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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

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Clare Margaret Burton (1942–1998)

by Marian Sawer

from Canberra Bulletin of Public Administration

When your eyes are opened to such inequities you call hardly shut your eyes to them.

- Clare Burton, 8 October 1994

Dr Clare Burton was someone who made a difference. She was the intellectual force behind employment equity programs in Australia in the 1980s and 1990s. Her research on gender and race bias became the basis for policy in both the public and private sectors and she was the guru of equity practitioners.

Clare grew up on farms in Tuggeranong and Weetangera, middle daughter of Cecily Burton and Or John Burton, Secretary of the Department of External Affairs under H. V. Evatt. Family life was sometimes stormy but always stimulating. What Clare inherited, along with her sisters Meredith and Pamela, was a strong reflex to do something about the inequities she saw in the world.

She excelled at university, graduating with first class honours in anthropology and a university medal from the University of Sydney in 1963. Then followed marriage to Peter Krinks and the birth of Rachel, Stephen and Kate. She was so immersed in domesticity and tiny children that the arrival of the women's movement escaped her notice. But not for long. After six years out of the full-time workforce she started her own PhD at Macquarie University, exploring theoretical explanations for women's subordination.

Then came an academic career at the Kuring-gai College of Advanced Education (later University of Technology, Sydney), where she became an Associate Professor known for her generosity as a teacher. Some of her experience was reflected in her essay "Public and Private Concerns in Academic Institutions", which won the APS/IPAA Women and Politics Prize in 1984. She was already advising governments on employment equity and job evaluation, the merit principle and managing workplace diversity.

Of her published work, Clare's monograph Redefining Merit became a bible for employment equity practitioners and her work on job evaluation and performance pay was on everybody's desks. The Promise and the Price: The struggle for equal opportunity in women's employment (1991) brought together her clear-sighted essays about the difficulty of shifting the masculine bias of organisational life.

In 1989 Clare was granted leave from her academic position to become Director of Equal Opportunity in Public Employment in the NSW Government. Her efficiency case for employment equity was crucial to her influence on Premier Nick Greiner. In 1992 Clare travelled north to become Commissioner for Public Sector Equity in the Queensland Goss Government. She always had the courage of her convictions, and she left this position later in the year to become an independent researcher and consultant in employment equity. She returned to Canberra in 1996.

Clare's professionalism and commitment meant everyone wanted her to evaluate their EEO programs, to speak at their conferences, to write submissions and present expert evidence. In the 1990s she conducted about a dozen university equity reviews as well as reviewing both the Australian and New Zealand Defence Forces. She contributed the crucial evidence on managing for diversity to the Kalpin Report. The ANU's Gender Equity Plan, launched on 13 August 1998, was just one of the many initiatives that flowed from her work.

In her spare time she worked on Women's Electoral Lobby (WEL) submissions on the Commonwealth Public Service Bill and the review of the Affirmative Action Agency, and was pleased to have the Commonwealth government adopt her definition of merit. She was about to start work for the Australian Defence Force Academy when her cancer was diagnosed, only two weeks before her death.

Although dogged by ill health, Clare never stinted her contribution to the women's movement. She was a founding member of the National Pay Equity Coalition and gave expert evidence to the NSW Pay Equity Inquiry in 1998. She was a dedicated WEL member and spokeswoman and was also a member of the Network of Women in Further Education. which she represented at the Women's Constitutional Convention in February 1998. She was a  much-loved sister in all senses.

Clare herself had a great capacity for love, expressed not only in her family relations but in all her friendships. It was her great joy to be a "support person" at the birth of her grandson Benjamin in March and a comfort to her that she had brought three wonderful children into the world. She was infinitely courageous in her last two terrible weeks, calmly disposing of her papers and making  arrangements. She served as an inspiration and support to many who wanted to make the world a better place.

* Marian Sawer is Associate Professor, Political Science Program, Research School of Social Sciences, Australian National University. An edited version of this obituary was published in the Canberra Times, 27 August 1998

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Citation details

Marian Sawer, 'Burton, Clare Margaret (1942–1998)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 22 July 2024.

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