Woman Beasley, Mary

AM

Born
South Australia, Australia
Occupation
Businesswoman, Chief executive officer and Public servant

Written by Nikki Henningham, The University of Melbourne

Born and raised in South Australia, Mary Beasley's CV is filled with 'firsts'. She was the first Commissioner for Equal Opportunity in Australia given that South Australia was the first Australian state to pass sex discrimination legislation in 1975. She was the first Australian woman to hold the position of Ombudsman (appointed 1985) and the first woman to join the board of Qantas in 1983. She was a Commissioner on the South Australian Public Service Board, one of the first women to hold the position. She was CEO for a number of Government organisations throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, including the Department of Consumer Affairs, the Department of Industrial Affairs, the Health Industry Development Council and the Information Workforce Strategy Office. She also chaired the board of the Australian Dance Theatre and the board of the Queen Elizabeth Hospital.

The youngest of three children, there is a gap of sixteen years between Beasley and the younger of her two brothers. 'I was a bit like an only child without the advantages of one', she says (Interview). Her parents were 'wonderful', her father, who 'never quite got her', ran hotels and her mother was 'a fantastic person who was always doing things out of left field' (Interview). She attended St Peters Church of England School for Girls in Adelaide, finishing at 'Leaving Honours' level and listing history and English as her favourite subjects. She enjoyed school, particularly sport and was very good at hockey and tennis. She picked up golf, for which she also had a talent, after leaving school. She liked playing individual sports best and was highly competitive. Injuries to her knee curtailed her sporting career, but she remains an avid follower of Australian football and horse-racing. Her competitiveness is now satisfied by playing bridge; as her partner says of her approach to the game, 'whatever she takes on, she has to be the best' (Barrowclough). Organised religion was a feature of her family life, although at around age sixteen she 'went off it when I figured that St Paul didn't like women when I was studying his letters to the Corinthians' (Interview).

After leaving school, she went on an overseas trip with her parents and then straight to work with the Vacuum Oil Company (later Mobil) in their marketing department. She enjoyed the work and discovered a knack for organisation. She also met her husband with whom she moved to Sydney after they were married. The marriage did not last, and Beasley moved back to Adelaide with her two year old son. She stayed at home until he turned five, at which point her mother suggested it was time to go out and get a job. In 1968 she successfully applied for a position at an employment agency run by J.P Young, who proved to be her greatest mentor. He challenged her and had the utmost confidence that she would be able to rise to challenges, like finally becoming general manager, which she did. He encouraged her to take risks, moving into areas where she was inexperienced but ensuring that she had the resources and staff around her to enable her to develop her skills. This was one of the most important skills of leadership she learned from him. 'Surrounding yourself with good people is part of good leadership,' she says. 'J.P Young said that you should always employ people who are better than you because they will make you better at your job' (Interview). To be able to do that requires confidence and it can be risky, but it is a risk worth taking if the job is worth doing.

It made sense, therefore, for her to take the risk of applying for the job when the position of South Australian Sex Discrimination Commissioner was advertised. Her experience in headhunting had taught her how badly women were discriminated against in the workforce. Many employers wouldn't consider women when she suggested them as candidates, even if they were far better qualified than male applicants. Those who were employed were almost inevitably paid less than men for equivalent work. So she was certain that this was an area where she could make a difference, bringing a unique non-public sector perspective to the role. This difference is what her employers, the Government of South Australia, were after. The interview panel was impressed by the connections she could make with private industry which they believed would be vital in educating the broader community on their rights and responsibilities under the new laws.

Wanting to advance his reformist agenda quickly, after only 18 months as Commissioner for Equal Opportunity, Beasley was promoted by the Premier Don Dunstan to the top job as a Commissioner on the Public Service Board. Beasley was at first concerned about her lack of public service experience, but when Dunstan assured her that 'most public servants don't know much about the public service', she agreed (Interview). It was clear that her reformist touch was necessary; many department heads had never worked with women before and were challenged by the changes that the new legislation required. (The Department of Public Works, jokingly referred to as 'the Department of Ernest Hemingway' was particularly notorious) (Interview). What she discovered, as Sex Discrimination Commissioner and as a Commissioner on the Public Service Board, was that most breaches of legislation came through ignorance, not intent, but that there were some employers who knew full well what they were doing. Pregnant women were particularly hard done by and senior secretaries were often badly exploited. It was satisfying to be able to use the authority that the role of Commissioner gave her to find some redress for complainants. She later acknowledged that, at the time, she didn't fully appreciate the extent of the power she had serving on the Public Service Board. 'If I had realised it' she says, 'I probably would have done more with it' (Interview).

