All that Jazz

Academia, jazz, body surfing and friends – just some of the things that make Professor Marilyn Waring’s life such a happy one, she tells JO BAILEY.

Usually undaunted by the prospect of an interview, I had to admit to feeling a little nervous about chatting to Professor Marilyn Waring. When I emailed her to arrange the interview, she made it very clear that she expected my research to be thorough. Otherwise, she said “It’s very boring for me, and I don’t like to be bored.” Fair enough. When you’re the Professor at the Institute of Public Policy at Auckland University of Technology, on the Board of Directors of the Reserve Bank, a world renowned political economist, feminist, development consultant, author and formerly New Zealand’s youngest MP, who needs to be bored? I did, however, heed Ms Waring’s advice, and spent a good day before the interview reading through a couple of her books, and making good use of Google.

When we did finally chat, I found my fears unwarranted. Ms Waring is an engaging person, with a remarkable intellect. Her career exploits have been well documented in the past, so it was interesting to learn some of the lesser known facts about her. Who knew she trained as a soprano in her teens, is an accomplished jazz singer, keen golfer, enjoys body surfing, and is a gym junkie? Or that she is more famous in Canada than she is in New Zealand?

At 55, Ms Waring says she is in a happy place in her life. She is relishing her role as Professor at the Institute of Public Policy at AUT – one of the key research and development centres at the university, providing independent research and advice on economic and social development in New Zealand and comparative countries. Ms Waring’s role sees her supervising around 14 Doctoral and Masters thesis students, as well as pursuing major international opportunities across a broad range of public policy issues. “I am really enjoying the work, and it’s nice to be valued for the skills I have. I feel as if AUT wants me to be the very best academic I can be, and is putting in place mechanisms and a job description to make that happen.”

Ms Waring says she enjoys the contact with her students. “There is always a point in PHD supervisions where the student goes past you in terms of knowledge of their specific question, and that is when it becomes really exciting to be part of the ride.” She also spends a day a week working with the university’s Vice Chancellor on policy and strategic advice relating to government and parliamentary relationships.

Research is another big part of her role. She is currently editing a book on work/life balance – such a major issue of these busy, often stressful times; and is preparing her inaugural address for AUT that she will deliver in April – comparing the public policy of Canada and New Zealand which saw Canada finish up with gay marriage, and New Zealand with the Civil Union Bill, despite having identical laws. Another book is also in the pipeline for her Canadian publishers, University of Toronto Press – which will contain a series of essays she has written during time spent in that country.

Ms Waring is a foremost spokesperson for global feminist economics and has published several books. A Canadian National Film Board production entitled Who’s Counting, based on her first book, If Women Counted: The New Feminist Economics, and featuring Ms Waring, still resonates strongly with Canadian audiences. The film draws attention to the fact that GDP has no negative side to its accounts – such as damage to the environment, and completely ignores the unpaid work of women. It also has a lot of valuable information on time use. “Every high school student in Canada is shown the film, while students on all courses at Canadian universities are shown at least the time use material. I still get stopped at supermarket checkouts and airports in Canada by students who have been forced to see the film time and again. It has been of tremendous influence there, as well as in several other countries including Australia, Spain, Japan and Norway, and many countries in Africa and South America.” The film has inspired many people — notably the Who’s Counting Project in Canada – to work on human-scale economic alternatives, local currency exchanges, and more humane ways of measuring the quality of life. Unfortunately, it has been “pretty much ignored” in New Zealand. “I look at the Ministry of Social Development and think patriarchy is alive and well. But then I look at it another way, and think at least the film is influencing a lot more people in Canada. One of the best days of my life however will be when the film is no longer relevant.”

Ms Waring was elected to parliament in 1975 at the age of 22 – at the time New Zealand’s youngest ever MP. She says that while she learned a lot, and gained value from her eight and a half years in parliament, it was a very challenging period of her life that she was happy to move on from. She has witnessed women come a long way in terms of holding positions of power in this country, but believes women still lag behind when it comes to private sector appointments to Boards. “I would like to see increasing numbers of women in business begin to present themselves for these opportunities – to improve the pool of talent that is available.” She is “excited” by Maori women’s development, and the support Pacific women entrepreneurs are starting to receive. “I am also very impressed by the Women in Business networks that are springing up around the country. All kinds of help are communicated and transferred through these networks – it’s great.”

Always an independent thinker, Ms Waring believes there must be “something in the gene pool” in her family. “I have one or two cousins who exhibit the same kind of characteristics.”
She says growing up in bi-cultural Taupiri provided her with some of the best educational experiences she could have. She does remember being aware of global issues as a child. “I remember Nordmeyer’s Black Budget, and the fear and concern during the Cuban Missile Crisis. One of the first books my father bought me was Bertrand Russell’s Common Sense and Nuclear Warfare after the Cuban crisis.”

A love of music was also fostered by her parents. “They used to sing old jazz standards to help alleviate my car sickness.” She trained as a soprano in Wellington and London in the 1970s, and first met “New Zealand’s premier lady of jazz”, trumpeter Edwina Currie, when they were teenagers at a summer music school in Cambridge. Over the years they kept bumping into each other, but didn’t take the stage together until an All Women’s Concert in the mid 90s during the final week of Auckland’s Gluepot Tavern. “A few years later we bumped into each other again at a supermarket and Edwina said let’s get together and make some music. It took me a year to make the call, and even then I thought Edwina would be away playing at a jazz festival. I got a surprise when she answered the phone and said ‘What are you doing right now. Get over here.’ Now I wouldn’t miss our Tuesday night rehearsals. It is so enjoyable. Sometimes I think I am too tired to do it, but when we put the first backing track on we’re away.” Ms Waring has had to learn to use her classically trained voice as a jazz instrument which is challenging she says. “There is always something to learn.” Performing as ME2, the duo gave their first live performance in Thailand to 1600 people. They have since played several gigs and made some recordings. “We played at a few Christmas parties which were fun, and possibly have another gig coming up in April.”

Life is certainly far from boring for one of New Zealand’s most notable women. “I’m in a happy space. I really like my job, I have great students, and good tests for my mind. I’m part of a great network, have a fabulous group of friends, and am very lucky at my age to have both my parents. It is a very valuable time for me.”

5 tips to make progress in your life and work

  • learn about and celebrate Te Tiriti O Waitangi – it’s about being a New Zealander
  • being uncomfortable is a place to learn something about yourself and others
  • never stop being curious about why
  • do your homework rigorously – and be prepared to draw the line
  • just be yourself – then you don’t have to remember who you pretended to be