I first met Ruth 20 years ago - back in 2003.
Sarah her daughter was seven. She is now 27.
Lucy, my daughter was not yet born. She is now 17.
Ruth herself was 52 – the age I am now.
I was on the board of the Foundation for Agricultural Women – my first board role – and we had been asked to partner with the National Foundation for Australian Women on a project titled ‘Women on Boards’. Ruth was the NFAW board member who had sponsored and obtained funding from the Federal Office for Women for a research project on why women did not achieve board roles.
The answer proved fairly obvious – women not knowing about or having access to the board roles and those who handed them out & a tendency for those on boards to appoint in their own image – but it gave us a very credible data driven basis from which to build WOB as an organisation which actively championed transparency in board selection and opened up the pathway to directorship for many women.
Looking back, I recall being a little awed by Ruth – who has a reputation for not suffering fools and being fairly blunt! However, as I quickly came to realise, we shared a vision and from our first meetings we can now measure our interactions over the years in the thousands:
The thousands of times we have spoken on the phone, shared an email, travelled together, laughed at life’s quirks, plotted a slightly wicked PR exploit and had yet another (somewhat offbeat) bright idea. Or to be more correct Ruth had yet another bright idea that I crafted into something more palatable and fit for purpose … like a program or an event or a media release.
Her ideas were a bit like her articles – cryptic to the max and with offshoots in every direction, often leaving staff and others to ask, “would it make more sense if I turned it upside down?”
It would be fair to say that Ruth likes to get to the point and get there quickly!
Ruth’s capacity for a certain brevity is also well known by the many thousands of women who attended WOB events and workshops across Australia in the years since we formally founded the company in 2006. A that time we were literally the last two women left standing from the original research project and we both thought that Women on Boards might just be an ‘idea whose time had come.’ An idea worth pursuing.
From small beginnings in my home office on the Central Coast then at a local business incubator we grew big enough to hire some loyal and wonderful staff – Louise Krause, Angela Bowen, Eva Heist, Victoria Featherby, Nicole Donegan and Geraldine Cardozo – all of whom are present tonight. Thank you for your service, commitment and loyalty to WOB and its two rather eccentric founders!
WOB expanded across Australia in the period from 2003 – 2010 when the gender balance on boards debate was really in its infancy and quotas were threatening the establishment at every turn – and we did create a few waves and lose a few friends. Grist for the mill of being a female lead start-up.
In 2011 when I was on my Churchill Fellowship in Norway, France and the UK, the opportunity for international expansion arose. I recall phoning Ruth from the UK in late 2011 and asking how she felt about giving WOB a go in the UK? She was enthusiastic but told me she only wanted to go over once a year, only travelled business class and only on Qantas. So, in 2012 WOB UK launched and Ruth has since enjoyed many trips to the UK – nearly always with a side trip to Europe where wine and bicycling tours have been involved. Sometimes at the same time!
Over the years many of you have seen the double act that has been Claire and Ruth. People often mix us up – just yesterday a WOB member at an IWD event called me ‘Ruth, oops Claire’ and not long ago I had a 15-minute phone conversation with someone who called me Ruth the entire time.
But although we complement each other in many ways, there are some big differences…
Firstly, Ruth does comfort and I do style
Ruth's need for practical comfort outweighs any sense of occasion or propriety when it comes to dress. Under the very large and all-encompassing tag of “embracing leisure wear”, Ruth has tried to pull off some outfits over the years that are totally inappropriate – anywhere.
When we first travelled together, I was slightly scandalised when Ruth would saunter out and let me know she was ready to go to a workshop. I thought she was about to go jogging! I learnt to get in first and ask her innocently when she was going to change for an event. She in turn learnt to edge her way quickly out the door before I noticed she was wearing joggers …. and yet another suspicious outfit which she protested was ‘Stella McCartney and cost me a fortune.’ "Yes", I said, "that may be the case Ruth, but there is no getting away from the fact that it’s a tracksuit’ and we are going to lunch at a big city law firm!"
I’m cold would be the next excuse.
Then pack a jacket.
But it doesn’t fit in my suitcase.
Take a larger one.
Then I can’t do carry on.
Or the famous locational excuse. Oh, it’s Adelaide or Newcastle or Hobart. In Ruth’s head the further a city is from Sydney and the smaller it is, the more she can get away with.
In the end I had to summon the courage to take matters into my own hands. Reinforcements were called for in the form of Robin Powis – a wonderful woman who took Ruth firmly in hand …. and to David Jones. Much to Ruth’s chagrin she was now forced to go shopping!
