Leading the field

Leading the field
Painting a vision for the future, leading life insurer Sovereign has gender-balanced leadership at all levels and is fighting to close the pay gap.

Mention the “glass ceiling” to Cherise Barrie and you’ll get a firm but polite response: “I don’t believe there is such a thing.” She’s the chief financial officer of Sovereign, New Zealand’s largest life insurer.

One of the few female CFOs in New Zealand, Barrie is adamant women can “have it all” in the workplace. “It’s just not easy,” she adds. Barrie has worked in male-dominated industries throughout her career, as a chartered accountant (she began her career at Price Waterhouse), in banking (financial controller and acting CFO of Westpac) and insurance. “I’ve regularly been the sole woman at the table and, a lot of the time, I’ve been the youngest at the table.”

She presents to women’s networking and professional development groups inside and outside her company. “You can have a great career, achieving at the level that you want to achieve at; you can have your family; you can have a fulfilling life. It doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy to have the rewards, and it doesn’t mean it isn’t going to be hard work to get there.

“If we all sit there going, ‘I’ll do whatever you give me to do,’ then that’s all we’re going to get. In my experience, women are different to men, and when an opportunity comes up we will go through the list of all the reasons why we shouldn’t have the job, instead of, ‘Here are all the reasons why I should have the job.’


“If we move our mindset to say, ‘I can do this,’ and most importantly, ‘I want to do this,’ then we will start to push ourselves, rather than waiting for someone to give us the opportunity.” As for the glass ceiling, Barrie worries that it is self-imposed. “Women go, ‘I would like to have a family, so I need to be thinking about how I will manage that and therefore I won’t push myself.’”

Wrong answer, Barrie says. “We don’t know what’s going to happen, so let’s just get on with trying to get to where we want to be, doing what we want to do, and achieving our dreams. Those other things we’ll manage when they’re put in front of us, just as we manage when things come in front of us now. Stop worrying about all the things you can’t influence.

“We have our children and we make the decision that they take priority, or we make the decision that we have a less full-on role so that we can manage that aspect of our lives.” This is, in Barrie’s opinion, one of the prime reasons why we don’t have more women in senior roles within business.


Barrie speaks from experience, having raised a 13-year-old. “I have always made sure that my son knows he is my number one priority. When I came here, the first thing I told my team was, ‘First and foremost, I’m a mum.’ I’m very firm in saying when you’re a mum, you need to set your boundaries with your organisation and you need to stick to them. If you’re in the right organisation they’ll respect that.”

As she progressed through her career, she slowed things because her son was at an age when that was the right thing to do. “I always knew there would be a point where I could accelerate it again. There’s no doubt that, as a mother, you always feel the guilt – that you haven’t done the right thing, that you’ve missed this or you’ve missed that or you’re late home. But I read this inspiring article that said, Your child only ever knows you as their mother and they always love and adore their mother.

Above all, she says, performance matters. “We shouldn’t rely upon quota systems or the fact that we’re trying to balance numbers at the table. You earn your seat at the table and you need to deliver.”

At Sovereign, “when I sit around the boardroom table with my colleagues, this would be the only table that I’ve sat at where it’s 50-50 between males and females. At the executive table we’re 50-50 and at the senior leadership team we’re 50-50, and that makes for a quite different conversation.”

Sovereign’s commitment to the professional development of women has been recognised several times, including three White Camellia Awards, which celebrate Kiwi organisations that implement UN Women’s Empowerment Principles. CEO Nick Stanhope emphasises there should be no gender pay gap. “I have two daughters and want them to go into a world that is fair and equitable. If I can make things better, that is something that I certainly want to do.”

Barrie can testify that Sovereign has achieved pay equity in like-for-like jobs – after all, she is the chief financial officer.

Gender equity is only part of the company’s focus. Sovereign has the Rainbow Tick for valuing sexual diversity, and aims to be ethnically diverse. Executives monitor diversity and report to the board on progress every six months.




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