Zonta Club of Brisbane, 50th Anniversary8 November 2021

Delivered by Professor Deborah Terry AO, Vice-Chancellor and President, The University of Queensland

Thank you, Gwen.

Can I begin by acknowledging the Traditional Owners of the lands on which we are meeting this evening.

We honour their Elders and their continuing cultural and spiritual connection to this land – as we walk together on the path to Reconciliation.

I would also like to formally acknowledge …

  • The Honourable Shannon Fentiman MP, Attorney-General and Minister for Justice, for Women, and for the Prevention of Domestic and Family Violence
  • Lady Mayoress Nina Schrinner
  • Ms Bridget Mather, Zonta District 22 Governor
  • Emeritus Professor Gwen Jull AO, Zonta Club President
  • Distinguished guests, one and all.

I’m delighted and honoured to join you at this celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Zonta Club of Brisbane.

I offer my congratulations to the Club on reaching its half-century, and I thank you for your warm welcome and hospitality tonight.

To help mark this significant milestone, I have taken as my theme this evening ‘Women Creating Change – the next 50 years’.

But before looking forward, I’ll look back, as befits a major anniversary.

I begin with a story well-known to this distinguished audience, but one that always merits re-telling.

Especially tonight.

The scene is the Regatta Hotel in Brisbane in 1965, and the story starts like this: ‘Two women walk into a bar …’.

Of course, it’s the story of how Merle Thornton and Rosalie Bognor famously ordered a drink in the public bar of the Regatta Hotel. 

At the time, public bars were not ‘public’ at all.

Women were banned, so these spaces were off-limits to half of the adult population.

The two women were refused service and protested by chaining themselves to the metal rail below the bar. 

The media attended (on a tip-off, apparently, from the activists) along with the police, who, wisely, decided not to arrest them for fear of creating a greater stir. 

Their protest was notorious -- reported internationally, long before we’d even heard of the internet.

As an aside, the media recorded that both women were mothers-of-two, whose husbands were UQ lecturers – but neglected to say that Merle was a UQ PhD candidate.

Merle and Rosalie’s bold and courageous action played a major role in helping bring about the repeal of the relevant section of the Liquor Act later that year.

And their dramatic gesture intensified scrutiny of a range of blatant barriers to the full participation of women in Queensland society – and, more broadly, across Australia.     

As it happens, the year of their protest was also the year Zonta was reborn in Australia[1], followed by the establishment of this Club in 1971.

This was also the period in which many of those infamous barriers started to crumble.

The marriage bar for women working in the public service was rescinded at the Commonwealth level in 1966, though not totally abandoned in Queensland until 1973.[2]

Equal pay for equal work was first legislated in 1969.

And the first Equal Employment Opportunity legislation was enacted at national level in the 1980s.

And, over recent decades, we have seen many more women move into prominent leadership roles – in politics, the judiciary, the public sector, medicine, education, the arts, industry, sport, and many other areas. 

Their visibility has provided young women with a growing number and range of role models, helping to overcome the conundrum of ‘You can’t be what you can’t see.’

They’ve served to fuel ambition, widen horizons, and build confidence for women of all ages and backgrounds.  

There are wonderful examples all around us – including, here, in this room tonight.

Coming full-circle – the old public bar at the Regatta is now known, very appropriately, as Merle’s Bar. 

And it was an enormous pleasure for me last year to help confer on Merle a UQ Honorary Doctorate of Letters, recognising decades of energy, passion, and tireless lobbying in support of women’s rights.  

The progress that has been achieved over the past 50 years is cause for some satisfaction.

But we all know that there’s still inequality in our professions and our workplaces.

The key findings of the 2021 CEW – Chief Executive Women – Census report speaks for themselves.[3]

Women in Australia have been graduating from university in greater numbers than men for over a decade – in 2019, 60.4% of university graduates were women.

However, in 2021, women hold only 6% of CEO roles in the ASX300 and 26% of positions in executive leadership teams.

They also hold only 14% of roles with profit and loss responsibilities, exposing the narrow pipeline of women positioned for future CEO roles.

So, we do need to take stock, to look critically at the persistent roadblocks to progress, and what this might mean for the agenda now and in the future.

One major roadblock to achieving true gender equity in Australia is stubbornly persistent cultural assumptions about gender roles.

In particular, the assumption that child-rearing is predominantly a woman’s role. 

We all have stories about how those perceptions affected our lives and our careers and, perhaps, those vivid memories of failure after forgetting to prepare a plate or a costume for a school event!

Here’s one of mine.

In the final year of my PhD, at a critical time in the early stages of my career, I told my research supervisor that I was pregnant.

His immediate response was shock, and so was mine when he said: “You’ll never make it in academia – it’s impossible’.   

I’ve always been the kind of person who responds to a challenge – and he certainly gave me one – but that’s another story!

As we all know, it’s this kind of expectation that has led many working women – far more often than men – to question and reassess their career expectations and ambitions.

