Bridget Thakrar is the General Manager, People and Safety for South East Water. In addition to her impressive HR career, Bridget is also a SheEO Activator and board member of Dress For Success South East Melbourne.
Dress For Success supports people re-entering the workforce through a range of services including work attire, coaching, career advice, networking opportunities and digital literacy skills. As a board member, Bridget is instrumental in driving the organisational strategy and ensuring support services are available to people in South East Melbourne.
Bridget is passionate about lifting other women up and aligns herself with organisations that support this goal. Bridget joins us today to discuss her career, investing in women-led ventures and share advice for other women considering board positions.
What are you reading at the moment? I love having several books on the go at once. At the moment it’s Any Ordinary Day by Leigh Sales, The Moment of Lift by Melinda Gates and My Life as a Goddess by Guy Branum.
What are you listening to? Lizzo and Beyoncé on the audios, and I’m a political tragic with podcasts like Pod Save America, Lovett or Leave it and The Daily, as well as the brilliant local Ladies, We Need To Talk.
What is a quote/motto you live by? “Everything in moderation, including moderation.” It’s one of my dad’s favourites.
Who is the most remarkable woman you’ve ever met and why? My grandmother died only a couple of years ago. She was an absolute legend with two traits I really admired.
- She was selfless. When the Christchurch earthquakes happened (I come from New Zealand), we found out she’d sent her own gas heater and most of her winter clothes down South.
- She was super independent. On one of my last visits I asked why she had a black eye (weird for an 80 year old). She responded very casually that she was chopping kindling out the back for her fire and a stray piece of wood caught her on the eye.
Why did you join Future Women? I love the vision and goals Future Women have about being unashamedly for advancing women – the clue is in the title. I’ve been doing some soul searching lately about what drives me, where I really add value and where my passion lies and one thing comes through clearly: I want to help lift women up, deliberately and with intention. You can see that in the organisations I’ve aligned myself with, particularly in the last couple of years.
Did you always plan for a career in the HR and People sector, or did another pathway lead you here? Ha ha, no it definitely wasn’t planned. I tried to study law, then economics. It took me a few stints just to finish my Bachelor of Commerce. I have always loved working. I got my first job when I was 11 (which I’m almost certain is illegal) in small town New Zealand. I worked at a carnation orchard down the road from our house, so I would drive the 4×4 motorbike down there after school and pick flowers for $4.50 an hour, less tax. (Now that I think about it, this most probably was illegal – including the motorbike bit). Even while I studied it wasn’t unusual for me to have three jobs, from truck driving to being a nanny. I wanted to finish studying ASAP and happened to fall into recruitment. It was a great stepping stone to broader People roles and more recently to include the Safety space.
You’re on the Board of Dress for Success South East Melbourne. What drew you to the organisation? Dress for Success South East Melbourne is this amazing organisation that provides women with everything they need to be job ready. My partnership there started a few years ago as I wandered down with an arm full of corporate clothing donations and just told them how much I admired their work and that I’d love to be more involved if there was an opportunity. We stayed in touch and a board role became available not long after.
At Dress for Success South East Melbourne, many of our clients are re-entering the workforce after time away for many different reasons, including domestic violence and long-term unemployment. Many people know we provide a full outfit free of charge (clothes, handbags, underwear, jewellery, shoes, the works!). What many don’t know is that we also provide the skills and support to gain employment, including coaching, career advice, networking opportunities and, more recently, digital literacy skills. Under our parent company we have just opened a program to dress transgender women, too.
How does your role as board member complement your work on the South East Water executive team? Being on a board has been fantastic development for me, particularly in building my critical thinking capability, asking powerful questions and having that healthy level of scepticism about the information you’re presented with.
In my role at South East Water I present to the board every month about how we’re tracking as an organisation from a safety and people perspective. My experience at Dress for Success has helped me really consider what is important for a director, and enabled me to better prepare for the types of questions they are likely to ask – specifically regarding the financials, risk and alignment to organisational strategy. There’s no better feeling than getting into the room and getting asked a really tricky question by a director that you have fully prepared for and have a strong response to. You know you’ve really done your prep and you build trust and credibility with your board – a relationship that is just so crucial to success.
