from thinking they’re not capable of a huge amount to realising the world is their oyster, they’ve just got to grab things and have the skills to achieve big things, and that’s what our programmes do.

How do you deal with stress?

I find a healthy mix of taking it out on my husband, cooking with a glass of Pinot noir and exercise works really well.

Some of the Women of Influence alumni discuss what the accolade means to them.

What’s your career highlight so far?
I’m incredibly proud of having set up Project K (now FYD) with Graeme, which led onto a Queen’s [Birthday] Honour being given to me for that contribution, which I’m absolutely amazed at, and then subsequently being a category winner in the WOI.  It’s all just kind of built in to this sense of accomplishment for having contributed to the young people of NZ.

Are you optimistic about the future of young people in New Zealand?

We are reaching 20,000 kids a year and the demand is still there, and we’ve got waiting lists so it is all about getting the resource that enables us to expand our work. It’s not easy in the charitable sector to do that and there’s a lot of people doing lots of good things. One of the distinguishing factors about FYD is that we can prove we are making a difference.

What advice would you give to your teenage self?

I had very high expectations of myself and others. I’d say accept your imperfections and believe in yourself. If someone could have given me an example I would have listened.

What does being a woman of influence mean to you?

It’s a huge privilege to have been considered someone worthy enough of that title, and I think it allows me a profile to support others to be everything they can be. I guess whether you like it or not, as soon as you put your head above the parapet, people get an expectation of who you are. You’re a role model whether you like it or not, and what I want to convey is that my sense around leadership is that it’s not being a leader that’s important – it’s what you are as a leader that’s important.

What are the biggest roadblocks facing women in the workplace?

I think that workplaces are more flexible than they were when I was younger and having to make decisions about career and whether or not to have a family. I think today women still have to make a decision about career and taking time out to have a family and how much time. The decisions they make are either going to be separating them from their children – and I’m not saying that’s good or bad – or losing ground in their career and lower levels of income. It’s a really hard decision for women to make and I don’t think that can be getting any easier.

How to get around it?

It’s the nature of a woman’s work, whether she can work remotely very easily or she’s on a ladder at a big corporate somewhere. I don’t see a way around that easily unless there’s some sort of practice within a corporation that encourages women to go off and have their families.

How was it to work closely with your husband for so many years?

We seemed to do that quite successfully for quite a long time. A sense that we each brought something quite different and special in attitudes, skills and talents and we were prepared to learn from each other. I think you can either work together or you can’t.

If you could change a single thing about the world, what would it be?

The lack of tolerance. Tolerance leads to understanding, understanding leads to kindness.

What’s your karaoke song of choice?

I don’t sing, I dance. I don’t go out dancing so much anymore but I dance around the house.

Proudly presented by Fairfax Media and Westpac, nominations are open for the 2015 Women of Influence awards. Visit stuff.co.nz/national/women-of-influence for more information.

– Stuff