Governor-General Quentin Bryce: How the Sixties paved the way for women of today

Not all of us can fully appreciate what it was like for women who wanted a career almost half a century ago, so it was a special experience to hear Governor-General Quentin Bryce reminisce about this period of our history for an audience in Sydney on Tuesday.

“I’m a girl of the Sixties,” she told those gathered for the official release of the Census of Women in Leadership. “A time when women in jobs were clustered in a narrow range of occupations, marriage meant handing in resignation papers, there was no maternity leave, no childcare, no role models, no mentors and little access to super and higher education.”

It’s difficult to believe this was so relatively recently.

Bryce went on to explain how she was the only girl from her school to attend university and one of just a handful of women in law school, where she encountered only one female professor. “It’s no wonder women started to take action,” she said.

And with all the grace, humility and humour we’ve come to know of our first female governor-general, Bryce outlined just how the women of her generation fought for progress on workplace gender equality. She commended the achievements of others but didn’t shy away from sharing the part she played in bringing reforms to fruition.

Education for women was key, she said, but unlocking the potential of such learning required persistence. She told stories of women – and men – who fought tirelessly against vehement opposition to change; individuals who against the odds maintained their determination to see relevant legislation passed through Parliament that would remove law-sanctioned barriers standing in the way of women and their careers.

Bryce said the 1966 lifting of the “Marriage Bar”, which prevented women in the public service from working while married, was a seminal moment. In the 1970s Australia ratified international labour conventions that also unblocked barriers, and later Bryce was appointed the women’s representative on the federal government’s National Committee on Discrimination in Employment and Occupation. She helped the Affirmation Action Act come to life in 1986, legislation that had its fair share of controversy but was encouraged by the support and success of the 1984 Affirmation Action Pilot program.

Bryce explained how the pilot saw Australia’s top 28 companies participating, and reached success via buy-in from some of its key male champions – particularly, some of the country’s most powerful male leaders. They included the “marvellous advocate” Esso’s Jim Kirk, IBM’s then managing director Brian Finn and CRA managing director Sir Rod Carnegie. “I remember them all,” said Bryce. “Men who spoke out on employment, training and career paths for women.”

These were the influential men of the 1980s who could understand – well before we had the plethora of research materials we have today – that the business case for gender diversity was real and worth the effort. They share parallels with the men who are participating in Sex Discrimination Commissioner Liz Broderick’s Male Champions of Change.

For Bryce, the reminiscing was all about reminding us that while progress regarding the advancement of women may be disappointingly slow – especially as seen in yesterday’s Census results that revealed fewer than one in 10 senior executives and board members across the ASX500 are women – remembering the hard-fought battles of the past and the offers courage and inspiration to keep working at it.

“As we get together to measure progress in 2012 I must say I take enormous pride in the achievements of the women’s movement in our country, just those I see in my own lifetime,” finished Bryce.

This article first appeared on Women’s Agenda.


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