“My husband would not like that”: Sex Discrimination Against Women in the Workforce as Exposed by the Royal Commission on Human Relationships

The 1970s was a contentious time for Australians. Previously accepted post WWII politics and social structures became hotly debated and challenged. This was never truer than during the Whitlam government. In 1974, the Whitlam government began the Royal Commission on Human Relationships. It was the first of its kind for the nation. It aimed to report on the private lives of Australians, and ultimately, to improve them. Radio shows, phone interviews, and other means of accessing the Australian people for the Royal Commission meant that a broad range of testimonies were used. Issues concerning family, gender, working life, and education in Australia were exposed. Before the Royal Commission the public largely ignored these issues, and this was indeed the case for discrimination against women in the workforce.

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But first, let’s look at what shaped the socio-political landscape of Australia before the 1970s. After WWII, Australians strictly maintained their gender roles. Women were encouraged to remain in the home, while men were the sole household breadwinners. The average woman’s weekly pay significantly dropped after WWII. This generation witnessed the highest marrying generation on record, and most Australians objected to married women joining the workforce. Moreover, men still received higher basic wages than women before the Whitlam government, which deterred women even further from work.

When the 1970s hit, these conservative factors underwent a significant shifts. Women suddenly became politically active thanks to the protest culture of the 1970s. Second Wave Feminism and the Vietnam War were well underway and women identified with such causes. The Whitlam government introduced equal pay for women, subsidised access to the contraceptive pill on the PBS, equal divorce rights for both genders, and many other gains. Australian legislation was changing at a dizzying pace, but it soon became clear that social values were lagging behind.

The Royal Commission demonstrated how women faced sex discrimination in relation to work. This is clear even before joining the workforce. In the Royal Commission Official Transcript of Proceedings, the issue of separate job advertising is raised. Mr. McGarvie was one of Her Majesty’s Counsel, and chairman of the National Committee on Discrimination in Occupations and Employment. He offered his testimony in 1975, stating that newspapers had two columns for job advertisements; one for men and one for women. If a job interview was conducted, women were often asked personal questions about their marriage or family life that were not asked of men. The final report on the Royal Commission noted this kind of discrimination was “irrelevant and unnecessary”.

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The problem of childcare is a constant issue throughout the Royal Commission transcripts. The question of how a woman could be an attentive parent and an effective worker is hotly contended, but the same questions were not asked of men. The plea for better quality childcare is mentioned frequently. Reverend Peter Hollingsworth was the associate director of the Brotherhood of St. Lawrence in Fitzroy. In 1975 he commented that the Brotherhood would support the establishment of more childcare facilities to held women wanting to join the workforce. The Reverend wasn’t alone in his sentiment. The transcripts reveal that childcare simply wasn’t available to some women, and even if it was the facilities were often inadequate. Dr. Clare Ibister was a paediatrician who claimed Australian childcare was “dangerous” and made her uneasy. Various women in the Royal Commission expressed guilt about leaving their children in crèches or similar childcare to go to work. Australian society looked down upon women who wanted to be both mothers and workers, and the testimonies offered in the Royal Commission certainly reflect this social climate.

Women often didn’t seek higher education. It was assumed that a woman would finish school, find a husband to take care of her and have his children. Mrs. Susan Vanderwal from Colebrook, Tasmania, gave her testimony in 1975. She argued that Australian women were educationally disadvantaged, and in fact, often felt guilty for wanting more for themselves than a family home in the suburbs. Mrs. Vanderwal outlined that when she asked other women about seeking higher education for the purposes of employment they simply replied, “My husband wouldn’t like that”. The statistics reflect such ideas about gender and employment. A 1978 South Australian report on population and work life found that of the population who possessed trade qualifications 91% were men. Women weren’t offered the same access to training as their male co-workers. Consequently men dominated middle management and senior positions.

So why did women want to work in the face of such blatant discrimination? It was becoming clear during the 1970s that the traditional ethos of fulfilment through family was no longer enough for most people. Various testimonies argued that satisfaction at work meant satisfaction at home. Women who worked gained a sense of identity beyond domesticity. Some women, such as Mrs. Edna Ryan, called out the failure of men to fulfil the traditional breadwinner role. She argued that each Australian should be considered an individual in his or her own right. Women also chose to work for economic purpose. Countless testimonies outline that one income was no longer enough to support a 1970s family. As a result, women felt compelled to join the workforce for both themselves and their families.

The Royal Commission provided a previously lacking platform for women to voice their concerns about work. Women became able to articulate how and why they were being discriminated against. The Royal Commission pushed women’s issues into public consciousness, and provided a framework for how changes should take place in the future.

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2 comments on ““My husband would not like that”: Sex Discrimination Against Women in the Workforce as Exposed by the Royal Commission on Human Relationships

  1. Hi, this is a really interesting and compelling post!
    I found it very interesting to read about the specific types of female disadvantage (especially about job interviews). It would be interesting to explore how the Second Wave feminism differed from the first. Was it difficult to find testimonies and Primary documentation from women during this time, or relatively easy? Great title – very apt 🙂

  2. miikkaela says:

    I think the issues you have boroughs up here are highly significant still today. Especially when considering the climate of daycare and women in the workforce today. It was really interesting reading this and how shocking it is to know that it was the first of the appropriate platform for women regarding such an important issue that is still relevant today.
    It was a great read! Well done!

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