Inspiring Women: Jo Cribb

Gender consultant and literacy champion Jo Cribb is a Global Women member on a mission to reduce the gender gap and improve literacy in New Zealand. The former CE of Ministry for Women and New Zealand Book Council talked to Global Women about whether it’s possible to ‘have it all’ and the career advice she would give her younger self.

Which book has left a lasting impression on you?

I have just finished The Unconventional Career of Muriel Brown by Diana Brown which tells the remarkable story of New Zealand’s first Chief Nutritionist who undertook research into the vitamin content of our food and soil, provided guidance to the government for food rationing during WW2, and campaigned for milk in schools and fluoridation of our water. Muriel fought social expectations to fulfill her intellectual and career ambition. As did Beatrice TInsley whose life story is covered in Bright Star by Christine Cole Catley. Beatrice was an outstanding astronomer, who struggled to gain recognition and balance the demands of academic work and motherhood, at a time when there was little support for her to do so. I find reading about about other women and their success and challenges – both of which are often hidden or lost in time – is inspiring.

What do you want to be when you grow up?

I have a school exercise book from when I was about 9 or 10 that has a self-drawn picture of me in a (brown) suit in front of the Beehive. I wanted to be the first woman Prime Minister. Pleasingly, I was beaten to this by several decades and I have been privileged to serve a number of Prime Ministers as an official and policy advisor.

Career advice to my younger self:

Grab the opportunities as they come to you and do not be worried about failing. As a younger woman I was concerned about not doing a good enough job and maybe took safer career options. I have learnt that nothing goes completely to plan and ‘failure’ is part of success. ‘Failure’ is also something that we often create in our own minds, defining success and failure in narrow black and white terms. The trick is to be resilient and agile; not to avoid risk, to try to avoid failure.

What are the trade-offs that young women today will need to make it to the top? Is it all worth it?

Unfortunately, I think that young women today are still facing similar issues and challenges as I did and still do navigating parenthood and senior management roles. I think we can be everything we want to be, but not everything all at the same time. We need to give ourselves permission to focus on some aspects of our lives at some times more than others. We also have the opportunity to reframe our views on work. I think we still assume a three stage life – education, work, retire – and this can make work can feel like a sprint up the hierarchy to retirement. The reality for most of us will be more fluid with periods of self-employment, part time work and retraining. What I would like to see is more organisations providing more flexibility to allow men and women to accelerate their careers at some stages and focus on family at other times.