I recently read the autobiography of Fay Marles. You may not know her name but she was an extraordinarily important leader in changing how Australian workplaces operate. She was the first Equal Opportunity Commissioner in Victoria, appointed in 1979 after the legislation was enacted.
Ms Marles’ landmark achievement was to successfully facilitate a sex discrimination case, which went all the way to the High Court, for a young woman by the name of Deborah Lawrie. Ms Lawrie was refused admission to an intake of trainee commercial airline pilots for Ansett Airlines in 1979 on the basis of her sex.
You see, Ms Lawrie suffered from a number of conditions that made it impossible for her to be an airline pilot, because it would have put the safety of the flying public at risk.
- Her lack of physical strength (girls are weak you know) even though there were no physical strength requirements involved in piloting an aircraft,
- She was likely to become pregnant at some point, which would have made her unstable (another risk to the public), and
- She menstruated. Yes, true. And that of course ensured that she would also be prone to periods (pardon the pun) of mental instability.
I’m not making this up!
Today, Ansett’s arguments sound so whacky that it is hard to believe that it could have even happened. But it did and as recently as 1979.
This story is noteworthy because I am sure there are many workplace practices that are entrenched today which we will look back on in 30 years and shake our heads at.
In 2014, women still do not receive equal pay for equal work. The law may say that isn’t the case, but as a senior HR Executive, I can guarantee the practice is alive and well. Workplace flexibility is still mostly a myth and genuine workplace diversity in the corporate sector is rare. Many workplaces still struggle to cope with mothers returning from Maternity Leave and treat them upon return, like some vintage relic, that we keep around but don’t really have a use for anymore.
It takes committed and courageous leaders to change longstanding cultural practices. It also requires investment of real money in education and training for existing and emerging leaders. Usually, that is the point at which commitment gives way to rhetoric.
Perhaps surprisingly, I am extremely confident that we are on the cusp of major workplace reform in these areas. It is likely to be a pragmatic shift, rather than a new enlightenment.
By 2020 much will have changed. The Baby Boomers are about to start leaving the workforce in unprecedented numbers and a new war for talent will force the hand of even the most cynical workplaces. Smart leaders make the necessary changes because they understand the benefits of constructive and inclusive workplace cultures. The rest just copy.
Do you need to do a workplace culture stocktake and start actively planning for 2020?
By the way, at last reports Deborah was a Captain of an Airbus A320 over Australian skies and notwithstanding her various womanly frailties, none of her passengers appear to be at risk.