Travelling the Middle East, drinking champagne and eating caviar, lunch with the future president of Lebanon, daily briefs from the Pentagon – it sounds like the plot of a spy movie but in fact, this was all in a day’s work for Pamela White, who spent nearly 30 years working with the New Zealand Embassy and the International Monetary Fund in Washington DC.
These days Pam is retired and living in a sunny house overlooking the mangroves on the North Shore of Auckland in her native New Zealand. Bowls tournaments and knitting fill days that used to be spent on missions to exotic countries, although there is still the occasional glass of champagne.
With a career spanning 21 years with the Middle East department of the International Monetary Fund and 5 years in the defence department of the New Zealand embassy, Pam has seen more of the world than many, and had some unique experiences. At a time when it was much more common for women to be a housewife than have an international jet setting career, her adventures are all the more extraordinary.
Pam doesn’t see herself as being out of the ordinary, in fact, she describes herself as a late bloomer. “We all travelled in those days. Most people left in their early 20’s but I didn’t leave home until I was 27.” In 1964, at the age of 27 Pam flew to the UK, where she found work with an American company. 3 years later, she reached the limits of her visa and looked further afield. She had the choice between a job at the World Bank, and a job with the New Zealand Embassy in Washington DC. She chose to work with the embassy and joined the defence department as a secretary.
“I told everyone I was working for God” Pam laughs. “Because of course, God defends New Zealand” a reference to a line in the New Zealand national anthem. Her time at the embassy coincided with the war in Vietnam – a period she describes as an extremely interesting time to work. Part of her responsibilities included typing up the daily briefing from the Pentagon, then ensuring that type writer ribbon was destroyed. “I had a special security clearance” Pam explains “but a lot of the time, the things I learned, I would see in the newspaper the next day anyway!”
The newspapers were also full of the many protests that were happening at that time, events that Pam remembers vividly. “I remember standing in the streets, watching the armoured personnel vehicles go past and smelling the tear gas”. Pam describes seeing many terrible things during these protests, which led her to vow to never to participate in one.
Although she did break this vow just once, when her and 6 friends protested nuclear testing in the Pacific outside the French embassy on Bastille Day. Being good citizens, they notified the district office of their intent to stage a protest. So, on the 14th July, a sunny hot day, a full squad of police officers in riot gear turned out to supervise this small, peaceful group of older women wearing sun hats and carrying placards. The embassy sent out a waiter with trays of sparkling Evian for all.
After the war ended, Pam explains that the work for the defence department slowed down, and she was “bored to tears”. A friend who worked at the International Monetary Fund (known simply as “The Fund” by those who worked there) explained how good the benefits were and encouraged her to apply. Pam applied and was given a post in the Middle East department.
She started her career as a Secretary and in that role travelled to places as diverse as Egypt, Sudan, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Syria and Iran. “I was in Iran before the Sha fell” Pam explains. “In the good old days when you could still wear a bikini at the pool!” Other highlights experienced on these overseas missions include dining out on caviar with the Governor of the Central Bank and taking an elevator with Spiro Agnew, the former Vice President of the United States.
Travelling on these missions was not all champagne and caviar however. The secretaries faced many challenges, some more unexpected than others. “I used to give a talk on the role of a secretary on a mission and I would tell the girls that lights in hotels are designed to be seductive, not productive! Always call the front desk and ask for a higher wattage lightbulb to be sent up.” The workload was demanding and many late nights were spent in hotel rooms typing. Pam recounts the story of her colleague who spent the night typing her notes up sitting on the road somewhere in Africa in front of a car with its head lights on, because the hotel had a power cut. “The first thing we would check is if there were candles in the drawers – if there were you knew you could expect power cuts.”
Surprisingly, when asked what the biggest challenge was whilst working in The Fund, it’s not the travel or the workload that Pam refers to. “The woman thing was a challenge– I felt I was always beating a drum for the secretaries, for their rights”. After her work as a secretary, Pam moved into the position of Administration Officer – the one professional position at the top of the secretarial ladder. In this role she often had to act as an advocate for the secretaries. “Men expected them to work overtime at the drop of a hat, but they had lives to live, they had families to go home and cook meals for. A lot of the Economists took advantage”
Jan Smart, a close friend and former colleague of Pam, describes how in her first week at The Fund, during orientation, one of the managers described the secretaries as “The Flowers of The Fund”. Jan says that whilst the fund was very progressive in a lot of areas, notably the benefits available to staff, one area it certainly was not progressive in was the view that men and women are equal. The core professional staff in the fund, the Economists, were nearly all men and still are to this day. “The rest of us – secretaries, journalists, editors, translators, etc. – were called “non-economists” and our professions not as respected or valued. Women in all professions had a more difficult time being treated as equals to men.”
In fact, Pam had to deal with the very first case of sexual harassment in her department. Pam explains “I was called to a meeting with Head of Administration and told this meeting is not happening.” At this non-meeting, Pam was informed that one of the secretaries would not be coming back to Middle East department when back from leave. Instead she would be reassigned to another department, and it would be Pam’s responsibility to inform the secretary’s boss – who was also the offender. “I took the coward’s way out. I took a sickie (a sick day) and called him from home and told him over the phone so I didn’t have to face him!” It was an incredibly difficult situation for Pam to navigate, and at a time when there were no formal processes in place for dealing with such a situation. “Sexual harassment cases were just starting to come in vogue, as it were” she says. In the end, the secretary was transferred to another department, and the offender was forced into retirement. There was some discussion about him being given a golden parachute to leave, but happily, this didn’t result “I said to my boss, if they do that I am going to go out in the corridor and leap on the first economist I see so I can get a package too!”
Salary was another area were women in The Fund fought to be treated equally. Not long before Pam left, a study was conducted which identified that women in the fund earned on average 10% less than their professional male counterparts. Despite the challenges of equality, Pam explains that there were always women in senior positions and strong women in leadership roles. In fact, the current Executive Director Christine Lagarde is the first woman to be appointed to the position. Recently, The Fund has been leading discussion on gender equality and calling for global changes to encourage female participation in the workforce, an encouraging sign that thing have changed for the better in recent years.
One thing both Jan and Pam cite as one of the highlights of working in the fund was the opportunity to meet people from such diverse, multicultural backgrounds, and get to know them as people, not just stereotypes. “I was so appreciative of that when 9/11 happened in NYC and people began demonizing Arabs and Muslims. I could see them through a different lens; as people wanting to work, parent, live full rich lives within their own culture, respectful of others.” Jan says.
After 21 years at The Fund, a bitter divorce and on the verge of burn out Pam decided to take an early retirement at 58 and return to New Zealand. “I flew first class and drank champagne on the way home to celebrate!” she exclaims. After returning to New Zealand, she remarried in 2002 and these days spends her time playing bowls and knitting for the ever-increasing brood of “grands” her nieces, nephews and grand and great-grandchildren. When asked if she found it boring to retire and return to New Zealand after the excitement of her career in Washington she replies “Not at all. I’m just so happy to be home with my family.”