Decades of neglect in bureaucratic boys' club
Ninety-five years ago, Australian Public Service bosses realised equal rights for women would transform the bureaucracy, and it was up to them to stop it.
Documents from the National Archives of Australia show just how far female public servants have had to travel to approach workplace equality.
In 1920, a Royal Commission into Public Service Administration determined that women were “physiologically” inferior to men and “usually” had nervous breakdowns if placed in positions of responsibility.
Royal commissioner Duncan Clark McLachlan said women were better at “routine” tasks in records offices.
But even then, McLachlan said, there were risks.
“It is found they reach their limit of usefulness at a comparatively early age if placed in positions ordinarily filled by men,” the royal commissioner wrote.
“While they may stand the strain and pressure of work for a time, usually reaction follows with the accompanying nervous breakdown, and, as a general rule, it is shown that women are physiologically unfitted to carry responsibility at an age when men are improving and developing their capacity in this respect.”
He found that by putting women in the easier jobs, it would free up “promising [male] youths” to undertake more meaningful work.
Back in 1920, there were just 2645 women working in the 24,000-strong Australian Public Service, but almost none in the better-paid Clerical Division, and there were no women in the elite Professional Division.
“As regards appointment to the position of clerk, the unrestricted admission of women to these positions would certainly mean the complete transformation of a service now comprised predominantly of men,” Mr McLachlan wrote.
“If the future efficiency of the service be kept in view, such a change would be a serious disadvantage.”
The Royal Commissioner sought to fight the tide of wage equality.
“The cry of 'equal pay for equal work', irrespective of sex, has been an insistent one,” McLachlan conceded.
“Where similar duties are performed by men and women ... the experience throughout the world has been that equal services are not rendered owing to the fact that constitutionally women are unable to give such continuous effort as men and are absent from duty for health reasons to a far greater extent.”
Instead, it was proposed that the service would be more “contented” if women were confined routine and repetitive clerical positions.
“This proposal ... would release promising youths from duties which are mainly routine, thus widening their scope for training and their prospects of advancement, while at the same time making for a more contented service,” Mr McLachlan wrote.
As of May 2014, the public sector gender pay gap stands at 12.6 per cent and has decreased by half a per cent since the year before. Nationwide, the private sector gender pay gap is approximately 22 per cent.