We interviewed four women who work within Britomart and Diane Maxwell was one of them. Diane is New Zealand’s Retirement Commissioner and leads the Commission for Financial Capability.

This interview was conducted as part of a feature called “Daring Greatly” which features in Britomart Magazine, Edition 20. Read it here.

Angela Bevan: I started out with a pretty one dimensional idea about this feature. I thought: OK, let’s interview some interesting women around the precinct, and perhaps it’ll be a q-and-a and I’ll get a few stories about how you got where you got – or at least your curated version of that. But actually, it’s become an amazing series of chats and there’s been tears and laughs and all sorts.

Diane Maxwell: I bet.

AB: So I sent you some questions, which I know you’ve had a look at… and the first one was – what were you doing at twenty?

DM: Yes .. what was I doing, and what was I driving. Ok… I was wracking my brain and.. I was at university at 20. Kent University in Britain, because I grew up in Britain, I’m a Londoner. I was studying combined honours degree in philosophy and film. Which meant that I did psychoanalysis, philosophy of mind and mainstream media narrative. So when you put those together, you get…

AB: You get.. the Retirement Commissioner! Of course!

DM: Haha. Well I think what you do get, I think you get into what and how people are thinking, how the brain works, how people form values, and beliefs, and views, which I’m really interested in. And philosophy of mind and philosophy of religion which is really about entrenched social norms, and how we all grow up with a kind of map of how to behave … and actually, all of that informs my current job. Because debt, money, what we think money is for, is all to do with our social norms. Anyway… at twenty I was driving a mate’s car, because he’d won it in a competition and he didn’t have a driver’s licence, and I did. So I drove him around, on the condition that I would take him to and from things when he needed. I picked him up from parties, drove him to things, that was the deal.. you know, one of those deals you do at university. It was a Citroen Diane.

AB: And when you were studying – what did you think you were studying for? Did you know?

DM: I’ve got to be honest. I had no idea. And when I got out, I didn’t know what to do. I applied for a strategy position in advertising. It was for one of the big firms in London, and they had hundreds of applicants, and I had no knowledge of advertising whatsoever, so I wrote a three page letter about what I thought advertising was about: people and why they did what they did. I got down to the last three. I didn’t even really want the job and there were people dying for this job, and I hadn’t even thought about it, but I guess my degree really set me up for it. I got it. I remember going home on the tube on the first day thinking what an outrageous mistake, the place is horrible, this is everything I hate. I thought: I’ll do it for six months. I was in advertising for fifteen years.

AB: Did you enjoy it?

DM: I enjoyed the curiosity of it. But my first little while in advertising was terrible – I didn’t have a whole lot of money, I wore my brother’s trousers to the interview – put them on with my heels and a big belt, I thought I was rocking it…

AB: You would have been rocking it.

DM: And I quickly learnt that people grow up in quite wealthy environments… I came in with my second hand gear and I got the full brunt of the English class system.

AB: And you hadn’t grown up with money and trimmings?

DM: God no. Anything but. I worked my way through college and university; at uni I worked at a singles bar three or four nights a week, and then I’d work all holidays. I worked in a club from 6pm – 3am and I cooked in a restaurant from 6am – 2pm. Six days a week. And on the seventh day I slept.

AB: What drove you so hard? Why work so hard?

DM: I didn’t have much choice. I had a lot of rich friends – my friends would have been on their yachts all holidays… But I tell you what – I’d have the more interesting stories. There were nights we’d get locked in at the club after hours because of the violence happening outside, people who were refused entry would come back with knives… I saw a lot of life. I’ve got to be honest, I never went back to uni thinking I wish I’d been on a boat.

AB: Thinking “I missed out”… 

DM: Yeah, because actually, I’d had the better time. I had friends who were doing what I was doing, it wasn’t that unusual… whereas now people think you don’t work if you’re at university. I don’t know where that’s come from.

Anyway… advertising. My first job, they put me in an all male team, as a TV air time buyer. They’d never had a female on the team – they told me straight they didn’t think a woman could do the job. They had a lot of hardcore porn on the walls…

AB: Imagine that happening today! 

DM: I know. But you know what? I kind of preferred it because it was explicit. I have more of a problem with a lot of what I encounter today, which is courteous, polite sexism. I mean, they actually said: “by the way, we’re not gonna take the porn down.” So I sat there all day…


AB: And you were gutsy enough, at a pretty young age, not to run away crying?

DM: There were elements I found intimidating. I had a couple of moments in the loo, hiding. But actually I just got used to it pretty fast. Because in fact… they had their own hierachy. And discrimination and prejudice. And really, sexism is just one form of prejudice. There were multiple prejudices in that group.

They all had problems with each other. I decided that the best thing I could do would be to become the best TV air time buyer in history. I did that within three months, there was a big ceremony with champagne. And then the mood changed…I’d go out after work with them… and by the time I left, they’d changed. The place had changed. They believed women could do it.

So those were the early days. The bad old days.

Then I moved up – partner, then managing director. Then I worked out that I had a form of indigestion. Moral indigestion. I couldn’t live with it anymore. By then I was a single mum. My daughter Jamie had a particular set of needs (later diagnosed as ASD), so I became a consultant so that I could work for myself and be there for her. Sometimes, we’d be slowing the car down to go to daycare and I’d say – do you wanna go? And she’d say no so we’d zoom off and go to the beach and get fish and chips.