What advice do you have for other women who want to join a company board? First of all, absolutely do it! What I’ve observed is if you are a woman, and you think you aren’t quite ready for the next role, you probably are. While we have made great strides in the public sector regarding gender equity, there’s still a long way to go in many other sectors. We need more women on boards, and more diversity generally in order to make better decisions. I found the Australian Institute of Company Director’s (AICD) course hugely beneficial in preparing me for the role of a director. It can still be tricky to land your first paid board role, so consider an unpaid opportunity to hone your skills to set you up for a paid board role.
South East Water is a unique utility as it has a gender-balanced executive team. How has the company achieved this in your mind? Providing a truly flexible workplace has been a key lever to ensure we have more women in leadership roles across our organisation, not just at executive level. For me that means I work a compressed week. I work full time with four days in the office and one at home with my boys (two years old and nine months old). I’m rarely in the office before 9.30 am and rarely there after 5:00 pm but we have come a long way in terms of measuring people’s performance based on their outcomes, not on the hours they are logging at work.
Women still bear the majority of the unpaid labour burden at home, whether that’s caring for a sick parent, doing school drop-offs or just domestic chores. That has absolutely got to change and my husband and I started a company called Twosum to address this. However working somewhere like South East Water, where you can do amazing things at work and manage this around your obligations at home, helps to ensure women aren’t missing out on career advancement.
We also make sure we consider our gender balance at all stages of the employee life cycle, from the graduates we are recruiting, to those in our talent pipeline through to those who are offered promotions within the business.
As a SheEO Activator, you have turned words into action and invested your own money to support women-led ventures. What was it about SheEO that appealed to you? SheEO recognised that the system designed to allocate capital to start-ups was fundamentally broken. So it created a new one. Right now, 96 per cent of all venture capital in Australian is distributed to male-led start-ups, leaving just four per cent for women. So rather than try to work within the system and grow that representation to five per cent (and see progress at a glacial pace) SheEO just created a new system. I absolutely love how innovative and bold this approach is. The women that now have access to capital are developing incredible products and services that I think will truly change the world. As a bonus, I have met some amazing women through SheEO and absolutely cannot wait to see what awesome things our Australian Ventures do.
With a demanding career and busy personal life, how do you create space in your diary for reflection, creative thought and make sure at the end of the day you can leave your work at work? I’m very lucky to only have a short commute, but I use the time in the car to transition from one thing to the next. For me that means interesting podcasts on the way to work to get me inspired and think differently. On the way home I just crank the tunes so I can do any last work thinking in the car. Creative thinking can be tricky for me when I’m in the office so I carve out time in my diary for this and work elsewhere.
“Providing a truly flexible workplace has been a key lever to ensure we have more women in leadership roles across our organisation, not just at executive level.”
At home we have technology-free zones in parts of the house, so that has been amazing in terms of giving the family full attention and really compartmentalising not only work, but also just mindless scrolling and keeping it away from the kids.
What do you believe are the biggest challenges for women in the workplace? The unrealistic expectations that are heaped on us, from others and by ourselves. That’s my biggest tip – shave your expectations by at least 20 per cent. I got really into Muay Thai kickboxing a couple of years ago and I have a couple of 7 am sessions I go to and I bring my boys. I felt super guilty the other day as I ended up having to wake up both kids (they’re usually really early risers). Later I told my husband about the wave of mum guilt that came over me and he said “Don’t feel guilty about waking them up, they wake you up all the time”. Never a truer word has been spoken. I’ve finally worked out that my mental health suffers if I’m not looking after my physical health. I’m a much better parent and much better professional when I’m prioritising my time to kick pads.
As your career has progressed to the C-Suite, what do you believe are the most important skills and attributes that have helped you get there? For me I think resilience has been a big part of it. Being OK trying things, stuffing up, trying something different and going again. I am renowned for getting it done, whatever the “it” is. My leadership style is definitely grounded in the principles of trust, autonomy and transparency. I try to hire great people, work with them to shape up “what” we want to achieve and then give them the freedom and flexibility to work out the “how”.
If you weren’t working in the HR and People sector, what would you be doing? I’d be a professional Muay Thai fighter for sure.
The future for women is… Radical generosity.
We can lift each other up by… Putting women up for promotions, deliberately supporting them. If we can all do this for each other, we should hopefully get more women applying for roles they are absolutely capable and ready for – even if they don’t see it.
I’m most fulfilled when… I see my team growing and learning, getting out of their comfort zone, trying new things, stuffing up and trying again.