Members Spotlight | Women in Service

As we commemorate the 107th year anniversary of Anzac Day, we unite together to honour those who have sacrificed and risked their lives for our nation of Aotearoa.

This month we explore the journey of two incredible servicewomen, Commodore Melissa Ross and Sandra Venables, with their different, but crucial paths to serving our nation.

Join us as we immerse into their inspiring stories about women in service.

Commodore Melissa Ross, Deputy Cheif at Royal New Zealand Navy

Commodore Melissa Ross is a remarkable wāhine who rose through the ranks of the Royal New Zealand Navy in 2019 to become the Deputy Chief of the Navy, the first woman to achieve the second-in-command position. After three years in that role, she now oversees the Sustainment Logistics and Shared Services division for the whole of the New Zealand Defence Force! Humble, understated and eloquent, Melissa is a force herself!

I asked Melissa to tell us about her journey to her prominent status.

“I held the position of Deputy Chief for three years and at the end of 2022, assumed my challenging new role as the Commander of Logistics and Shared Services.  I’m working a lot with industry and with global contractors including Boeing, Babcock and Lockheed Martin to maintain relationships which are really important to sustaining our capabilities.

In March 2023, I attended the Avalon Air Show; a lot of military and industry partners also attend shows of this nature. New Zealand now possesses the Boeing P-8 Poseidon, an American maritime patrol and reconnaissance aircraft developed and produced by Boeing Defense, Space & Security, so this is one of the partnership examples.”

Please update us on the recent AUKUS conference of the Prime Ministers of the UK and Australia with the US President Joe Biden, about nuclear-powered submarines in our region. What is New Zealand’s role?

“The Defence Logistics and Shared Services command is a key enabler contributing to the readiness of the Royal New Zealand Navy, the New Zealand Army and the Royal New Zealand Air Force. We work closely with our military partners such as the USA, Australia, the UK and Canada in the Pacific and further afield. New Zealand doesn’t have nuclear-powered submarines, but we share a history of working well together in many places in the world. In recent times, our partners have been on-hand to help us, such as the Kaikōura earthquake and more recently, our Australian and Fijian partners came to lend support to people impacted by Cyclone Gabrielle in the Hawkes Bay. The Pacific area has become a region of much greater attention and we want to play our part with our partners to promote peace and security.”

Who were the influencers and mentors that led you to choosing your career?

“My sister-in-law was a key advisor when I was looking at a career. She suggested the Navy which I wasn’t initially drawn to. Now, I’ve been in the service for 30 years! (At the age of 20, in 1993, Melissa joined the RNZN as a marine engineer.). What keeps me in the RNZN is the purpose and values of defence, and the people. Many of my male colleagues were often my mentors and influencers; they would shine a light and suggest I take a certain path, always encouraging and supporting me. Today we would call them male champions and allies. I’ve always had male champions throughout my career, so I can never say that the men in defence aren’t supportive.

My whānau influenced me too; both of my parents served in the Army, and my brother and his previous partner were in the Navy.  I recently found that my grand uncle served in WWI, so we have a long military history. I have a very supportive tāne who has been in the Air Force for 33 years.  He has looked after our two boys a lot as I travel frequently.

Sadly, my pāpā passed away when I was 18, before I joined the Navy, however my māmā is very proud of me. On ANZAC day 2023, I will speak at my mother’s marae. The carved meeting house (whare nui) of Ngāpuhi, at Mangamuka Marae was opened on Anzac Day 1948. It was dedicated to the memory of all New Zealand servicemen, both Māori and Pākehā, of both world wars.”

How has your path been toward your current status? Ships weren’t set up for females, how was that experience?

“Culture in the early defence days was very male dominated.  When women first joined ships we were like add-ons because the ships were designed for men, so we all did the best we could to integrate and live and work together. When we replaced Leander-class frigates with Anzac frigates the accommodation changed and was more balanced. The men really knew the old ships because they had served on them for a long time, but the new ships meant we were all learning something new at the same time which evened the ‘playing field’ for women at sea.

Culture is the part that we still have to change. The military must be a place where male or female, Māori and Pasifika can be who they are, and be proud. There has, however, always been a strong Māori culture within the defence force that goes back to the Māori Battalion in WWII.  Defence has released a new Māori strategy called kia eke; it is aiming to get everyone comfortable with te reo, and tikanga, and having a good knowledge of our history and Te Tiriti.”

You have deployed to areas of conflict. Please tell us about these experiences and what you have gained and learned from them.

“I was deployed on the HMNZS Wellington to the Arabian Gulf in 1996-7, so I was away for Christmas, but that is part of what we do. We enforced the UN sanctions on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. The Wellington was the first New Zealand ship to take part in that operation, and the first operational deployment for women. It was memorable for showcasing New Zealand and our capabilities so we were very proud of being part of that mission.

I deployed in two land missions  both for the UN, one in Israel/Lebanon and the other in Timor-Leste. Timor-Leste was a very busy mission and made us all fall back on our trust of the people to our left and right who we have trained with. No matter where we go in the world, we rely on the principles of teamwork and unity.

