Ruth Medd: The Quiet Disrupter

As Women on Boards co-founder Ruth Medd gets ready to step back from the organisation, she talks about the importance of having a 'can do' attitude and reflects on her 20 years involvement with WOB. 

In 1831 Jonathan Dodgson Carr opened a small bakery and biscuit factory in the English city of Carlisle in Cumberland. The motivation, in part, sprang from his Quaker beliefs of looking after his workers well. 

A recent SBS program suggested that Carr’s motivation for making biscuits was to ‘do something’ In his case by providing biscuits to ordinary people. Biscuits were then the preserve of the well to do. 

If case any of you are interested in biscuits, from that small start came the biscuit empire that is now United Foods with McVitie’s factory in Carlisle producing millions of biscuits per day at the largest biscuit factory in the world. So says SBS. And they invented the ginger nut and the digestive biscuit. And don’t forget Carr’s water crackers. 

So much for my fun fact. Now to WOB...

WOB origins 

In 2000, prior to the Sydney Olympics I had a coffee with Catherine Ordway, an up-and-coming sports lawyer, in the offices of her then sports law firm, Brown and Company in Sydney.

I remember that meeting very well. I can see the layout of the room. We talked about the lack of women in sports leadership and other arenas. Our view was that there was lots of talk but not much practical action. 

We decided to ‘do something’ 

In half an hour we developed an event format, thought about a potential corporate sponsor, identified some helpers and some women’s networks who might invite their members to the inaugural event. And went to work. Culminating in an event at Westpac in Sydney, kindly supported by Helen Lynch, a girl from the bush. A pioneer female director. 

Then in 2003 I met Claire Braund who was part of the Foundation for Agricultural Women. We had a coffee in the basement of 1 Martin Place. I can see the layout. 

I was writing a funding proposal to the Office for the Status of Women for a national rollout of the WOB event. The proposal for this grand tour needed a rural partner, in my view. I got Claire’s support. 

The NFAW with me as the worker, got the grant. Remembering that at that time OSW famously funded a project for Women on Surfboards. 

The rest is history. Note the role that coffee played in WOB!

What is WOB about?

Many of the email well-wishers have commended me for WOBs achievements. Claire, you will get similar accolades when it’s your party!

What is WOB about? What have we achieved? You could say we started the movement of women gaining more prominence in public life; in our case boards roles in Australia and the UK. But I always think it is wise to acknowledge others. WOB stands firmly on the shoulders of others. 

When I say that I reflect on the slow but progressive emancipation of women: 

  • The change in property laws in England where previously women lost control of their assets to their husband when they married. The Married Women's Property Act 1870 allowed married women to be the legal owners of the money they earned and to inherit property. 

  • The campaigns to give women the vote and the right to sit in parliament and the actual election of women to Parliament, many years later.

  • Those women’s organisations that gave women the skills to speak in public followed by their battle to be heard?

  • Amusingly I think of the WI (Women’s Institute) and Jam and Jerusalem.

And closer to home, the removal of the marriage bar in the Australian Public Service in 1966:

  • Perhaps a case of society’s values overtaking convention. 

  • But I think of this when from the time I did a stint at the Public Service Board in Canberra. The 1966 change was often mentioned; as a celebration of the leadership and progressiveness of the Australian bureaucracy. 

But overall, the battles are alive and well today. A feminist’s work is never done. 

Why am I going and what of the future?

Over my career I have generally moved from one successful activity to another. Usually , I eschewed doing something more than once. Fresher fields seemed to be on offer as each activity moved to its natural conclusion. 

Career synchronicity at work? Or the random walk of my career. 

I leave WOB in good shape. It has talented and dedicated staff supported by a wealth of willing helpers. Many are here tonight. Thank you to both the current and former staff and the army of helpers.

WOB has largely seen its initial objective of seeing 40:40:20 female representation on boards achieved on all sectors except private companies and the ASX200 plus. That is 40% female, 40% male and 20% either/or.

And no longer do I have to persuade people that merit is a bit more nuanced than the jingoistic ‘the best person for the job’ .

In 2001 WOB as a project of the National Foundation for Australian Women was the only kid on the block. The merit mafia were firmly in charge. Thank you to Elizabeth Bryan, President of NFAW at the time, for encouraging a ‘give it a go / can do ‘mindset. 

The women in leadership space has progressively been joined by others, some later to the party than others. 

I remind myself that ‘imitation is the sincerest form of flattery' .And it’s not all about the top end of town. 

In conclusion 

We are (mostly) at 40:40:20 so it’s time for me to move onto other things and enable WOB to evolve and take on other challenges. 

I am a migrant. An English one. In the 1960s when I was at school in Adelaide, cultural diversity meant Greek or Italian classmates. Sadly, they were regarded as second-class citizens in my day.

But what an incredible contribution these and other migrants have made to Australia. To start with – and as I am a bit of a foodie - our culinary delights are now breathtaking. I have a strong memory of apples, oranges and bananas being the only fruit choices in the 1960s green grocers and Chinese takeaway was a major cultural experience.

Today the fruits of many have made Australia, our communities and WOB what it is - and what it stands on the cusp of becoming.

‘Can do’ is about having a go, adventure and risk-taking. Rather like today’s director career

Thank you for all of your contributions to making my 20 years with WOB so rewarding.

Ruth Medd

This is a transcript of the speech given by Ruth Medd at her the Remembering Ruth Medd Gala Dinner at the Tea Rooms, Sydney QVB on Thursday 9 March. 


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