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Aiming For The Skies

Aiming For The Skies

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Aiming For The Skies

228 pages
3 hours
Mar 1, 2012


Fay Marles has lived a life of firsts. As Victoria's first Commissioner for Equal Opportunity, she played an instrumental role in the landmark case that resulted in Ansett employing its first female pilot. Over the next decade, she battled discrimination on many fronts, overseeing the commission's rapid development and expansion. She went on to found Australia's first private equal opportunity consultancy, and made history again when she became the first woman Chancellor of the University of Melbourne in February 2001.

But in these fascinating memoirs, Marles offers much more than an account of her many personal and professional achievements. She candidly explores the influences that helped to shape her outlook and interests, from her family background and schooling to her experiences as an undergraduate at the University of Melbourne in the 1940s, where she was one of Manning Clark's first students. Her recollections of working as a young social worker in Brisbane in the 1950s, and later as a lecturer in social work at the University of Melbourne in the 1970s, offer a fascinating snapshot of the development of social work as a profession in Australia. She also describes the challenges of balancing her family life and career, and of pursuing postgraduate study as a mature-age student. Along the way, she charts her growing interest in women's issues and Indigenous affairs.

Throughout her remarkable life, Fay Marles has aimed for the skies. Through her commitment to justice and her firm belief in the value of education, she has helped and inspired many others to do the same.
Mar 1, 2012

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Aiming For The Skies - Fay Marles

The Miegunyah Press

The general series of the

Miegunyah Volumes

was made possible by the

Miegunyah Fund

established by bequests

under the wills of

Sir Russell and Lady Grimwade.

‘Miegunyah’ was the home of

Mab and Russell Grimwade

from 1911 to 1955.



1 An unusual socialisation

2 Finding my feet

3 Life at Geelong Grammar

4 A woman with responsibilities

5 Equal to the task?

6 Lessons in the world of business

7 Equal opportunity grows

8 Into private practice

9 The University of Melbourne


The first time I recall thinking that I could have been discriminated against on the basis of my sex was in 1948, at the age of twenty-two, when I had been in Brisbane for about six weeks in my first job as a social worker.

I had read an advertisement in the Courier Mail for a flying scholarship, sponsored by the newspaper, for entrants over twenty-one. It included an entry form with the information that on its receipt entrants would be allocated a time at Archerfield Airport for a test flight. I applied and was duly allocated a time.

On arrival at the airport, I found myself among four or five other hopefuls waiting for our test flights with an instructor who was taking entrants up one at a time in a single-engine plane. When it was my turn, I was firmly buckled into one of the two seats facing a wide-angled windscreen directly above a very complicated control panel; the instructor, sitting next to me, had the same visibility but, I suspect, overriding controls.

Once in the plane, I wore headphones and had a speaker for communicating with the pilot, who as soon as we were airborne, gave me instructions first to turn the plane to the left and then to the right and, following that, to climb and then to dive. The test lasted approximately thirteen minutes, and I was intoxicated by it—especially as the pilot, after telling me with my first turn that I needed to bank more, applauded everything I did. As I got out, I could also see that he had given me straight As on my score card. From the way he told me that I could expect to hear shortly if I was among those selected for a deciding longer flight, I thought I was bound to be.

My next communication came about a month later via the announcement of the winner in the Courier Mail itself. He was a young man who hoped that his long-held dream to become a commercial pilot would be realised through the scholarship.

While I hadn’t expected that I would necessarily win the scholarship, I couldn’t see how I could have missed out on a second test flight with my straight As unless there had been other selection criteria that I hadn’t been informed about. From the way the winner was written up, I decided the reason must have been that, as a girl, I could not have made flying my career—which was the focus of the feature article about the winner.

After that, I forgot about it—with no premonition of how important the whole issue of women as airline pilots would become thirty years later. It was not until 7 August 1978 that I again became involved in the issue of women pilots, and it was to trigger a train of events that became known internationally as a watershed case in sexual discrimination.


