Lessons of a ground-breaking career: An interview with my Mum

Timed initially to coincide with International Women’s Day 2019, Luke Clark figured that given he writes professionally about work, he’d seek out one of those who taught him some of his earliest career lessons , namely his mother. For Sue Clark, her career began in pioneering fashion as one of the first female government architects in New Zealand, where she spent more than a decade; before exploring some interesting paths, to most recently adopting a specialist role that saw her office within easy reach of another favourite place of work, her prodigious garden.

Hi Mum! You always knew that having a son who was a writer might eventually place you in all sorts of trouble. How does it feel being the one being interviewed?

I did suspect it might someday, from the time I started to see references appearing in stories or articles: some thinly disguised, others not disguised at all. When you started to work as a journalist, I recall an article that described your father and I leaping over fences to raid wild mushrooms in sheep paddocks, while you (a very embarrassed adolescent) hid in the back seat of the car disowning us. Mind you — I don’t recall you refusing to eat those mushrooms later in the day.

When you were at high school in Rotorua in the mid-60s, your father’s generation was insistent that girls weren’t meant to go to University. And that was almost the case, until another family member intervened. Can you describe that?

To put this into context, you need to understand the background. My dad, your poppa, was not untypical of an older working-class father of the ‘50’s and ‘60’s — he had to leave school during the 1930’s depression to bring money home for his mother who was raising nine children by herself. Despite his intelligence, he had to start working in forestry camps when he was only some 12-years-old — close to your son’s age now. It’s hard to imagine how tough life must have been for a shy boy like him at that age.

He certainly wanted his kids to do better than he had. But to him, that meant us staying at high school past the minimum leaving age of 15 until we had School Certificate [NZ’s O-Levels]. Then for my older brother it would be learning a trade; and for us girls, getting a respectable white-coloured office job. Any education further than that, he considered pointless for girls — who would “just get married and waste it all”. The idea that women with families could carry on a career didn’t feature in his generation’s world view.

My older brother told me not to be stupid — that I was brighter than he was and it would be a waste if I didn’t. He convinced me that I needed to qualify for university. After some angst, this is what I finally did. It’s something I’ll always be grateful for.

Though my grades were good, I was a typical 16-year-old girl in the “swinging 60s”. I thought I was very grown-up, and fancied earning a wage so I could leave home, be independent and travel overseas as my sister had done. I was also not happy at home so, after doing very well in my exams, I found myself an office job (very easy back then) and left school at the end of that year. My older brother, who had a degree, told me in no uncertain terms not to be stupid: that I was brighter than he was and it would be a waste if I didn’t. He managed to convince me that I needed to re-enrol at school and stay on for the next two years to qualify for University, and save enough to do so. After some angst, this is what I finally did: it’s something I’ll always be grateful for.

You were one of the first generation of women architects hired by the New Zealand government. What was life like back in the 1970s for that initial batch?

Even at the training stage it was challenging at times, but often in odd ways. There were so few of us that the school had no women’s toilets — we had to use the staff ones until they subdivided the men’s toilet the following year. This lack of facilities followed me after starting work, with ‘the Ladies’ toilet commonly located close to the typing pool — some way from the drawing offices, similar to in the recent movie Hidden Figures.

Things however were changing fast in the early 1970’s. Including my first year in 1970, the intake of women had been one or two a year out of 50-to-60 students for a long time. When I started, there were only around 12 registered women architects in the whole country. In 1971 there were four in the intake, increasing to 12 by 1974, where it remained for some years after. It took time for those effects to be felt.

The three of us became close over the years as the whole school only had about 200 students, about 40 graduates a year. Two women graduated in 1973 (me with an A in design which was half the course value and the other with Honours); then we headed off to different offices in different cities again.

Building sites in 1970s New Zealand were male-dominated. What was the hardest part of the adjustment process — and what did you have to do in order to get respect?

I learned some valuable lessons from offices I’d worked in previously. One was to wear trousers and flat shoes, after attempting only once to climb a ladder in heels and a skirt. Sadly, the Public Service had dress rules and women were not supposed to wear trousers. I therefore also learned how to stand up for myself by insisting on my right to dress appropriately. In one small office, the practice was for the most junior female in the office to make the tea: I refused to do so, unless I was the most junior person in the office. At the time I considered these petty issues as a matter of fairness more than any of conscious feminism. But I learned stroppiness, which did earn some respect. Building sites certainly were male-dominated: most had never seen any women on them.

Were there additional skills you learned, to bridge the gap?

The best thing about the school was that it gave us very good practice at holding our own when out-numbered. We used to have to suffer through what we called ‘crits’, where our projects would be torn to bits by design tutors and the class. I remember those being terrifying: but they prepared us well for future years.

I don’t recall having had any actual strategy. Most times, I seemed to have a natural knack of appearing very confident — though I was faking it most of the time. When I was asked for decisions at my first building site in Wellington, I developed the habit of asking what the site foreman or the Clerk of Works thought. I was probably more transparent than I realised at the time.

In one small office, the practice was for the most junior female in the office to make the tea. I refused to do so, unless I was the most junior person in the office. I considered these petty issues as a matter of fairness.

My Wellington boss hadn’t wanted to take on a woman architect (which he later admitted), but to give him his due he didn’t let that show and chucked me right into the deep end. What was possibly a ‘sink or swim’ strategy worked to my benefit at the time. He had me supervising construction of big projects: and would make me chair regular site meetings while he sat back taking limited part. This quickly built up my experience in handling building sites, alongside the various trades involved. Before too long I started to realise I was no longer faking it — and was then able to start to relax a bit. I was even told I could be pretty scary at meetings. I tried to ease back some, and found laughing at situations helped.

