Sharon McIver

I started my first full time job in 1985. I was 17, and had just received the results of an aegrotat pass for University Entrance, after my father died of a massive heart attack whilst I took the first English exam the November before. The fact that I only got 45% for English when it was my best subject did not bode well, and when I discovered that I really would have to do sixth form again, I decided to get a job.

It didn’t take long. Trusteebank Canterbury was hiring and I remember wearing a red and white opshop Pierre Cardin blouse to the interview, deliberately mimicking their distinctive smocks (a uniform I grew to loathe). It was our family bank, and not only had I always loved the sense of officiousness, but I had a crush on one of the tellers at the Shirley Branch (who would later become my first gay friend) so I figured it was as good a job as any. A few weeks later I went on the training course and discovered a use for my arithmetic skills, honed from years of sewing and knitting.

Although I was a fast and efficient worker, my staff reports criticised my ‘alternative’ 80’s appearance, and at one point I was asked by the moustaches if I could stop spiking my hair and dying it black

At the first branch, both managers were men, dark haired and moustachioed. The mix of supervisors was even, so at least women could be promoted, although with a far greater ratio of female to male staff overall, it was notable across the bank that most of the males were in the top end. Although I was a fast and efficient worker, my staff reports criticised my ‘alternative’ 80’s appearance, and at one point I was asked by the moustaches if I could stop spiking my hair and dying it black (it was natural). For the next few months I wore it combed flat and not a scrap of makeup which they hated even more. 

When that branch temporarily closed, I found myself on the other side of the Square at Christchurch branch where there was a female assistant manager, a lesbian and feminist, who recognised my teaching abilities and started giving me training roles for the new computer system (back then I could actually work them). One of the trainees she assigned to me was one of the previous moustachioed managers – he had once frustrated me so much that in a state I now recognise as depressed, I told him to ‘fuck off’. I got the impression his being assigned to me was his karma for having told me that he based his lending criteria on a 1970’s belief that single women were the biggest loan risk. I took it to my new work heroine, and he got a bollicking – I probably didn’t make the connection at the time but I hope she pointed out that maybe that was because they got paid sod all.   

As a loan interviewer I also discovered a way to put my socialist working class roots to use – I would interview a couple who had an incredible savings record and wanted a house so badly, and I’d convince the manager that even though their low incomes meant they didn’t meet the ‘disposable income’ criteria they were a surer thing than the Porsche driving boys who needed a loan to pay off their credit card debt. I knew that poor people could live on way less than the lending criteria said was possible because I had come from that proud and practical community.

At the next branch I was promoted to senior teller, the first step on the ladder, but still I watched younger men I helped train get promoted over me.

At the next branch I was promoted to senior teller, the first step on the ladder, but still I watched younger men I helped train get promoted over me. One manager used to call me in to ask for advice about the loans he had to approve, preferring my judgement to his. The injustices and lack of gender parity galled me, and they were part of the reason for my decision to quit in 1991 and go waitressing.

Waitressing was awful – think sexism on steroids - and I soon moved on to the UK, where I worked as a nanny. On return in 1993 I entered the music industry, working in record shops, a job I’d been trying to get for years. There were few women at the shop I was in, but I’m pretty sure that apart from the supervisors and shop managers (male) we were all on the same ‘close to minimum wage’. I got bored being on the counter and quickly became the first female employee to take on the role of inputting stock – a job the usual guy trained me for on the quiet because he was going on a long holiday and was worried it wouldn’t get done. What the guys didn’t have to put up with was the blatant sexism from the customers, some of whom would actually refuse to be served by a female. I once watched a guy wait until the male assistant was free and then ask him about the new Sly and Robbie CD because he’d seen an interview and review about it in The Press. When Steve pointed out that I’d written them both he suddenly decided I could serve him after all.   

