Federal Politics


Battleaxe warning over women workers retains sharp edge even years later

The minute paper written by AR Taysom in March 1963 is barely two pages long. 

And yet the public servant's memo to "the director" in the Australian Trade Commissioner Service hits you like a cream pie decorated with conkers. 

The purpose is boldly stated in typed capitals: "WOMEN TRADE COMMISSIONERS?" And the opening sentence is no less clear in response: "Even after some deliberation, it is difficult to find reasons to support the appointment of women Trade Commissioners."

Taysom goes on to observe that in  places like England and North America, "a relatively young attractive woman could operate with some effectiveness, in a subordinate capacity".  And indeed, if Australia had an important trade in "women's clothing and accessories, a woman might promote this more effectively than a man".

And yet: "Even conceding these points, such an appointee would not stay young and attractive for ever and later on could well become a problem."

The carefully typed minute then lists no less than nine (numbered off in Roman numerals) further reasons why chicks in trade is a bad idea. These include: "It is extremely doubtful if a woman could ... stand the fairly severe strains and stresses [of the work]". After all, "a man normally has his household run efficiently by his wife ... a woman Trade Commissioner would have all this on top of her normal work."


Taysom adds that, "If we engaged single graduates as trainees, most of them would probably marry within five years" before noting, "[A woman] could not be regarded as a long-term investment in the same sense as we regard a man."

Then there's the grand kicker: "A spinster lady can, and very often does, turn into something of a battleaxe with the passing years. A man usually mellows."

As the paper punchily concludes: "It would seem that the noes have it." And after such a comprehensive case, who could argue?

The paper, which is preserved by the National Archives, was prepared in response to a proposal to appoint Beryl Wilson as a trade commissioner. Even though Wilson had been a "manager" of Australia's trade office in Los Angeles and also had similar experience in San Francisco, there was significant institutional resistance to her promotion. 

Needless to say, Wilson became Australia's first female trade commissioner in LA soon after the minute was initialled. And her career went on to include postings in the Pacific Islands, New Zealand and London.

Fast forward 50 years and the world has changed so much that the Taysom paper is more anachronism than offensive. Today, women head up Australian trade missions in Washington, Tokyo, New Delhi, Toronto, Kuala Lumpur, Moscow and Guangzhou.

And we don't remark upon this as unusual. Or weird.

Indeed, this week, as Prime Minister Tony Abbott embarked on his mega-trade trip through Asia, women have been in the thick of negotiations and discussions. From Foreign Minister Julie Bishop to Abbott's chief-of-staff Peta Credlin to the Australian Ambassador to China, Frances Adamson, and the Associate Secretary of National Security and International Policy in the PM's department, Margot McCarthy.

Frances Lisson and Jan Adams were key negotiators for Australia over the trade agreement with Japan, while the Consul-General in Chengdu, Nancy Lord, has played a big role in Australia Week in China. This is not an exhaustive list, but you get the point.

And yet, while the world has moved on and on since the days of Taysom's memo, this week two national surveys by the Australian Human Rights Commission showed us that in some significant respects, the dinosaur times are still upon us.

A survey of 2000 Australian mothers found that one in two (49 per cent) reported discrimination at work at some stage during their pregnancy, parental leave or return to work. Examples of discrimination ranged from "negative comments" to threatened (or actual) redundancy or pay cuts, unfair performance assessments and not being allowed an appropriate uniform.

Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick also relayed instances in which pregnant woman literally wet themselves at work because they were not allowed the toilet breaks they needed. She said discrimination was reported in all types of work. From cashiers to medical specialists and senior executives.

Just as worryingly, a second survey of 1000 fathers found that 27 per cent experienced discrimination either on parental eave or when returning to work. They reported discrimination in relation to flexible work, pay and conditions and "negative comments". Even though 85 per cent of respondents took less than four weeks of leave when their baby was born.

Taysom may argue that these are the sorts of issues the Trade Service was trying to avoid back in '63 - you let women stay on in the workplace and all sorts of problems emerge. Unfortunately, it would seem that many today still share that view. 

Times may change and improvements may come. But, oh, the battle (if not the battleaxe) continues.

Judith Ireland is a Fairfax Media journalist