I first met Deborah Lawrie one afternoon in August 1978. I had been the Commissioner for Equal Opportunity for Victoria for only four months, under brand new legislation, and was still feeling my way. All my personal assistant could tell me about the last appointment in my diary for the day was that it was to discuss a possible complaint from a woman who had been refused a traineeship with Ansett Airlines. Deborah Lawrie had contacted us to find out whether her recent experience with Ansett Airlines would give her some kind of remedy under the provisions of Victoria’s Equal Opportunity Act 1977.

Deborah’s story was straightforward, and the facts were not in dispute. She explained how she had applied to be admitted to the most recent intake of trainee pilots. She was one of a cohort of applicants chosen to undertake a battery of tests required for admission. But after she had completed the tests, she had been refused entry, even though she knew from the instructors that she had done well. Her results showed she had been one of the top performers and that even her worst result had been better than at least one of the successful applicants.

As soon as Deborah had left, the receptionist made an appointment for me to see Sir Reginald Ansett two days later for what in many respects was to be a historic meeting.

Sir Reginald’s office was a long, spacious room, large enough for a conference table and formal chairs at one end, a comfortable, informal lounge suite in the centre, and a large desk at the far end. I was shown in through the door at the formal end of the room, where I was invited to sit at the conference table. I had no idea what to expect but was apprehensive about my reception. But Sir Reginald was polite and impersonal and waited for me to explain the reason for my visit. After summarising my role under the Equal Opportunity Act, I read out Deborah’s complaint and went into the circumstances as I had heard them. I explained that if they were an accurate account of what had occurred, then they indicated possible discrimination under the new legislation.

Sir Reginald then shared with me his strong views on his responsibility to the public and why he could not allow a woman to pilot one of his aircraft. I asked a number of questions and concluded our detailed discussion with a description of my obligation under the Act to endeavour to settle matters by conciliation. I also predicted that if we were unable to reach an agreement allowing her to enter the pilot training program, Deborah would ask me to refer her complaint to the Equal Opportunity Board for a formal hearing.

By this time Sir Reginald appeared to be taking the matter more seriously, and he explained to me at length again how he had a duty to the public and their safety. The irresponsibility of taking any action that could put them at risk was what drove his decision. Without being explicit, he referred to the emotional and physical characteristics of women that in his view made them unsuitable for the role of a commercial pilot.

During the final part of the interview, I explained my role under the Equal Opportunity Act once more and reiterated why I was obliged to refer the matter to the Equal Opportunity Board if I could not achieve a conciliated outcome. I also addressed some of his arguments again, but he gave the impression of switching off, and that he found my direct references to menstruation—rather than his euphemistic ‘at certain times’—distasteful and unbecoming to a woman of my standing.

So, after an hour and a half of discussion, having failed to reach any agreement about how the dispute could be settled, we concluded the interview with the mutual understanding that I would refer the matter to the Equal Opportunity Board for a formal hearing if Deborah wanted me to. While I was disappointed that I had not been able to achieve a conciliated outcome, it was obvious to me that we were on the verge of seriously testing the Act. It all rested on whether Deborah would want to take the matter further. And her sense of injustice, combined with her single-minded focus on her future, made me certain that she would.

My own feelings about this were mixed. For the sake of the new Equal Opportunity Act, one of the first in Australia, I hoped there would be a hearing; it was a clear-cut case of discrimination in an area of public interest, and it could put us on the map. But at the same time, I was concerned about Deborah herself and the strain it would put on her. When we discussed it and I told her the outcome of my meeting, though, she was determined to go ahead. So without any delay, I referred it to the Equal Opportunity Board.

From that point, the matter was out of my hands. Once the hearing began, though, my office became a haven for nervous witnesses waiting their turn to be called. I remember particularly a group of women pilots who had flown from Sydney to assist Deborah and who used my office to discuss tactics.