In 1996 I applied for and got a freelance music journalism job with The Press, and despite my dismal UE English grade, discovered that people enjoyed my writing. For the first time I was being paid good money for a creative skill, but I still had to put up with men questioning my right to be a music critic – one telling me at a metal gig I was reviewing that I couldn’t possibly write about metal because I was a girl.  On the upside the musicians I interviewed seemed to like to hear a female voice in a schedule packed with male journalists – and Bic Runga was once audibly grateful that she was not only talking to a woman but a friend of a friend’s.

The discipline of writing for a daily paper built my confidence, and when I turned 28 I reduced my hours at the record shop and began an English Literature degree at the UC, which included papers in Cultural Studies. Here was a discipline that gave me the tools to vindicate why I was so pissed off at the state of the world, and particularly with anything racist, sexist, homophobic or classist (Billy Bragg was an early hero).

In 2002 I was granted a PhD scholarship in Cultural Studies to research electronic music culture, and during this time I also began tutoring and lecturing, even being offered my own course on NZ popular music for a summer school programme. I looked younger than mid-30’s and I noticed that male students would occasionally adopt a condescending tone, with one even starting his comment with ‘you wouldn’t remember this’. However, the music industry had honed my abilities, and using a combination of humour and ‘grandma’s stink eye’ I’d put them in their place, noticing the smirks from the other students who were over it too. Of more concern were the young women who argued that they didn’t have to be feminists because we’d already achieved equality.

‘Really?,’ I’d answer. ‘So what is the ratio of female to male lecturers you’ve had at university? How many of those females are professors and associate professors compared to their male counterparts? How many have tenure and how many are on fixed term contracts? And what about the lower paid administrators who keep the departments running – how many males are in those roles?’ Most of them gave in before I started on CEO’s, politicians and housework.  

Recently I caught up with some of the self-named ‘coven’ of women who were all doing PhD’s together. Now all doctored up, out of four of us only one has a job at university and none of us are lecturing. At least three of the men researching at the same time have lecturing positions in the department we were in, and are probably well on their way to ass-prof status.

However, I chose the path less academic. After graduating, I worked part time at the UC Sustainability Office, before creating a full time role as the Waste Reduction Educator. This position lasted a year, before a member of the senior management team decided not to renew the contract without ever speaking to me about my waste reduction vision for the UC. I had six months warning that I was going to lose my job and I decided not to apply for another position in the office, as it was the same senior manager who would make the decision and I had a vision where I would have to train the successful applicant before I left.

The thought of updating my CV, and having to defend my research to academic hiring panels left me feeling dead inside so I decided it was probably easier to start my own business.

So in 2012 Our Daily Waste was born, a waste prevention consultancy that specialises in providing recycling services at events, a role for which all of my staff get Living Wage ($20.20 is the 2017 rate) no matter what their age or experience. I get around twice the amount of women applying as men, and they also tend to stay longer (it’s a casual position so quite a steady turnover). As such, my two 2iC’s are young women studying at Lincoln University and I pay them $23 an hour, a rate I didn’t achieve until I was in a post-doctorate salaried position.

I’ve had a few men come and work for me and not handle the (usually) female management structure and we’ve all had a good chuckle at the guy who couldn’t believe it when I sent him with Kate to unload the van and trailer, and handed the keys to her – I’d already ascertained she possessed the necessary backing skills because I don’t. The men who do stay seem to enjoy the camaraderie and are respectful of all the women – and I suspect a couple of them identify as feminists too.

Some event crew and attendees are initially surprised at seeing women take on the traditionally male roles of lifting, transporting and sorting waste, but once they realise we’re more than capable we usually get respect, and I now have waste truck drivers waving if they see me on the street.

I have identified as a feminist since I was a teenager, and have often risen to that challenge in working environments, speaking up against sexual harassment and arguing for equal rights. One of the great joys of Our Daily Waste is that I no longer have to put up with any of that shit – whether from staff or clients who tell me I’ll go out of business because I dared to suggest they were in breach of contract for not paying me on time.

Aside from ‘cleaning up Aotearoa’ my vision is to create a highly successful business where all staff are given the opportunity to develop their talents and interests and are paid accordingly, no matter what gender they identify as. And one day the business might even be earning enough to pay me a living wage – now that would be pay parity!