It’s sometimes tough. I missed my family when I was away for long periods. Every Christmas, we got the RSA packages and pictures of our families, but they made me miss my whānau even more. However, what we were and are doing is for a purpose and makes me very proud.”

What is your advice for other wāhine considering the military as a career?

“Have a really good look at it.  Defence is so varied.  You can have a fulltime job, and still play a part in Defence through the reserves.  There are always so many opportunities; I’ve travelled to nearly forty different countries with Defence and learned so much about other cultures and nations and most of all learned more about myself. The roles available are many and varied and will definitely challenge you.”

What more should Global Women know about you and your life?

“I joined Global Women at the encouragement of the amazing Jo Cribb, who is a member of the RNZN governance and leadership board.  She asks those tough questions about the “why”, and  points things out that we can’t see. I was very inspired by Jo and her questions, and the courage of our military leaders to bring her in. Having someone from the outside to view situations from a different perspective has helped our Navy to be better.

Through Jo’s encouragement, I agreed that Global Women is a great organisation to join! Defence women are extremely resilient – as are all women –  especially those who have traveled a lot and been away from families as they are able to lead really well and differently from our male counterparts. If you ever meet them across your board and business tables,  please get to know them for their worth.”

Commodore Ross, as you continue to serve Aotearoa and the global stage in your truly inspirational, enjoyable and fulfilling 30-year (and continuing) career, we salute you! Ngā mihi me.


Sandra Venables, Assistant Commissioner at New Zealand Police Service

Sandra Venables, the award-winning Assistant Commissioner in the New Zealand Police Service has risen through the ranks with perseverance, determination and a very positive attitude.  She is an example for us all.

You joined the Police Service in 1994; please share your life and career journey to your current appointment as Assistant Commissioner for the North & South Districts, and Road Policing Services and Strategy.

“I was raised in Rotorua and Ngongotahā, attended Rotorua Girls High, and when I left school I wanted to become a physiotherapist. I was advised that I was too young, so at age 18 I went to England. When I returned a couple of years later, I trained as a Karitane nurse and then worked for the Plunket Society in Tauranga and Rotorua. I’ve also worked in pubs, restaurants, private nannying and as a caregiver in a rest home, to pay the bills. I needed job security and had an interest in working with victims of child abuse after a situation I witnessed whilst working for Plunket, so I joined the NZ Police in 1994. My first five years were spent in Hamilton City and  Hamilton East.  I was interested in joining the CIB, however, my partner of 37 years, Rog, wanted to change direction in his police career and got a job as an Officer-in-Charge in Mangōnui, in the Far North, so we moved. I worked in Kaitaia, whilst living in Mangōnui, the best decision we made in relation to my career.

One of the senior officers in Kaitaia became a strong advocate for me, and he suggested I apply for the vacant Sergeant position. I said no as I didn’t believe my five years’ service was enough to take on a supervisory role.  He continued to encourage me, and the day I passed my final sergeant’s exam was the day I was promoted to Sergeant. The officer did a great job of helping me to believe in myself which put me on my path.

We stayed in the Far north for three years, then I applied for a sectional sergeant role back in Waikato in Hamilton City, but I missed out. Six weeks after that I got a role in Whitianga (one of the most remote locations within Waikato) on the Coromandel Peninsula.  At the interview, I was told by the Chair of the panel that I probably wouldn’t get the job, even though I was now the only applicant, as all the men who had applied had pulled out. It made me angry and I was probably a bit assertive through that interview as I had nothing to lose and in the end  there was an amazing woman, Mrs Joan Gaskell, who was on the panel;  she was renowned for her courage and strength of character and she really pushed for me to be given the role as the first Sergeant in charge for Whitianga, Tairua and Coromandel stations. I was really proud to become the first Sergeant there (male or female.)

I loved my five years in Whitianga, but after a while I thought, I would like to try for my boss’s job which was at the rank of Senior Sergeant! To do this I had to be strategic as there were others in the Waikato area who also wanted this job. I applied for a promotion to Senior Sergeant back in the Far North and moved back to Kerikeri to set up the Family Violence policy, process and programs.  My partner was still in our home in Whitianga so every Friday after a busy week of work,  I commuted the seven-hour drive to Whitianga while I was also studying after hours to gain the qualifications I needed to continue promoting through the ranks. After 18 months I was mentally tired and knew I had to get back home. Fortuitously my former boss’s job was advertised, my gamble paid off and I  returned home to start my new job as the Sub- Area Manager (Senior Sergeant) for the Coromandel Peninsula (Whangamatā Thames, Whitianga, Tairua and Coromandel.)

After 3 years in this role, I applied for the Whakatāne Area Commander based in the Eastern Bay of Plenty. I applied three times, was finally given an interview, and was lucky enough to gain the support of local Iwi on the panel and was offered the role.  I was the first female Area Commander in the Eastern Bay of Plenty, based in Whakatāne, and I was the first Area Commander to take over this area after the Tūhoe raids. The next three years my role was to deliver culture change, improve staff engagement and work on restoring trust within the communities we served.