It’s often said that those women who make it in male-dominated work environments have to either “toughen up”, or do their job 120% better, in order to prove themselves. Which was the case for you?

It was definitely both: in fact, they were inseparable and both worked together as far as I was concerned. I was also acutely aware that I was usually the first woman architect people in drawing offices, building sites or client departments had encountered. Same for client departments like Defence, Science, Agriculture and Justice — also very male-dominated at the time.

Sometimes the novelty factor could be an advantage: I didn’t have to battle preconceptions. But if I screwed up, it would colour expectations and preconceptions for women coming after me. That was a very big pressure, which lasted for some years. Same applied to any options involving giving up — or dropping out, as was common at the time. It was a long time before I could have decided to leave without feeling it might reflect on other women in the future.

After nearly a decade and a half in construction, you made a big pivot to the Financial Services industry in the 1990s, retraining as an auditor and eventually working for one of the ‘Big Four’ global accounting firms. If I recall, the challenge then was more of a work-life balance one at the time — and for many auditors, it was literally “all-work, no life”. Do you think that’s one factor still contributing to the “glass ceiling” in certain boardrooms — too many of those in fields like law or finance just decide it’s not worth the long-term pain?

I think that applies to many men and women in law and finance, but it has particularly applied to women. With no tradition of live-in affordable help in New Zealand, the pressure of the household still usually falls onto the woman. It does seem that this is gradually changing over time, with couples having more balance in assuming duties, or many males now also wanting a work-family balance too.

At far as my mid-life crisis career move was concerned, one of the attractions of accounting at the time was the lack of emotional involvement, which had been both the best and the worst part of architecture, which became increasingly energy-draining into my 40s. Going back to university was great. However, auditing for a multi-national firm proved to be a combination of boredom (so hierarchical and rule-based) and ridiculously long hours with little acknowledgement or recompense.

When did you realise that it wouldn’t be for you long-term?

As part of the 80’s ‘greed is good’ philosophy, the attitude in these firms at least, seemed to be to be to pay as little as possible for as many hours as possible — while still expecting pride and gratitude for the honour of being employed by one of the Big Four. While working for the firm in Sydney, I calculated that I would earn more per actual hour worked as a dish- washer at the Sydney Opera House. Long hours were judged as a ‘badge of honour’ and office politics operated on an ‘alpha-male’ style basis — including bullying juniors and sucking up to seniors.

The Wellington office even had unwritten dress rules expecting women to dress in skirts — 20 years after my early experience in the building industry. Needless to say, I thought this unreasonable, so carried on wearing what I was used to wearing as work garb for meeting clients. And I struck ageism despite being under 45 — which proved far worse and more difficult to handle than any prejudice I’d encountered as an architect.

It was a stressful time: after what I’d had to learned to cope with in my 20’s, to then have this in my 40’s. However, I toughed it out for the three years it took me to get chartered (I stubbornly don’t like leaving anything unfinished) before resigning and eventually starting to get involved with past building industry colleagues, on work that used both my building and analytical background.

Your most recent career chapter was another shift, in that as a building determination specialist, you’ve taken on a 20-year spell as a contractor for the same company. What did this chapter allow you in terms of flexibility? And for those eager to take on specialists in this way, what might be your advice for both parties?

Until the 2000’s, the field that I’m mainly involved with now, didn’t actually exist as a specialty in New Zealand. It was serendipity as I didn’t plan anything. I became a regular freelancer operating under pre- agreed conditions, but without commitments on either side.

For me there’s no contest. I can sit in the best room in the house, with sunshine pouring in and birds singing — then can decide to spend the afternoon in the garden and work at night instead. That has generally suited me perfectly

The best thing about this period has been the freedom from office politics, power games and corporate rules. The flip-side is the irregularity of income, and the feeling that you need to accept most jobs in case they stop being offered. But for me there’s still no contest — I can sit in the best room in the house, with sunshine pouring in and birds singing, then can decide to spend the afternoon in the garden and work at night instead. That has generally suited me perfectly, but for anyone with family or mortgage commitments, the lack of any security could outweigh the advantages.

In terms of the top job, New Zealand has been well served for female Prime Ministers. What in your opinion has the current one bought to the job? And do you think that in her daughter’s lifetime, gender might not even be discussed in the choice of or coverage of tomorrow’s leaders?

For me, she’s been refreshing. Unlike too many politicians, I find her very sincere. I get the feeling that she believes what she is saying rather than trying to say what is expedient, popular or expected. To me, that is what is keeping her high in ‘preferred prime minister’ polls, even with those who voted for the other parties. She is highly intelligent, she seems to actually care, and her youth and energy is daunting. I just hope she doesn’t burn out, as no one is Superwoman.

Comparing NZ’s current attitude about female leaders to 20 to 30 years ago gives me a lot of confidence about future leaders in future decades. I am obviously getting old, as looking back to when I grew up, I am very aware of how far we have come yet philosophical about the time it takes for significant attitudinal and generational change.

That’s pretty much all! How did I do?

Not too bad: but I do feel like I’ve rambled on more than I expected to. As I was describing stuff, I kept remembering more and more.

If you could rewind again and choose your career completely differently from the get-go, knowing what you know now; what would you have a go at and why?

I’ve been pondering that, and have come to the conclusion that I‘m not able to come up with an adequate answer. I have personally always wanted a balance of creativity and ‘geekiness’ in order to feel satisfied — whereas many careers have either one or the other.

Most importantly, I think it is far more important to not box yourself into a rigid concept of a career: but instead to remain flexible and open to new directions as they come up. Ultimately, the only thing that was constant for me from the beginning, was change itself.

I edit and write stories about business, culture, work and travel. I tell Dad jokes. And I know what it sounds like when doves cry.