FACE TO FACE : Diana Crossan – Giving back

It’s perhaps not surprising that the young woman who was addressed as “Mr Probation Officer” and bumped from promotion by what was once very male and hierarchical organisational culture should rate her proudest achievement as her contributions to EEO legislation in New Zealand. But it’s her initial reaction to getting bumped that helps highlight Diana Crossan’s quietly fiesty character.
“It made me decide I was going to get all the training qualifications I could because nobody would be able to bump me again. So I saved up and went to Swansea in Wales to do post-graduate diploma in social work.”
The course didn’t prove that great but the decision opened new doors in her professional and personal life. And it reflects something of lifetime pattern both for challenging imposed limits and chasing opportunities to broaden her own learning horizons. These showed up at an early age.
Born in Akaroa to schoolteacher parents, Crossan is one of four daughters and the only one not to follow the parental track into education – though their career choice undoubtedly influenced her strong sense of public service. Her father became headmaster and the family moved as his schools got bigger – from the tiny rural town of Ngapara (near Oamaru), then to Wanaka.
“We were there in the late 1950s when I was six to 10 years old and it was perfect place to grow up – sucking ice off the top of puddles, using skates made out of rugby boots with blades screwed on the bottom. So we had happy childhood. Mum didn’t go back into the workforce because she didn’t want to work for dad – and fair enough.”
Crossan spent high school in the South Canterbury town of Pleasant Point and got her first taste of Kiwi OE at 17.
“I had pen pal when I was about 12 who told me about comic strip in her newspaper that was about foreign student and we said ‘why don’t we become foreign students’ – so I systematically went about finding out how to do that.”
The result, year in North Carolina on an American Field Scholarship. very broadening experience for girl from small South Island town. It was the year Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King were assassinated, segregated schools were still the norm in Southern States and she found herself in the middle of the bible belt – lacking the necessary religious zeal.
“I’d been to Sunday School but from quite an early age was asking questions nobody wanted to answer. Suddenly I was the only one not taking communion. The local minister kept telling me he was ready to talk and I’d come round – but he also told me that blacks were biologically inferior which made it bit easier not to buy in. So it was an interesting year of taking stands I didn’t think I’d have to take.”
Back in New Zealand she ended up doing degree at Otago University with no clear sense of career direction – although book about prison reformer Elizabeth Fry had prompted an interest in law and the probation service. Personnel also looked promising so taking typically proactive approach to job hunting, Crossan wrote introductory letters to 50 of the country’s biggest companies. One of the few who responded was Lane Walker Rudkin – and it was an interview with their personnel officer (who’d previously worked in the justice system) that prompted her to apply for probation officer’s role.
She loved the work.
“I was very happy with it – I really thought I’d be probation officer for the rest of my life.”
It turned out to be 13 years – and might have been longer but for the system’s inbuilt sexism.
And back then the sexism was pretty rank. Court protocol was to address probation officers as “Mr” and she recalls an occasion when lawyer at cocktail party asked if she was wearing knickers – because he’d seen her in court and wondered!
Female probation officers in Christchurch had to write to the judges asking if they could wear trouser suits to court, she recalls. “We got letter back saying we were allowed but ‘none of that hippy gear’. We had no idea what they meant – did they want us to take the bells off at the door?” Crossan grins.
Both she and her female boss took huge pleasure in the fact that Crossan later re-joined the Department of Justice in role senior to those who had helped guard the organisation’s glass ceiling. This boss was an early mentor in terms of encouraging her hunger for skill development – including that stint in Swansea.
It was while overseas that she met the Turkish man who later became her husband and made her first connection with the McKenzie Trust – contact that was later to generate her second career path in the not-for-profit sector.
“It wasn’t till I got to Swansea that I discovered they were charging me overseas student fees so I had to look for extra funding.”
She applied to various trusts, earning cheque from the Todd Foundation and nice letter from Roy McKenzie. “It said I didn’t fit their criteria but here’s $300 from my American cheque account – which was amazing.”
When she got back to Christchurch, she sent McKenzie newspaper article which talked about the course she’d done and got an unexpected phone call from him asking for meeting.
“When I realised who it was, I stood up – in the middle of the office,” she laughs.
That meeting was the start of lifelong friendship and resulted in her own later involvement with the Trust which she eventually chaired. That in turn led to her present role chairing the Orangi Kaupapa Trust which was set up to acknowledge people who make major contributions to their community.
“I’ve had two working lives, really,” says Crossan. “I haven’t had any children – I chose not to – but while other women were having two careers with family and work, I had second one in the not-for-profit sector. And it’s been just amazing.”
It’s very much in line with her drive to give back.
“Some say voluntary work is the price you pay for living in paradise – because we do here. But as I’ve gained more experience and more skills I’ve been lucky in that, while I started out doing street collections, I’ve also been able to contribute at board level.”
Skills acquisition remained focus in her career path. Crossan got her first taste of management whilst still in the probation service and discovered that she quite liked it. She was working in Taupo – shift made when her husband (who’d spent nine months driving laundry truck because his metallurgy qualifications weren’t recognised) got job there at the DSIR.
“Before that I think I’d been bit anti-management but from then on I started applying for senior roles.”
But it was 1984 and it became clear she was hitting the glass ceiling so when job came up running group employment liaison scheme with the Department of Labour, she abandoned what she’d thought was her lifetime job.
“After 13 years in probation I packed up all my stuff and left – it was very sad.”
It was work that had broadened her outlook and provided lot of learning which she then honed through series of increasingly senior roles. This included four years in the EEO Unit of the State Services Sector where she helped shape legislation on equal work opportunities for women, the disabled and Maori.
“One of the things about that particular job was the teamwork and how much greater progress we made as group than we could have individually. There were lot of challenges and lot of fun.”
Sadly political decisions and change in government meant the group was disbanded and her role made redundant.
“I was devastated – I was so built into the job and was doing it well – I couldn’t understand why they’d want to get rid of me!”
She then got job as head of policy at the Ministry of Education and spent two years there – basically restructuring “myself out of job”. But it proved an interesting role in terms of her own management development.
“It was my first experience of managing people in an area where I had no personal expertise so it was very much about empowering and managing team who did have that expertise.”
When she got redund

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