10 Apr 2024

Dame Susan Devoy: 'I grew up totally unaware of gender inequality'

From Nine To Noon, 11:20 am on 10 April 2024

Susan Devoy is a former squash world champion, Race Relations Commissioner and Celebrity Treasure Island contestant

In the new memoir Dame Susie D, she reflects on family life in Rotorua, professional sport and her experiences - good and bad - with the New Zealand Human Rights Commission.

Dame Susan Devoy

Dame Susan Devoy Photo: Supplied

On the "formidable" mother she shared with six brothers:

"The more I wrote and the more I thought about it, the more I realised I was a chip off the old block although growing up, I would have hated to have had that label put on me. I grew up very resilient and independent and I also grew up totally unaware of gender inequality because my mother … I just seemed to think that my mother could do everything so I was going to be the same."

On her relationship with squash:

"I grew up really knowing nothing different than being at a squash court and my brothers played tournaments … The only way I found to fill in time was to get on the squash court and have millions and millions of squash balls ... I think from a very early age, I understood what it required. Having seen my brothers with plenty of talent not reach their potential [I learnt] that there is no substitute for hard work. And I just loved the nature of training, you know. I found that the repetitiveness and the goal-setting to be better each day was something that I just became obsessed with."

On experiencing amenorrhea (the absence of menstruation) as a young athlete:

"My mother wasn't worried. She wasn't particularly an emotional woman that we could sit down and discuss female things. I mean, I didn't get my period till I was 21. And I should be grateful for that, that's what she said. Then I never had it while I was competing for such a long time. No one ever suggested to me that that was a medical issue and that I should get it checked out. [They said] I should have just been grateful that I didn't get my period, it made competing a lot easier. But yeah, I just pushed myself to the absolute limits and I didn't have the advantage back then of sports science or sports psychologists, although I probably would have been a worst-case nightmare in that scenario … If you didn't think you were doing it right you just did more. For me, it wasn't till the end of my career, that I realised that [with training] it was quality, not quantity."

On moving from competitive squash to motherhood and beyond:

"I was grateful, I suppose, that I was pregnant when I retired because I'm not sure how I would have transitioned easily otherwise. My future was charted for me in the fact that I'd wanted to retire because I wanted to have a family. That was pretty obvious. Then I went on to have four sons very quickly in succession. So I retired at 28 and five years later had four under five … Often sportspeople talk about this 'hero to zero' phenomenon that happens. I never really experienced that. But when my children were little I started to realize that, okay, perhaps there is more to life than just being a full-time mother and now I have the opportunity to actually explore other things I'd like to do in my life."

Dame Susan Devoy

Photo: supplied by Allen & Unwin / Matt Klitscher

On serving as New Zealand's Race Relations Commissioner between 2013 and 2018:

"When I was shoulder-tapped [for the role], I suddenly started to have a little bit of panic thinking that if I keep saying no people are going to stop asking, so it was was good timing. People obviously just assumed that I was a sports jock so rightly or wrongly they thought I'd be the least qualified for a role like the Race Relations Commissioner … But I've done a lot of other things that perhaps the public didn't know about that had prepared me for that role over their time. And not saying that I knew everything, but I knew that I was up for the challenge. I just didn't quite realise what a challenge it would be.

"I was very conscious from the moment I started the role, what the responsibility of being Commissioner is - above everything else, it's really holding people to account or holding governments to account. Sometimes it was difficult, you know, often I had this knot in my stomach that I used to feel … The difficulty is that people see the Commissioner as being judge, juror and adjudicator as to whether someone is racist or not or whether someone has made a racist comment or not. There was much, much more to the role but above everything else, you need to stand up and be counted and speak for the marginalised communities that don't actually have a voice. That's probably the most important thing you can do."

On the sexual harassment allegations which contributed to her stepping down as Race Relations Commissioner:

"I think there was a bit of a cover-up and I certainly copped it. One of the things I learned there is that there's a huge personal price to play if you're a whistleblower. Would I do it all again? Probably. Would I do it differently? Probably. But what I do feel proud of is that things changed after I left, even though I had to leave too, but I had to leave because I was part of this problem, not part of the solution. James Shaw described me as a disrupter, you know, and actually, I'll take that as a compliment pretty much."

On leaving NZ after her resignation:

"I probably had a little mini breakdown, I suppose. It didn't sort of happen immediately … I mean, I was angry, you know, I was angry and I was bitter … Even though things had changed, I felt that I paid a personal price for that. I thought I'd done a pretty good job, despite all the people at the beginning [who said] they knew I was gonna be absolutely terrible.

"[My husband John Oakley] was living in Melbourne … he had a not stressful job but he had a busy job. So here we were both on different sides of the Tasman, trying to cope with different issues. He's a pretty pragmatic sort of guy. He thinks his wife is incredibly resilient and effective and … she'll be right, so yeah, it did knock me. And then I went to live in Melbourne. I think getting away from New Zealand was probably the best thing I could have done at that time."

On competing in Celebrity Treasure Island:

"I've got to be really really, really honest. It paid a shitload. the Fiscal Bureau in my family when I initially said no said 'You might want to reconsider this' and I was like, Oh, okay. Well, probably should [consider it] as someone who wasn't earning very much at the time. I took a lot of cajoling from John and some members of my family. Did I enjoy it? Some of it, not all of it. Would I do it again? I don't know. And then they came asking if I'd do it again. So I'm my own worst enemy, really. I've got no one else to blame apart from myself for getting me in these situations."

On recently walking the Camino de Santiago trail to celebrate her 60th birthday:

"I urge you to go and do it because you will absolutely love it. It's probably one of the best things I've done in the latter part of my life. And it actually made me realise that I'm not so old and there's still something left [in the tank]."