19 August 2019
Feilding woman Julie Simpkins has seen a lot of changes since she joined the Royal New Zealand Navy (RNZN) 30 years ago.
Commander Simpkins, whose current role is Supply Chain Manager and Fleet Supply Officer at Devonport Naval Base, was one of the first ordinary rating females in the RNZN to go to sea.
After growing up in Feilding and attending Feilding High School, she joined the RNZN to do something different.
“When I was growing up in small-town New Zealand, ‘girls can do anything’ was drummed into you as a teenager, along with ‘all the world is open to you to explore’,” she said
“I had a strong drive to leave home and see the world. It was just a bit ironic to join the Navy from a small landlocked town.”
After basic training at Devonport Naval Base, she went to sea in late 1989 on HMNZS Monowai – a large survey vessel with a crew of about 160.
“Our Navy has come a long way in attitudes and even simple things like uniforms for women,” she said. “When I joined, the ceremonial uniform for women was a white dress, which didn’t quite fit the seagoing environment, and the smallest boots available were size 9-10.
“Also, in the early days it felt like everyone was watching you – life in the goldfish bowl, we called it. A lot of women were trying to fit in while not wanting to stand out.
“That was a challenge for me and I discovered who I am as a leader a lot later, because I was trying to fit into a very male-dominated system in the early days.
“It was all very new for females back then, being at sea. There were a lot of different attitudes, cultures and sub-cultures among the ship’s companies. A lot of that also shaped who I became as a leader.”
In the beginning she felt pressure to perform better than her male colleagues, most of it self-induced, and has come to terms with that now.
She is currently finishing a Masters degree in Advanced Leadership Practice.
“My thesis is on looking at collaborative leadership in a hierarchical military organisation and looking at dialogue as an antecedent to collaborative leadership,” she said. “I’m looking at this from a theoretical and practical perspective and to understand our use of dialogue in the organisation.”
Among Commander Simpkins’ more memorable postings at sea was a trip to the Far East on HMNZS Endeavour in 1991 and a stint as Deputy Supply Officer on HMNZS Wellington in 1996.
She also had a posting in 2012 to the ANZAC Systems Programme Office in Perth, in a logistics and asset manager position for the Royal Australian Navy.
“Our son started school in Western Australia, which provided the unique experience of school notices warning of snake sightings at school – a little different to the notices you receive as a parent in New Zealand.”
When looking at her career so far, Commander Simpkins finds it hard to believe she has been in the RNZN 30 years.
“It has gone by in a blink,” she said. “And while I didn’t really know what I was getting into as a 19-year-old, it has been such a fulfilling experience – it has provided variety, challenge, travel, adventure, friendships and a chance to serve the country.”