In 1983, Beasley continued with her trailblazing when she became the first woman Director on the QANTAS Board. In 1985 she took on the role of South Australian Ombudsman, the first woman in Australia to hold the position. She stepped down from both positions in 1985 after being falsely accused in the media of misusing her power and position on the QANTAS board to obtain subsidised air travel for her long term partner, a benefit that heterosexual married couples enjoyed as part of their board membership, but same-sex partners did not. As a former Sex Discrimination Commissioner, she had told the chairman that she could not sit on a board that discriminated against her, based on her marital status. He agreed that this was untenable, and promised that change was on the agenda. In the meantime, an informal verbal agreement was made. Unfortunately, details of this agreement made their way to the press after the death of the other party to the agreement. A media storm erupted and when the issue became part of a political war between the State government and the Opposition, Beasley decided to step down in order that both the Office of the Ombudsman and the Board of Qantas were not damaged. (Qantas has of course now changed its rules regarding the status of partners). A government enquiry cleared her of any wrong doing. Fortunately, she was sustained by huge public support, including that of prominent figures such as Justice Lionel Murphy and former Leader of the Australian Democrats Don Chipp, both of whom stressed that she had been unfairly treated, in part because she was a woman in power and therefore vulnerable. The episode was an unwanted reminder of the particular stresses to which women who aspire to climb the corporate tree are exposed and the importance of getting all arrangements, even informal ones, in writing. 'At the end of the day,' she says, 'it was one of those experiences that having survived it, served to make you stronger' (Interview).

An experienced and reformist public servant, Beasley's skills were not lost to the South Australian people in the wake of this controversy. She was appointed by premiers of both major parties as Commissioner for Consumer Affairs, then CEO of Industrial Relations and finally CEO of the Information Technology Workforce Strategy Office which aimed to establish university Chairs and link them with leading information technology organisations.

In 1998 Mary Beasley retired and moved to Sydney to start a new chapter and to be closer to her son. ( After 12 enjoyable years in Sydney she has recently returned to Adelaide.) Commenting on the factors that led to her decision to retire, Beasley will only say that she 'felt the time was right . You have done most of the things you wanted to achieve…You can be in a job for a time and begin to think it cannot continue without you', she says. 'But of course that is wrong. It can. And you soon realise that there is more to living than work' (Craig).

Life in retirement has been relaxed and full of friends and international travel although it has had its busy moments. In 1998 Beasley co-authored a book about the first season of Port Power's entry into the Australian Football League. She had campaigned vigorously for inclusion on the board in the 1990s but that was a bridge too far for the established all-male hierarchy. They offered her a position on the Marketing Sub-Committee of Port Power, so she grabbed the opportunity with both hands and established the foundation for the involvement of women in the club called Women In Power.

'Most of the men were gentlemanly,' she said, 'but there was at least one who had never, ever, worked with a woman on a committee and he never spoke directly to me' (Interview). However, regularly scheduled 6:00 am meetings by the all male group were a timely reminder that even though she has blazed many trails for South Australian women, there were still areas where much work needed to be done.

Archival Resources

National Library of Australia Oral History Collection

  • Mary Beasley interviewed by Nikki Henningham in the Women and leadership in a century of Australian democracy oral history project, 2 May 2012, ORAL TRC 6290/32; National Library of Australia Oral History Collection. Details

Published Resources

Books

  • Beasley, Mary and Allan, Garry, The power of many : the inside story of Port Power's first year, Random House Australia, Milsons Point, New South Wales, 1998. Details

Newspaper Articles

See also