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Celebrating 100 Women of Influence's newest category winner

28 January 2016

Janet Whiting 100 Women Of Influence Awards 2015 Gala Dinner Credit Belinda Rolland 5

Melbourne-based lawyer Janet Whiting (above) has figured more than once in The Australian Financial Review and Westpac 100 Women of Influence awards. She was in the top 10 for the Board/Management category in the award’s inaugural year (2012), and won the newly minted “Culture” category in 2015.

Janet is quick to point out that the Arts take her out of her normal life: “They (the Arts) allow me to experience things on a different level without ever having to have an interest in trying to do it myself.”

Take, for example, learning to play the piano for five years as a child: “The last time I touched a key was my last piano lesson, but that doesn’t fill me with a need to be a concert pianist or to live that life vicariously through one. I do love to listen to the piano and hear my children and husband play.

“For me,” she continues, “the Arts are experiential.”

A successful career in litigation, various board and management responsibilities (including her recent appointment to President of the National Gallery of Victoria), two young children, a husband, her brothers, and many, many friends are the hallmarks of Janet’s life. A life spent working, eating and drinking and talking.

“I don’t exercise. I have a lot of friends and have discovered if you want to do more - and I want to do it all - then you better find a way of creating more time.”

Janet’s chosen method of creating more time is to sleep less: “Until I had my son I wasn’t a morning person, but getting up early and doing work before the household wakes is really efficient. It also means I’m home for breakfast and to take the kids to school.

“My husband is the cook in the family and that’s a happy outcome for everyone because he is a really good cook and I can do eggs. I can do breakfast. I can do eggs anyway but poached. I haven’t conquered that yet.”

Janet has, however, managed to sort out work life balance by being “really honest about what I can and can’t do” and by being “vocal at work so people know what you are doing and why”.

She never does school pick up, for instance, and she won’t schedule internal meetings before 9am: “They’re unnecessary.” She was, when we spoke, attending her eldest child’s evening school event but was not going to the younger one’s afternoon event, and the reasons for her decisions - and who they affected - were crystal clear in everyone’s minds.

Most of us probably assume that life as a litigator involves a certain love of the stoush… and it does… but this generalisation hardly scratches the complexity of what being in the law means to Janet Whiting. From the relationships she forms with clients, the problem solving for their benefit and the opportunities to interrelate, Janet finds her work exhilarating and highly beneficial for everyone involved.

According to Janet, who admits she didn’t have a talent for science or want to teach as her mother and her grandmother before her had done, the law has always been her ambition. Bringing that particular way of thinking and problem solving, along with her common sense and practicality, to the Arts is a passion: “Working on Arts boards I am extremely aware that I am not there in a day-to-day management capacity. I am not interested in curating or being a creative director. In fact, I am very conscious that would not only be of no value it would be detrimental to the organisation, whatever it was,” her tone betrays the same prickle of humour that surrounded her earlier admissions about her cooking abilities.

“Arts organisations, particularly the fledgling ones, often can’t afford external legal advice. A lawyer’s eye can help position the organisation and its creative ideas so that from day one those ideas are positively realised and not mired in expensive issues, or worse, a breach of something. You don’t actually add anything to the creative outcome, you just steer it along the correct pathway.”

On the night of the awards, Janet remembers looking around the room at the past winners and their friends. She was immediately reminded what a powerful bunch of women inhabited the space and how important being a Woman of Influence was in creating a serious profile for women in Australian society.

“They [the awards] belie the myth perpetuated by the establishment: ‘that we’d love to have more women on boards and in management but there just aren’t any that qualify’,” she says.

“There are men who want to change and who genuinely seek diversity but don’t know where to go to find it. These awards create a pathway for them. There are men who don’t want to change because frankly they don’t want to give away their power, but these awards make it harder for those men to ignore where society is headed and what the community wants,” she believes.

When art and commerce combine, it’s the diversity created that makes the greatest opportunities. Each person brings a skill set to the table that the other probably doesn’t have. Take, as an example, says Janet, your address book.

“As a business person your address book will be radically different to someone who’s in the Arts. Another thing to remember is that while arts and business might be different communities, business people are, in the main, not one dimensional and they make up a considerable part of any audience. Bringing people together who might share, for example, a passion for modern dance, creates opportunities that support the Arts.”

Janet Whiting grew up in a family where anyone could do and achieve anything with hard work. It was also a family of boys where she remembers lots of wrestling, and “where they always promised they wouldn’t hurt me”. Her family dynamic, she says, has played a lot into who she is today: “With three brothers, I learnt to be very good at negotiating or I would have only been able to watch Westerns and War movies my whole childhood. I couldn’t let anything go to a vote because I wasn’t going to get the numbers.”

It’s been a potent and useful lesson for this litigator.