Beyond that, because equal opportunity was such a new jurisdiction, with as yet no established hearing precedents, there was very little I could say. I was still conscious of being bound by the provisions of the Act, which required that nothing said or done in the course of conciliation could be used as evidence at a board hearing. But while I could not discuss the case itself, I very soon found I could give witnesses general support and reduce their anxiety without entering into any discussions of the case itself or of my meetings with Deborah.

Over the next eighteen months, Deborah participated in hearings before the Equal Opportunity Board, the Supreme Court, the Court of Appeal and the High Court. During the initial hearing before the Equal Opportunity Board, evidence was given by Garth Harris, the chief flying instructor for Combined Flights Training. He testified that Deborah Lawrie was his star pupil and that she had earned the highest rating of any person he had had the opportunity to train. She had higher educational qualifications than all but one of the other twenty-eight applicants for the intake, and her score was higher on each of the selection criteria and the pre-employment tests than at least one of the other successful applicants—except for the criterion for age, and she was equal to one of the others in that category.

At the conclusion of the first day’s sitting, when the board heard evidence concerning whether a prima facie case existed, inexperience caused it instead to make the finding that there had been sex discrimination. This was an error in law and led to a suspension of the hearing while the Victorian Supreme Court heard Ansett’s challenge to the board’s impartiality. After the Supreme Court had duly found that the board had been guilty of bias, the board was suspended. Over the course of several months, a new board was appointed and re-heard the case, again determining in Deborah Lawrie’s favour.

Ansett Airlines promptly appealed to the Supreme Court, which upheld the decision of the Equal Opportunity Board. Ansett appealed to the Supreme Court again on two grounds: first, that the Equal Opportunity Board had no power to order Ansett to employ Lawrie and, second, that it sought to regulate matters already regulated under federal industrial awards.

At that stage, Deborah’s lawyer, John Dwyer, went to England to study the English Act on which the Victorian Act was modelled, and in particular to see whether there was any way in which the potential for pregnancy could be considered a valid reason to rule Deborah out. He was reassured that any such basis for exclusion would defeat the purpose of the Act.

By now the women’s movement was heavily involved, and the National Council of Women called a rally for ‘Discrimination against Deborah Lawrie Day’. The estimate of the number of women present varied from 300 to 1000. There were twelve police regulating the rally, and the case was described by Mary Owen, a leading member of the Women’s Electoral Lobby, as a milestone in feminist history. Deborah, though, who was not part of the women’s liberation movement, simply said, ‘I have done all this for myself. No one else. I love flying. It’s all I ever wanted to do.’ She was essentially non-political, and at that stage she did not want to try to resolve the issue on political grounds.

Finally, disregarding the public mood, Ansett went to the High Court on 26 June 1979 to determine whether the Equal Opportunity Board had the right to order Deborah’s employment. The outcome of this was to affect equal opportunity legislation throughout Australia. But because there was to be an intake of pilots prior to the High Court hearing, Ansett made an interim request to the Supreme Court to allow them not to employ Deborah. Mr Justice Gray, however, ordered Ansett Airlines to include her in the intake and awarded costs against the company.

Deborah was now placed in a difficult position: she was being admitted to the intake and would be undertaking the preliminary training, but it was possible she could be dismissed before she could take her place as a pilot. It was then announced that the verdict of the High Court would not be handed down until after Deborah had finished her training. A boycott of Ansett was organised, and the airline lost about 24 per cent of its business in favour of rival airline TAA.

On 31 October that year, however, there was a crucial development. Sir Reginald Ansett stood down as the chief executive officer and managing director of Ansett Airlines, and Robert Holmes à Court took over.

In the meantime, the staff of the training program were extremely good to Deborah, ignoring any management hostility. On 17 November, the Acting President of the Australian Federation of Airline Pilots, Captain Tony Fitzsimmons, described the actions of Ansett as the most blatant and calculated attack in the history of the Federation. Rumours continued that Deborah would be dismissed at the end of the course, and then the Australian newspaper nominated her as the Australian of the Year for 1979.

