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Starting at the bottom to smash the glass ceiling

Phillippa Wilson glass ceiling

At the end of last year, Phillippa Wilson had just a few weeks left at work before retiring when she spoke with Mary Searle Bell about her local government career spanning some five decades.

For the past nine years, Phillippa Wilson has held the position of group manager – corporate services with the South Taranaki District Council.

As part of the senior leadership team, her department is responsible for customer service, finance, corporate planning, corporate property, IT, policy and governance, and audit and risk.

Interestingly, she is one of two women in this senior leadership team of four, yet she clearly remembers when she was one of just four female CEOs nationwide.

“I remember the four of us at conferences full of men – we were quite a novelty,” she says with a laugh.

“Now I think about 16 percent of CEOs in local government are women.”

Phillippa developed the drive to become a CEO early on in her working career.

She grew up one of five children in a poor family in Blenheim, where her father was a farm worker. With no money for a university education, Phillippa left school at 16 and got a job at the Marlborough Electric Power Board, which was a local body in those days.

“I was an office junior – I made the tea and did the banking and other lowly jobs. Back then, women weren’t allowed to wear trousers to work, and there were no expectations of them besides getting married and having children.

“However, I got the idea that I really did like working for local government, and I knew I didn’t want to stay unqualified and working at a low level for the rest of my life. Instead, I aspired to be the CEO of a local council; but I have no idea where that idea came from!”

And although it was the 1990s, the glass ceiling was still very solid for females on the rise.

Nevertheless, the goal was set and Phillippa began steadfastly working towards it, ignoring the fact that it was something that women simply didn’t do.

In 1970 she took her first step up the ladder, with a role at Lower Hutt City Council. Her boss was the deputy city treasurer and he became her first mentor.

“I was working on a bookkeeping machine – which was an early computer – and at the same time the council put me through technical college to study bookkeeping.”

Her next step was to a finance position, and she began to study towards a NZ Certificate in Commerce.

Her then husband took a job in Taupo and the couple moved north. Phillippa joined the finance department of the Taupo District Council, where she worked her way up to the role of financial accountant.

During this time, she filled her evenings studying towards a commerce degree, graduating in 1991, and qualifing as a chartered accountant.

And although it was the 1990s, the glass ceiling was still very solid for females on the rise.

“I remember going to a lunchtime function in my role as a senior accountant with a male junior colleague in tow. He was offered a glass of wine, and I was given orange juice so I wouldn’t ‘fall asleep over my typewriter in the afternoon,” she laughs.

“There was another instance, at a job interview, where a councillor, resplendent in hobnail boots and a homespun jersey said to me, ‘Now lass, given that local government is a man’s world, how on earth do you think you’re going to make it?’.

“I was dumbstruck.”

Undeterred, she continued on her quest.

“At age 40, I thought I should diversify to better equip myself for a CEO position, so I enrolled in a Master’s degree in public policy.

“I also wanted experience in other areas, so I took a job with the Department of Internal Affairs as the senior financial analyst in public policy.

“I worked with John Banks, who was the minister for local government at the time, and who was a nice and caring person.”

After two years, she returned to local government, moving to Whakatane District Council as its executive officer of corporate services, reporting directly to the CEO.

When that CEO retired, she wasn’t considered for the role, however, the top job was vacant at the Central Hawke’s Bay District Council and she happily stepped up that final rung.

“I had achieved my goal,” she says triumphantly.

“I was the CEO of a local government.”

Although she had smashed that glass ceiling, there were those who were opposed to her appointment, purely because of her gender.

“Someone wrote to the local paper expressing their disappointment at the appointment of a ‘domineering female to undertake these manly duties’.

“I’ve always wondered what those manly duties were,” she laughs.

She has another story in the same vein. Early on in the role she thought she’d get to know her territory better and went around the district with the dog control officer. He introduced her to a staff member at a service centre saying, ‘This is Phillippa, she’s the new boss’.

To which the reply was, ‘No. Your boss? No’.

“I gave up at that point and said I was the receptionist.”

Despite the rude comments and denigrating remarks, Phillippa was well received by the council staff: A nationwide survey of staff morale within 400-500 different companies saw the council named among the top 10 finalists, something that Phillippa was delighted with.

Another highlight from this time came through her involvement with SOLGM. She was awarded an exchange to La Porte in Texas, spending a couple of weeks in the US to see how they were doing things over there.

Later, she was elected president of the society – it’s first female – and got to travel the world promoting excellence in local government.

By this time, Phillippa was CEO at Franklin District Council in Pukekohe, South Auckland.

“It was quite a big council, but when I started I had just one employee reporting to me and 97 staff. It was a most unusual structure,” she says.

“I had to appoint managers and restructure the organisation, something the staff were most unhappy about, but we got there.

“I stayed for five years, and in that time we built a $10 million library/arts/community facility, seriously addressed the Pukekohe South stormwater that subsequently allowed the building of a big box retail area, built a new dog pound, introduced a new transfer station in Pukekohe, and completed the first District Growth Strategy and Long Term Community Plans for 2004 and 2006 – in fact, quite a few achievements.”

At the end of her five-year term her contract was not renewed so she took a new role with the Auckland Regional Council as the general manager of operations. However, this was just before Auckland became a supercity and the councils were merged.

Phillippa didn’t want to be one of 8000 staff, preferring to be “closer to people” so chose to move to the South Taranaki District Council, where she has been for the past decade.

“I’ve loved my career, and I’m pretty proud of it. It’s been very, very satisfying.

“I love local government, I love the people, and I love watching them grow.

“Someone once summed it up perfectly for me: ‘People who work for local government are special. They are not focused on making a profit, but are focused on providing services that make a difference in people’s lives.’”


This article was first published in the February 2020 issue of Local Government Magazine.

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