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Burton, Clare (1942–1998)

by Quentin Bryce

At the end of July I shared a conference platform with Clare Burton in Sydney — something we'd done many times in the last 20 years. I listened to her speak to a paper on Merit Gender and Corporate Governance. As I watched her I marvelled yet again at the thoroughness of her research; the analysis of her data; the power of her argument; the strength of her reasoning; the persuasion of her language; the breadth of her references; the detail of her bibliography; the courage of her conviction; her passion and her faith.

We talked afterwards about many things, first up the photos of her adored grandchild, on to political matters and the state of our nation. Clare reminisced about her Women's College years. We promised each other we'd catch up properly soon.

When I got back to my desk I sat down to read her conference paper. I was struck by its sheer professionalism and straight away wrote to tell her how impressed I was with her newest piece of work. Like so many Australians in recent days I have been reflecting on her life and her influence on our lives.

Clare wanted to change the world and she did.

She did so through her extraordinary contribution to the Women's Movement and in particular to women's employment opportunities and experiences. Her serious commitment to this end began with the preparation of her doctoral thesis at Macquarie University published in 1985 in an acclaimed text Subordination: Feminism and Social Theory — a history of ideas developed in the socialist feminist tradition during the 1970s with the purpose of drawing together strands of thought and debate often kept separate. It was an important signpost for future intellectual and political work.

Clare's next years were spent in academe. Teaching mattered to her — she revelled in challenging, inspiring, agitating, arguing and sharing ideas with her students, as she did over the years with all of us.

She taught us all.

Friendship with Clare was demanding, stimulating and rigorous, not to be taken lightly — but it was also to be enriched and rewarded. At Kuringai, Clare found an exciting, new institution of learning in the School of Financial and Administrative Studies. She was looking for different explanations of the world of work, taking a structural rather than a behavioural approach. Her reputation was flourishing on all fronts as she took her research to a wider audience, delivering conference papers taking her research on organisation practice and on gender as a structuring principle within work organisations. Her intellectual capacity and her unique analytical ability shone through her words and her writing.

Analysis was how Clare lived her life.

Public administrators listened. Women's groups depended on her for the research we needed to underpin our political action for equal pay, affirmative action, sex discrimination and Equal Employment Opportunity.

Clare was digging deeper and deeper into where gender bias is located.

She opened up the concept of merit: exploring job evaluation and performance appraisal; exposing gender bias in the culture of organisations; and in job design.

Women's Worth: pay equity and job evaluation, published in 1987 and of which Clare was principal author, gave the issue of pay equity, which concerns the value of women's paid work relative to men's, a new direction and a better understanding of how to tackle this complex and seemingly intractable form of sex discrimination.

In 1989 Clare was appointed Head of the NSW Equal Opportunity in Public Employment Office — an appointment made in a climate of controversy which was the go in those times. Clare got on with the job and fulfilled the expectations of her peers that she would be innovative and bold, fearless and determined. Clare demonstrated in this role her talent for translating a disciplined theoretic approach into the how to.

The promise and the price was launched with a sparkling party at the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission in 1991. It gave us a realistic assessment of EEO programs and addressed the fundamental issues involved in achieving equal status between women and men in employment — a collection of papers asking critical questions. How can we persuade people that their practices at work constitute gender relations? — that men and women don't come to the work place with their gender identities sewn as it were? — that what we do and how we do it at work recreates, reproduces, reorganises, reconstitutes our masculine and feminine identities.

The Queensland Government head-hunted Clare in 1992 to take up the job of Commissioner for Public Sector Equity in the Public Sector Management Commission. They wanted her name, her status, her reputation but not her reforms — a difficult period for her professionally; but how much her presence meant for Queensland women! It lifted our hopes and our aspirations and Clare did achieve change through her policy advice in a range of organisations in the private, public and higher education sectors in Queensland.

Clare returned to research and consultancy work — always in demand, always moving the agenda along. Clare was drawn back to the national scene by an increasing number of major research commissions. She returned to Canberra and embarked on what was perhaps her most significant work Women in the Australian Defence Force — in which she examined the cultural, social and institutional barriers impeding the merit based progression of women and the reasons why more women are not making the Australian Defence Force (ADF) a long-term career.

This far reaching report drew on all of Clare's research abilities and analytical skills. It gives the ADF a blue print to achieving a Defence Force free from discrimination and to breaking down the barriers to women's full participation. The New Zealand Government asked her to develop a game plan for their Defence Forces — a task Clare recently completed.

When I left Clare after our conference meeting a few weeks ago she gave me her card — as I noted its simplicity and her description of her professional self — Employment Equity, researcher and Consultant — I thought; how appropriate, how true, how Clare.

We record our debt of gratitude to Clare for her rich, valuable and unique contribution to the women's movement — to improving the lives of working women where ever they are. Her commitment to making a difference has meant that the doors have been opened wide and the paths made smoother for all of us. Clare's work was about the future—it was always dedicated to her children Rachel, Stephen and Kate—the next generation.

As we celebrate her life we find in her life's work a source of courage, support and inspiration to get on with what she would expect of us.

Original publication

Additional Resources

Citation details

Quentin Bryce, 'Burton, Clare (1942–1998)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 27 October 2021.

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