In addition, in 2014  I was fortunate to travel to Gallipoli for the ANZAC commemorations as one of the NZ Police Security Liaison Officers, it was an inspiring moment in my career that I will never forget . It was made even more special by the fact that my grandfather had served in WW1.”

Who are the mentors who have supported you throughout your career?

“My biggest supporter has always been my partner Rog; we have been together for over 37 years, and I am so grateful to him and for all he has done. He has always been the one most likely to see a job advertised and to say ‘you should apply for this’ especially for roles that were not usually given to women.

I held the Area Commander role for three years, then the role of District Commander for Eastern District (Tairāwhiti, Hawkes Bay) was advertised. This role is at the rank of Superintendent. I went into that interview knowing I was the underdog but surprisingly I got the job.  The iwi representative on the panel, Dr. Apirana Mahuika, was amazing; he fought for me and became one of my most wonderful mentors; he really helped me to develop my leadership skills and to understand my role in ensuring our partnership with Iwi was honoured. He passed away in 2015, but I will never forget how he challenged me and sometimes made me feel uncomfortable, but always valued and supported. A true gentleman that I will always be grateful to have known.

In 2014, we set up the Women’s Advisory Network (WAN) and Dame Paula Rebstock became our first independent chair. She has become a tremendous supporter of mine and other women in the NZ Police. I have learned a great deal from her and have appreciated her ongoing support and advice wrapped up in a friendship that has been very inspiring. The WAN has been instrumental in improving how women are treated and I am very proud of the work that is ongoing in this space.

I have been lucky to have been mentored and coached by a number of people over the years and I believe strongly in paying this forward. I have mentored both men and women in both formal and informal ways. Sometimes it is as simple as connecting people with others. I truly love this part of my role as invariably I learn so much from the people who let me into their career/life aspirations. After nearly 30 years I am coming to the end of my policing career; the proudest thing I will take with me is the fact that I have actively tried to open the door for other woman to push on through. I have always been prepared to guide, support and also learn from others. The NZ Police offers great careers for women.

In 2017, I applied for an Assistant Commissioner role in Wellington. I was the first female sworn officer to be promoted to this rank. I am now responsible for Wellington, Tasman, Canterbury and Southern Districts. I feel very privileged to be in this role and still able to serve the communities within New Zealand.”

Is there negativity, discrimination or pushback in the Police towards women and others, and how do you handle this?

“My parents were really focused on raising independent children, and at Rotorua Girls High I never realized that I couldn’t do something; we were encouraged to do everything, so I didn’t really know about women being discriminated against. In the police there have been a few issues over the years, but luckily, I am quite bolshie, I value my independence and I am always prepared to stand up for what I think is the right thing to do. If anyone has ever tried to hold me back, I go around them.

When I joined the Police in 1994, I got some really good advice from my partner who said, ‘you will always set the tone for how you are treated.’ And that’s what I have done. I am opinionated, honest and I treat people how I would want to be treated in the same situation. I’ve never wanted to act like a man; I have always just been myself.

I’m not frightened to put myself in uncomfortable positions and to fight for what is fair and right. I was very proud to be asked to be the Executive sponsor for our new Employee Led Network (ELN) The Next Transgenderation which has been set up by our gender diverse and rainbow staff to provide support and initiate change within our organisation. I admire greatly the courage, ability and resilience of these staff and I am incredibly proud to have been asked to support them as police employees. We deal with a lot of sadness and horror in our roles as Police officers, but we have a strong network and camaraderie, and the NZ Police is forward-thinking  and becoming more inclusive and caring of all staff and their wellness and that makes me very proud.

We are tremendously lucky in Aotearoa New Zealand that we have such a willingness and openness to honor the Treaty. I am proud to be part of an organisation that has as its values – Professionalism, Respect, Integrity, Commitment to Māori and the Treaty, Empathy and Valuing Diversity.”

Why did you join Global Women?

“In 2015, I participated in the Breakthrough Leaders Program with a group of 40 amazing women. I learnt a lot about myself and how I operate. I was contacted this year to become a member, but I wasn’t sure that I was the right sort of person to be a member, so I did some research and also spoke to a friend who is a Global Women member. She said that if you want change to happen, you have to be in a position where that change can emerge.  I have had a lifetime commitment to promoting women, therefore Global Women’s initiatives are encouraging,  so my membership is another step in my journey to influence and support women in New Zealand.”

What more would you like Global Women members to know about your life?

“I’m going to London in May to be there for the King’s Coronation as part of the crowd! I went to London for Diana and Charles’ wedding, and I love all the pomp and ceremony.

One of the opportunities that I’m very grateful for is becoming a Director on the Police Superannuation Scheme board. I’ve been on it for nearly four years. The role has made me grow in a way that’s quite different for me, so never say no to an opportunity!

I live in Whakatāne, and commute to Wellington each week and I have learnt that geography should never determine what you want to achieve in life! I’ve served in the Police for 30 years in February 2024. And if any of our Global Women members are interested in joining the Police Service, please contact me!”

Thank you, Sandra, for your inspiring, straightforward and uplifting approach to your celebrated career!


All interviews and stories written by our Editor in Residence, Jenni Prisk (Global Women Member)