'Put your hand up': Gail Pemberton on ignoring the high school careers advice and stereotypes

‘Put your hand up’: Gail Pemberton on ignoring the high school careers advice and stereotypes

Gail Pemberton

When Gail Pemberton was in high school, the careers advice she received was subpar at best. It was highly gendered, and at the time, the advice being dished out was very stereotyped for girls.

“Basically, in my era, you became a public servant, you became a secretary, you became a teacher, or you became a nurse,” Pemberton tells Kate Mills in the latest episode of The Leadership Lessons.

“Or possibly an accountant, but that was kind of edgy!”

Unsatisfied with the restraints being place upon her, at that young age, Pemberton took it upon herself to figure out what she wanted to do. Through research, she discovered information technology and was excited by the idea that it was a sector offering equal pay for women.

“I also just thought it was very futuristic and something I’d like to be a part of.”

Pemberton enrolled in an accounting course at university, and explains she chose it specifically because it offered technology subjects. She ended up sitting for a computer programming aptitude test, and to the surprise of those administering it, she totally blitzed it.

“I blitzed it so much that they made me sit again because I think they’d thought I’d cheated,” she explains in the podcast. From there, she accepted a job as a trainee computer programmer, and hasn’t looked back.

Pemberton has had a long career in technology and the financial services sector, holding a variety of management and C-suite leadership roles. She’s had a 20-year career at Macquarie Bank, where she held the roles of Chief Information Officer and Chief Operating Officer, as well as time as Managing Director and CEO at BNP Paribas Securities Services.

She’s since transitioned into a non-executive director career, amassing extensive experience on boards at both ASX listed and global companies, including Prospa, PayPal Australia, Eclipx, Melbourne IT Group, and most recently MNF Group.

At MNF Group, one of the Asia-Pacific’s fastest growing technology companies, Pemberton is the first woman to serve as a non-executive director.

“I’m the first female non-executive director and I know that the organisation is quite proud of having taken that first step. It’s an initial step but from that first step, many other steps will follow,” she said.

Despite years spent in male-dominated work environments, Pemberton says she’s always had an innate confidence in her own abilities, and never doubted she deserved a seat at the table.

“I certainly remember events where females weren’t invited, like drinks in the boardroom. All the males were invited, and the women were not,” she says.

“I came from a family where there was a long line of women who had their own businesses or careers, so I always believed I had the right to have a seat at the table. I was able to brush these things aside, but not everybody is like that.”

Advice she often gives to women starting off in their careers, is to do exactly what she did in her earlier years. Embrace opportunities when they come along, even if you don’t feel like you’re totally qualified.

“Do what guys do and think about where you want your career to go and then put your hand up. It’s a motto that I’ve had throughout my career,” Pemberton says.

“I was in a job as a computer programmer before any of my contemporaries were and I was mainly an arts graduate, not a maths and science graduate.”

As for what women can bring to senior leadership roles, especially in board rooms, Pemberton said it’s all about offering new conversations and a diversity of lived experience.

“My experience is that having diversity in the board room leads to better and more effective conversations,” she said.

She points to topics like technology and driving digitisation, how a company treats and relates to its customers, in what regard customers actually hold the company, and a greater awareness of staff engagment.

In 2018, Pemberton was awarded the Order of Australia, in recognition of her distinguished service to the technology and financial services industries, and as someone who had blazed a trail, and mentored women throughout her career.

“It was wonderful to be recognised for my very early roles in information technology, where really…I didn’t know any other females who were in senior leadership roles. I didn’t really have any industry peers,” she said.

“To be recognised for that and to be recognised for speaking up for technology and the importance of technology in organisations, that to me was important. And it was encouraging for other women.”

The Leadership Lessons podcast series, hosted by Kate Mills, is a set of interviews with brilliant female leaders across industries, sharing their perspective on the critical decade ahead.

The Leadership Lessons is supported by Salesforce.

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