AWF18: Women of Substance, with Sue Bradford and Joan Withers

AWF: Women of Substance, with Sue Bradford and Joan Withers 

My first session of Auckland Writers Festival 2018 was Women of Substance: I feel sure this is an excellent omen. Activist Sue Bradford and businesswoman Joan Withers were in conversation with Rob Campbell.

Bradford’s biography (Constant Radical by Jenny Chamberlain) and Withers’ memoir A Woman’s Place (ghost-written by Jenny McManus) are out now. Awkwardly, Bradford had read Withers’ book but not vice versa. There was potential for a lot more awkwardness: Withers is a high-powered and very powerful executive; Bradford is a radical left wing activist and ex Green Party MP. But although difficult topics were not avoided, both women treated each other with a respect and courtesy I’d like to see more of in public discourse.IMG_20180518_104008910

Of course the elephant in the room was the current scandal about Warehouse Group businesses – of which Withers is Chair – not paying their workers for all the hours they work. Withers took pretty much the line you’d expect: they take this issue very seriously and are looking into it. Bradford said that her partner Brian is ‘out there fighting for those workers right now’.

Bradford commented that the world of the corporate boardroom is often enemy territory, which was why she was so interested to read Withers’ memoir. Withers said the issues she has lived through in her corporate career have been challenging, so her book has been ‘heavily legalled’. Both women spoke about how they had been trepiditious to put so much of their own lives in the public domain.

Both women spoke about the importance of women being represented in every area of life. Bradford noted that the current Parliament has 40% women in chamber, which is better than it was but not yet good enough. Women are often reluctant to enter public life for fear that some things that have happened to them would become public knowledge. ‘For some of us there is no political party we can have faith in. I’d love to see a political party where the interests of women and children were put first.’

From the perspective of women on boards and in senior corporate leadership, Withers said ‘Representation is moving forward but it’s glacially slow’. At one point TVNZ had a board that was 63% female, but The Warehouse Group has just 33%. Withers is opposed to quotas because they are ‘potentially demeaning’. If you cast the net wide enough, you will find women who are well qualified.
The difference between the circles that Bradford and Withers move in was often quite stark. Bradford said ‘Business feels irrelevant when you’re working with people who have no money, and no hope for themselves and their children. I’ve always accepted invitations from any group wanting to have discussions, but I’ve never been invited by in by corporates. Our place has usually been outside banging on the doors.’

An audience member asked an interesting question about the combative language Bradford uses, and whether it’s helpful. Bradford said ‘A war on the poor is what’s happening in this country; it’s a class war’. She said she believes there’s a balance between naming what’s going on, and behaving in a civilised and ethical manner so as not to alienate others.

There were obviously lots of Bradford fans in the audience – several times her remarks were greeted with applause. Both women spoke with great mana, and ended the session speaking about how they both have hope for the future. A great way to start the festival!

Reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage

A Woman’s Life: Life, leadership and lessons from the boardroom
Published by Penguin Books
ISBN 9781525250071

Constant Radical
Published by Fraser Books
ISBN 9780994136008