The second big difference is that Ruth does early, and I do late.
On the many times we travelled sharing a two-bedroom apartment – Ruth was up at sparrows, showered, ‘dressed’ and brightly telling me she had been for a walk and was off to the newsagent to buy the Australian Financial Review – and have raisin toast and coffee. She was always at her witty and brilliant best at breakfast events, but tended to skive off evening ones or, if she had to go, told guests to go home and unceremoniously ushered them to the door the exact moment an event was supposed to finish. If we both went, she usually left me to it, and I fondly remember returning later to the aforementioned two-bedroom apartment and finding Ruth, resplendent in her silk dressing gown, fast asleep in her room with the lights and the TV on watching ABC News 24, BBC detective dramas or the Great British Bakeoff.
Thirdly Ruth arrives early, and I arrive just in time.
This could have been very stressful – for example, the occasion we were travelling to Brisbane, and I had left a little late from the Central Coast and encountered traffic. As I screeched into the valet parking near Qantas, Ruth called. “where are you” she inquired. In valet parking – 7 minutes away I said.
Where are you …… “On the plane”!
She was quite surprised when I made it – last passenger on board.
I thought I would finish tonight – having tipped the bucket on her a bit – with some of the things we all love about Ruth.
She inspires great loyalty
I look around this room…. Robin Watts, Vicki Allen, Andrea Staines, Melonie Bayl Smith, Leah Fricke, Ryhll Gardner, Susan Bailey, Anita Taylor – now Anita Kaufmann - Denise North, Kerry Adby, Keri Pratt, Cheryl Hayman, Margie Haseltine, Janet Torney, Michelle Adair – and many others including who could not attend tonight and sent apologies. All here from those first few years – all her tonight. Yes, Ruth inspires loyalty.
She has a wonderful sense of the ridiculous
From the TAPP Art Prize for women artists – which she still supports – to the hilarious goings on with the body corporate in her building, Ruth has a great knack of being able to turn the completely mundane into the sublimely ridiculous. Her pithy comments, observations and anecdotes are worthy of a modern day Miss Marple.
She has truly woeful typing skills
If you have had an email from Ruth in a single font, in sentence case and without a spelling mistakes then I will eat my proverbial hat. She approaches email the way Ian Botham did cricket – lots of flair and dash – but lacking something in the execution on occasions.
She likes to share – sometimes a little too much.
Harrison Young, a former chair of many things including Morgan Stanley, NBN, CBA, The Conversation and who served on the board of the Bank of England, and was also renowned for giving brilliant, exciting and animated dinner parties & writing novels. When Ruth and I met him at a WOB event back in 2013, Ruth undertook to read the novels and write helpful reviews. One January in her annual newsletter covering the life and times of Ruth on holidays – shopping at Noosa, Sydney restaurant reviews and what she had been doing – largely watching tennis….to include a review of Harrison’s novel – called 'Partners: Love is a law unto itself.'
A day or so after this epistle had gone out several bemused WOB members rang, thanking me for the helpful restaurant review – they would be sure to look this up next time they visited from Perth – but slightly worried about the recommended reading – as when the clicked on the link it took them to the erotic novels section of Amazon and they were a bit hesitant to proceed!
This was the last edition of Ruth’s enews – which was fortunate as Harrison’s next novel was called Submission! They are still available if you want to read them and Harrison is now serving on St Johns Anglican Parish Council in Toorak and writing more novels!
She is kind and generous to a fault
Behind that brusque exterior lies the heart of a warm, compassionate, generous and caring woman. When we set up WOB, I was in my own business and had just had my daughter – so needed an income. We paid me for years – and only Ruth when we could afford to do so. She has always generously supported causes and WOB has tried never let someone’s inability to pay stand in the way of them being able to be part of the network or receive some support.
How many of you have emailed for help over the years? Sought support or advice or a CV review – where you may not have always received the reply you expected but would have always been helped with some brief, but constructive and thoughtful comments. Many thousands of women have been helped, encouraged and guided by Ruth over the years – and are forever thankful for her support.
In closing, it has been my honour and a privilege to be Ruth’s friend and business partner over these past 20 years. Our long standing, successful and really rather remarkable partnership is a testament to the fact ‘that two heads are so much better than one’.
Reflecting on the secrets to our success I think they have been:
- Complete and absolute trust
- Having each other’s back
- An unwavering commitment to a shared vision and purpose
- A fine sense of the ridiculous
- …and never arguing about money
It’s been a wonderful ride and I would not have wished to have shared it with anyone other than the incomparable Ruth Medd.