As a society, we are much the poorer for this.  

Journalist Annabel Crabb has written and spoken extensively on this issue.

In her book, ‘The Wife Drought’[4], Annabel cites 2011 census statistics suggesting that only one in 100 households comprised a mother working full-time and a stay-at-home father.  

A recent OECD report indicated that this pattern has not shifted with Australia having one of the lowest rates, globally, of fathers taking paid parental leave.[5]

Like all statistics, these should be handled with caution, but the overall picture is clear enough. 

So, how do we move forward?

Making it easier for men to take a greater role in child raising and caregiving would be a great starting point.

Women have long advocated for greater workplace flexibility, and for better pathways to leave and re-enter the workforce without unfair financial and career repercussions.  

We need to continue forging those paths for all primary caregivers, whether they are male or female.

But equity in leave policies is merely a first step; it’s not a total solution.

Cultural prejudices about gender roles in our society are deeply embedded.

More than occasionally, we see men who do take on parenting responsibilities are portrayed as amusingly inept, as outliers, even outsiders.

Merle Thornton once said of cultural stereotypes: “… people have to change their basic thinking”. [6]

And this applies not only to stereotypes about men and women but also to our willingness to acknowledge and call out the ‘unconscious biases’ that work so powerfully against change and the achievement of equality.

Because it’s these biases that must be addressed if we are to see genuine progress.

Which is why there is an increasing realisation that we need to put in place explicit KPIs, targets and accountabilities.

Data from the 2021 CEW Census point to the fact that this works.[7]

The use of diversity based KPIs and targets is correlated with the extent to which ASX companies have achieved gender balance around the executive table.

And we shouldn’t underestimate the importance of this achievement.

Without gender balance, we’ll see what Julie Bishop so frankly referred to as ‘male deafness’ in an interview with Andrew Denton - in her words:

‘If you’re the only female voice in the room, they just don’t seem to hear you.’[8]

And the consequence is that young women won’t be prepared to tolerate such environments, and nor should they.

Which is why, as leaders, we must be held accountable for our gender diversity targets.

We must ensure that the detailed work is done to address the complex gender pay gaps in our organisations.

We must refuse to accept recruitment shortlists that are not sufficiently diverse.

We must accept invitations to be part of panels, taskforces or conferences only when there is a balance between male and female participants – what we at UQ call Merle’s Pledge.

And, in some areas, we must have the courage and foresight to consider female-only recruitment processes.

Because, as the reports from top global consulting firms re-iterate year after year, the businesses that have greater gender diversity in their leadership teams are more successful.

It shows up in their bottom lines and financial results.

And this is because organisations with diverse leadership teams are more innovative, they’re more resilient, they’re more likely to attract talent, and they’re more able to successfully navigate the complex ethical and social license to operate challenges that will increasingly face us all. 

As David Morgan said when he was CEO of Westpac: “Diversity is not only about compliance and social responsibility. Yes, it’s the right thing to do, but embracing everyone’s unique perspectives and differences is the strategic thing to do.”[9]

So, as we look back across the last 50 years, we can see much to celebrate but significant challenges remain for us all.

And sharing your company this evening, I find it easier to be optimistic about making progress, real progress.  

That’s because I know I am not talking to the converted, but to the committed.

This year, the Zonta Club of Brisbane looks back on 50 years of dedication, hard work and achievement in empowering women.

I find that both humbling and inspirational.

It’s this kind of tireless, long-term commitment that will take us closer to the goal of achieving a fairer, more equitable society for us all.

In preparing for tonight, I was reminded of another reference to a 50-year tradition in Barbara Bush’s famous commencement address that she gave at Wellesley College, a prestigious liberal arts college for females in the US.

When it was announced that she was giving the address there were howls of protest from students.

They felt that Mrs Bush, who dropped out of college after two years to marry former US President George Bush, didn’t represent the type of career woman the college sought to educate and celebrate.

But Barbara went on to deliver her speech, and she ended it by saying, and I quote:

“For over 50 years, it was said that the winner of Wellesley’s annual hoop race would be the first to get married. Now they say the winner will be the first to become a CEO … [But] I want to offer a new legend. The winner of the hoop race will be the first to realise her dream — not society’s dreams — her own personal dream. Who knows? Somewhere out in this audience may even be someone who will one day follow in my footsteps and preside over the White House as the president’s spouse, and I wish him well.”[10]

Thank you.


[1] First established in 1929 but folded in 1935.

[2] From 1969 to 1973, women who wanted to continue working after marriage had to seek formal permission.

[3] 2021 CEW Census Report, CEWCENSUS21_ASX300Report-_FINAL.pdf

[4] Crabb, Annabel, The Wife Drought, Random House Australia (2014)

[6] UQ Contact Magazine, The 'chain' reaction (uq.edu.au)

[7] 2021 CEW Census Report, CEWCENSUS21_ASX300Report-_FINAL.pdf