Finally, Peter Abeles and Rupert Murdoch took over from Robert Holmes à Court. John Calvert-Jones, Murdoch’s brother-in-law, had flown with Deborah, and his mother, Dame Elisabeth Murdoch, had also met her. Rupert Murdoch ruled that Deborah was to be treated like anyone else, and two days after the Murdoch directive, she was rostered to Fokkers for F27 endorsement. Eventually, Deborah Lawrie won her case. She had been directly discriminated against because of her sex, and both the technical and jurisdictional arguments against her case finally foundered.

From my perspective, the case would have a direct influence on the administration of anti-discrimination legislation, and on the community’s increased acceptance of it, not to mention a dramatic effect on many employers’ understanding of the lawful limits to discriminatory decision-making. A complaint to the Commissioner for Equal Opportunity was the action that had started it all off, and the public’s recognition of this had a significant influence on our future work. People who had complaints made against them now took the situation very seriously, and this greatly assisted conciliation.

Apart from other considerations, Deborah’s story became an incredibly powerful drama, in which every Australian, with the purchase of an airline ticket, could make a personal decision to either strengthen or weaken the boycott against Ansett. It was remarkable, too, how people’s opinions changed over a period. Initially, many people felt that while Deborah was within her rights to try to become a pilot with a major airline, public safety had to be its first consideration. As time went on, more people expressed a desire to fly with a pilot who had the strength and personal qualities to successfully challenge the Ansett juggernaut.

At a personal level, my own career owed a great deal to Deborah. She fought and won battles that established the credibility of the new equal opportunity legislation and its administrators in a way that we couldn’t have achieved otherwise, and also in a way that generated much-needed publicity.

On the three occasions that I went overseas in my capacity as Commissioner for Equal Opportunity, I was invariably identified with the Australian girl who wanted to become a pilot: first at Manchester, where the Equal Opportunity Commission was anxious to hear the full story; then at a United Nations human rights conference in Vienna, where I was the speaker invited to represent Australia and where I used it in my presentation; and finally at the Harvard University Law School, where I attended the internationally acclaimed negotiating skills workshop.

But beyond the notoriety, the case taught us a great deal. The analysis of equal opportunity became, for a short time, almost as mainstream as that of football. In order to field the barrage of questions and cope with the onslaught of people’s strongly held opinions, we needed to undertake a detailed analysis of our own direction and how well we were performing, including our handling of the media and the management of our public profile.

An exhausting but rewarding side effect of the public boycott of Ansett Airlines and of the stand taken by women’s organisations was the number of invitations I received to speak at public events and at schools. More personally, I kept being reminded of my own flying scholarship experience, and I was egged on by my sense that justice was at the heart the legislation.

My social life became particularly uncomfortable, though, with disagreements about equal opportunity regularly erupting. I especially remember one party finishing early with raised voices and a mortified hostess—just one in a series of similar scenes that my presence seemed to inspire during that period. I was constantly defending my actions to executives who had been embroiled in an Ansett-type problem. I also had to withstand attempts to draw me into debates when I didn’t know their significance. Sometimes it was women who were airing grievances they hadn’t felt confident enough to raise before, or those who were mischievously taking advantage of the opportunity to stir the pot. Either way, it was undoubtedly my presence and what I stood for that set them off, and I felt for my hosts.

If I’d had any lingering doubts about the volatile effect of my presence on otherwise reasonable people, an incident at an exhibition opening dispelled them. While I was talking about the exhibition and the artists to a friend who was a very well-known patron of the arts, her husband came up from behind me. Before I could turn my head to acknowledge him, I heard him say in a familiar growl, ‘That dreadful friend of yours is here somewhere. Don’t expect me to talk to her.’

My friend turned to her husband and, in her pleasantest voice, said, ‘I don’t think you’ve said hello to Fay.’ The husband recognised me, froze for a

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