Thoughts from the Field: Norah Barlow shares her unexpected journey to the top

Norah Barlow

Former Chief Executive, Summerset Retirement Villages

Winner of two awards at the inaugural Women in Governance Awards 2013 – Gender Diversity in Leadership and Excellence in Leadership

I was a high achiever at school. Getting married and becoming pregnant while still at university altered my path from the norm. It would have been easy to say ‘now I’m a housewife and that’s it’.

But I strongly believe you can do anything you want to do and age is not a barrier. I went back to university in my 30s, got qualified and have had a very rewarding career since then.

Opportunities can open up at any stage of life. Don’t think because you haven’t gone through the normal process, that career opportunities have passed you by. There isn’t only one pathway available. As a more mature person, you bring life skills and a confidence to work roles that are very valuable. 

My message to young women who have had a child at a young age and may have been on a benefit for a long time is to take every opportunity they can to make the best of who they are. Look for opportunities, don't think ‘I’m a single mother and I can’t do anything’.  No, it just means your life takes a different path. There’s nothing wrong with different paths.

In my experience women bring balance to the workplace and to leadership roles. We can think laterally, we multi-task, we know how to juggle family and careers so that can make us good at the juggling that business requires.

I’ve generally worked in a man’s world and what I have found is that, as a woman, I have a point of difference. There is no male ego involved, there is no one-upmanship. I think women are more inclined to work towards a consensus solution.

I believe we need more diversity at senior management and board levels. You can get a lot of ‘group think’, a lot of males who think in exactly the same way. It’s good to have women who think differently. Study after study shows diversity of boards helps them perform better.

I think women in CEO roles do that as well. There are a lot of men in the whole system and having diversity of thought is beneficial to a company. I do believe you must be the best person for the position but balance is important too.

I have found it fantastically fulfilling to be a chief executive.  It’s very intense, you work very hard, but I’ve loved every minute of it.

The best thing we can do for women is to make sure they have genuine choices. Their futures should not be determined by societal norms or business norms or family norms. A truly equal society is one where you actually have chosen a path. You are making choices because they fit with what you want to do, and you are free to make them.