IEUA NSW/ACT Assistant Secretary Pam Smith pays tribute to Senator Susan Ryan AO – a woman who changed things for women.
There have been many recent tributes to Susan Ryan AO, who passed away on 27 September, and there will be many more about the architect of equal rights for women legislation in Australia and who continued to advocate for a more socially just and inclusive society after her game-changing career in politics.
Born in 1942, Susan grew up in the Sydney suburb of Maroubra and was educated at Brigidine College, Randwick. She undertook a degree in English at the University of Sydney, hoping to complete an honours year part time while teaching.
Ryan taught for a year at St Patrick’s School for Girls at Church Hill but discrimination against married women at the time (she married at the age of 21) precluded her from completing either honours or a Diploma of Education (see breakout box page 2).
Elected to the Australian Senate from the ACT in 1975, Ryan became Minister for Education and Youth Affairs in the Hawke Government in 1983. She was also Minister for Aboriginal Affairs and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Status of Women.
During her parliamentary career, Ryan steered a range of legislation that helped transform the lives of Australian women. A centrepiece was the Sex Discrimination Act 1984, which Ryan described as “probably the most useful thing I have done in my life”.
Ryan also oversaw the Affirmative Action Act, the predecessor of the current Workplace Gender Equality Act which requires employers, such as dioceses, other systems and independent schools with more than 100 staff, to report annually to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency. Ryan’s legacy endures in this annual reporting system which ensures transparency around a range of key gender indicators, including access to flexible work arrangements.