Rachel Stewart is winner of the 'Opinion Writer of the Year' award at the 2016 Canon Media Awards.

Rachel Stewart: Girls can do anything

The Fearless Girl statue apeared opposite Wall Street's bull in time for International Women's Day. Photo / AP
The Fearless Girl statue apeared opposite Wall Street's bull in time for International Women's Day. Photo / AP

Girls can do anything!

Well, yeah. Which is why I detested the bumper sticker campaign in the '80s that said so. Talk about state the bleeding obvious. I was youthfully affronted.

Last week's International Women's Day got me thinking about women in work, gender bias and pay equity. Since I entered the workforce 30-plus years ago, has much changed?

My rural upbringing and hayseed tomboyishness propelled me towards a life that most young women did not normally pursue.

I'm instinctively skillful with engines. I drove the farm tractor at an age too tender to divulge and, in my teens, owned a series of grunty trail and road bikes. In today's money, I was a health and safety officer's futuristic nightmare.

Later I learned to fly, and my first knuckle down job was on the footplate of diesel-electric locomotives driving for the New Zealand Railways Corporation in the early 1980s.

It took some doing, mind. During the interview process an endless parade of young men - many in white freezing worker's gumboots - arrived after me, yet entered the interview room before me. I was saved 'til last.

Three older men peered down at me from atop a raised desk and asked a cascade of inappropriate questions.

Why on earth would you want to drive trains? Are you aware you'll have to work alone with men at night? Are you afraid of the dark? How do you think the wives would feel about you working in close confinement with their husbands?

I wanted to shout "they've no idea how safe their husbands would be", but didn't.

Effectively, this line of enquiry only made me more determined to be offered a job.

They asked me to attend a nearby railway yard to see if I was capable of lifting a heavy universal coupling joint up from the ground to the back of the locomotive, and fitting it in place. It was weighty and awkward, but I gritted my teeth and did it.

I found out later that the male applicants were never asked to do the same task, and some of them looked decidedly scrawnier than me. I can also report that during my six years on the rails, I never once had to replicate it. It was a job the shunters took care of.

Attending 13 weeks at 'loco school', along with a dozen or so blokes, was a steep learning curve. At the end, everyone was offered a placement in their home rail depot. Except me.

The reasoning offered was this. They'd never had a woman on the footplate so I needed to be under 'supervision'. Plus, there was no female toilet at the Eastown depot in Wanganui. Apparently, I was off to Wellington.

Except that a tiny bit of detective work revealed that 'supervision' was only ever required for locomotive staff who'd failed an exam or run a red light. The toilet thing? Well, I said I'd use the bushes if I had to. Nope, Wellington it was.

Until I rang the newly-formed Human Rights Commission for advice. Suddenly I was off to Wanganui, where a female toilet would be built. Just for me. Oh, joy. The irony is that the need to pee mostly occurred in the back of beyond while mid-journey.

What also came along with me to Wanganui was a convenient narrative about my stirring things up. They said I'd demanded to work from my home depot. They said I'd demanded a toilet.

My first week on the job saw a gaggle of train drivers' wives talked out of stopping a train, and thereby holding all rail traffic up, on the Aramoho bridge. By all accounts, they'd made placards and were planning a protest.

They were talked out of it by their more pragmatic husbands, who'd been given the hard word from on high. You don't mess with train scheduling. At least, in those days you didn't.

Days turned into weeks, weeks into months, months into years. One driver never spoke to me. Ever. Not a word. I had to do a shift with him once. I verbally called out the signals, he did not repeat them back. I told him what I thought of him. Silence.

The others were better, which didn't take much. Some were even friendly. My usual driving mate was awesome. It was mostly a good experience.

After 18 months, I chose to transfer to Christchurch for a year to gain experience on express goods trains, before finally ending up in Palmerston North where I upskilled on the gleaming new electrification system.

This is the Reader's Digest Condensed version, obviously. Like a decent five-day cricket test, there are endless stories within stories. I'll write about them one day.
Everything was copy, and I had pay equity. And I got to blow the horn.

- NZ Herald

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Rachel Stewart is winner of the 'Opinion Writer of the Year' award at the 2016 Canon Media Awards.

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