AB: Lucky girl.

DM: When she was five, I took a job in a bank. I needed regular income. By then I’d had banks as clients and decided I loved finance and banking. Loved it. I got the banking bug.

AB: Really? I can’t relate to that one iota…

DM: It’s so interesting!

AB: What’s interesting about it?

DM: You know, I’d been reading The Economist for ten years, every day, I just found it interesting… and once I started with the bank I worked out what I’d found so interesting. Banking is so intrinsic to the economy and people’s lives, the availability of credit, what people can spend and borrow, it underpins everything. How we live, how we run businesses, everything.

So I started at the same time as the Global Financial Crisis; I got a crash course in banking. I was there for five years, then I left to go to the Regulator. I needed regulatory government experience. I’d done banking, digital, government relations, media, marketing, corporate social responsibility… And when I was at the Regulator I got contacted about this job. This job is a mix of everything I’ve ever done, wrapped up in one job; banking, consumer, human behaviours, regulations.

And I’ve got to tell you, being a single parent, having cold sweats at 3am about money, being the sole provider… means I’m not doing this job having lived in a wealthy home…

AB: With no real understanding of what it’s like…

DM: Unless you’ve stood at the checkout, worrying you’ll get declined, unless you’ve eaten food that you suspect is past its best but you’re not going to throw it away… you don’t really understand some of this stuff. It means the work we do has resonance to it.

One of the points that it would be great to make (in this feature) is that I haven’t had a particularly tidy career…I’ve gone and gobbled up one sector, all I can eat, then moved on to the next. I’m a firm believer that you’ve got to have breadth. But also… I married, got divorced, had a child, separated… it’s so key that young women, when they see people like me, they don’t think somehow we’ve got it sussed. There’s nothing worse than thinking – that person must have some magical way of making life work perfectly. No one does. No woman does, frankly. We have our crazy mornings where we’re late, everyone’s shouting, my daughter’s lost her hop card, we’re looking for two dollar coins to get her on the bus. That’s everybody’s life. I have wardrobe malfunctions, I look down and think “this looked great last week , But I’m off to do a speech and…”

AB: You’ve got half a lasagne down your front…

DM: Yes! That is everybody. Don’t ever look at women in different jobs and somehow think everything runs smoothly. It doesn’t need to. There will be ups and downs. It won’t be tidy. And that’s ok.

AB: Why not just say it’s all too hard in those moments?

DM: Because I believe very strongly in what I do.

AB: Why?

DM: Because I believe that unless we help a large group of people get better, and make better decisions, they’re going to hit some serious pain and difficulty in their lives. And I’ve been through some of that pain, and it’s not good. We engage with people who are renting in their 50s 60s 70s… in heartbreaking situations… Not being able to pay the mortgage is a painful place to be. Not being able to find a job, being 50 with no savings, is a very painful place to be. What we do helps.

I also think that life would be messy anyway, no matter what I did. And another thing that I’ve always carried around is: don’t seek an easy life. Seek a life of meaning and then make it work.

We’ve got to be careful about the guilt we carry around – working mums, but also non-working, there are issues there too: boredom, depression…

AB: Lack of purpose…

DM: Yes. I think you’ve got to work out what matters to you. And we’ve got to make peace with ourselves. When I was juggling my career and solo motherhood, I wondered if my daughter was missing out… but actually our children deserve to see all of us. All of our potential, all we’re capable of.

And now, I have a confident 15 year old with some pretty firm views of what women are capable of – so I may not have been there as much as I would have liked, but by God I’ve taught her that women can do anything.

AB: Was where you’d come from a big driver for you in your career ?

DM: There wasn’t a whole lot of choice.

AB: Wasn’t there? You could have just gone and worked in the bar and muddled along…

DM: I suppose so. I think what it was, is that I assumed that I could do it. In my head I thought – I can go to uni, and work five nights a week. And so I did. Most of the stuff I’ve done, the starting point has been – I’m sure I can do this.

AB: Isn’t that interesting. Because I think for so many people – not just women – the assumption is I probably can’t do this.

DM: There’s a lot of research that says a woman will apply for a job if she has 80% of what’s required, and a man will apply if he’s got about 30%. You know, in my first few months at the bank, I got a financial dictionary out of the library and I’d go home every night and gel up on what people had been talking about during the day and I’d come in the next day and be able to say – I’ve had a think about what you were saying, and my view is this. It didn’t take much. But you do have to start out thinking – I’m sure I can do this. If you think you can, you can. 

AB: What are you not good at? What are you frightened of?

DM: Longboarding.

AB: Huh?

DM: Work can be stressful, and we don’t get enough time at home, so my partner and I have been going longboarding. Last night we found a carpark but it was pretty dark – you’ve gotta be careful –

AB: I’m seeing headlines: Retirement Commissioner arrested in longboarding incident…

DM: Man it feels good! Being out in the air, doing something physical and fun, a different kind of risk. It’s our time.

Anyway, that’s me. I love what I do. I always say it’s the most boring name, for the most exciting job on the planet. And if I do it right, we’ll change some lives.Read Rohini’s, Rowena’s and Amber’s interviews.