An unexpected career path: How this female CEO broke through the barriers | Women's Agenda

An unexpected career path: How this female CEO broke through the barriers

From flying high in London banking to pursuing gender equality in Sydney, QBE’s Jenny Boddington has been on an impressive journey

Being offered an undergraduate position to study at Oxford is a remarkable achievement but it was not well received by Jenny Boddington’s father.

“I was really proud but my dad didn’t approve because he thought I was taking a man’s spot,” the chief executive officer of QBE Lenders’ Mortgage Insurance Limited recalls. “He was a very traditional man and thought because I was a woman I would be going off to become a mum after university whilst a man would have a career.”

His disapproval meant Boddington had to fund her tertiary education herself.

“Because he didn’t want to pay I got scholarships and worked throughout the holidays. I mention it because it reveals a lot about my character,” she explains. “It gave me a sense that if I put my mind to something I could achieve anything. My father passed away 18 years ago and he was proud of me but he was also bemused that the world wasn’t working the way he thought it would.”

Boddington’s acceptance into Oxford was the beginning of a life markedly different from her father’s expectations. She completed a Master’s degree with honours in Metallurgy, Economics and Industrial Management which was funded in part by a national scholarship awarded to 50 students in the UK, just four of whom were female.

Immediately afterwards she passed up a job in Birmingham with an engineering firm in favour of a job in London with the prestigious management consulting group Booz, Allen & Hamilton.

After a few years there she started working in the funds management division of a company that was later bought by Deutsche Bank.

“I was advising them on what stocks to buy among engineering firms,” she says. “I was using my strategic knowledge from Booz and they had a big M & A section so I’d ring them up and give them advice about which companies needed taking over.”

Her advice was obviously good because soon enough they asked her to join them, which she did.

“I think that was opportunism which came through,” she says. It was the beginning of almost 20 years in investment banking, during which she worked as a director of Deutsche Bank in London and Sydney.

When she had her first child in the early 1990s she was the first female associate at the bank in London to take maternity leave; there was no provision for the situation.

“They gave my clients to my well-meaning colleagues and lo and behold they never came back. So after six months off I had to reinvent myself,” Boddington says. The company asked if she’d consider an overseas secondment which she accepted. A few months later Boddington moved to Sydney with her husband and baby son, ostensibly for three years. They’ve lived in Sydney ever since.

Arriving in Sydney was something of a culture shock. Like in London, being a woman in investment banking put Boddington in a clear minority, but she found the culture was different.

“There is a false impression that because you speak the same language you’re the same,” she says. “There’s a world of difference between England and Australia. What took me aback when I first arrived was the fact it’s a culture where genders don’t mix. At barbecues men are in one corner and women in the other. I wasn’t used to that.”

She stayed with Detusche Bank until 2004 when Boddington decided to give things a go on her own. After some board and consulting work in finance and strategy she was head hunted into PMI in 2005. PMI was then bought by QBE in 2008, by which stage she was the COO, and in 2012 she became the CEO.

One of her passions is good management and she’s keen to tackle unconscious bias and the cultural norms that continue to impede women in the workplace.

“We carry our culture around with us so for people who have had a stay at home mum – they have that view of how women should be and it’s difficult not to carry that with them into the business,” Boddington says.

It is possible to break that cycle, however, as Boddington herself has created a family culture for her two sons that is markedly different to that which she grew up with.

Boddington and her husband both worked fulltime when they had children and came to an arrangement where she did one end of the day and he did the other.

“I was flexible at night and he was flexible in the mornings,” she says. “I believe we need to educate the workplace so the expectation is not that women are doing all the childrearing in the family.”

She thinks that almost as a matter of course, childcare is still discussed as being the woman’s responsibility.

“I firmly believe we need to move from that to the fact it is both parents’ responsibility,” she says. “I get enraged when men say they’re on babysitting duties. We cannot live in a society that expects there is always someone at home who does everything. Flexibility in the workplace is vital in helping in that journey, and men are part of that. Men have to feel they can say ‘I can’t make that meeting because I’m taking my kids to school’.”

Boddington’s advice to women is to ditch perfectionism.

“Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In is very articulate in this matter. As a woman in the workplace there is a tendency to expect you to be ‘perfect’. To be good at business, a loving wife, a nurturing mother, a great homemaker – no one could be that perfect!”

The key is to be as tolerant of difference in women as anyone else. Boddington says many women would benefit from lowering the bar – and relinquishing some responsibility – on the home front.

“Grey underwear is a good price to pay for freedom from the laundry! Beans on toast is still food. Life doesn’t need to be perfect – we need to be kinder to ourselves and enjoy it.”

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