Jennie came to Australia when she was three years old, as part of the wave of post-war immigration. She grew up in migrant hostels and her first home was a Housing Commission flat. She was educated at Burwood Girls High and won a scholarship to Sydney University where she studied to become a teacher. She was made a union representative at Bankstown Girls High and then became the first female secretary and later president of what is now the Teachers Federation. In 1983, she was elected as the first woman on the ACTU executive and became the first female full-time officer in 1991, as the assistant secretary. In March 2000, she stood down as president of the ACTU, having represented the union movement through the Howard-Reith regime, including the maritime dispute.
She has been a delegate to a number of state and national ALP Conferences and campaigned on behalf of ALP candidates in marginal seats in the last three Federal elections. Jennie has been involved with community groups in Throsby, on issues including industry policy, job creation; traineeships and the impact of the GST on pensioners/retirees and low income earners.
Interview with Jennie George
Why do you believe the glass ceiling exists for women? In which sectors have you found women to be most under-represented in?
The glass ceiling exists because simply it has been a "mans world" - a woman's place historically has been in the home caring for family. A public/private divide.
Women are under-represented in places where decisions of importance are made: in the corporate world, in politics, in unions, on company boards.
Are you aware of any strategies, within an industry or organization, which have been successful in dismantling this barrier?
A genuine commitment from top managers to redress injustices and support diversity and promote women on their merits.
What policies do you think are needed at a political level to encourage
a) Women to undertake leadership positions?
b) Organizations, both public and private, to identify and promote women to executive positions?
The Affirmative Action Agency had a positive impact in raising women's under-representation. However, it was too easy just to 'tick a box' and give the perception of real change.
What strategies did the ACTU undertake to eradicate barriers for women in the workplace while you were President? What difficulties did you encounter in doing so?
The ACTU adopted affirmative action Rules to ensure 50% female representation by 2000 - in a staged approach.
Issues to do with family friendly workplaces, parental leave, superannuation for all workers, elimination of sexual harassment at work were all vigorously promoted by the ACTU.
What have been some of the challenges that you have had to overcome to get to where you are at today in your professional life? Has the glass ceiling been one of them? How have you dealt with the challenges that you experienced?
Breaking down the cultural stereotype that defined union work as men's work.
To what factors do you attribute the difficulties that you have encountered in your career?
Being part of a supportive women's network helps to tackle the inevitable challenges.
Do men experience barriers that are comparable to the glass ceiling?
Men find it a lot easier because despite all the progress made, women continue to be the primary care-givers and family supporters.
Do you regard the political arena to be as favourable for women to advance in as it is for men?
The fact that there are only 38 women in the Federal House of Representatives - or 25% of the total number of Parliamentarians shows how far there is to go before our Parliaments are truly representative of the electorate. The ALP affirmative action policy has helped, as has the efforts of Emily's List.
Do you see a need for women who have broken through the glass ceiling to help other women to do the same? If yes, how can they do so?
Absolutely - there is nothing worse than the Queen Bee syndrome. By mentoring, encouraging and being supportive.
Are there any aims that you would like to achieve in your current position that would benefit women trying to secure leadership positions within and beyond the political arena?
You can be a leader at whatever level you aspire - be it in a community organisation, at a P & C level, at work, in unions or in politics. The main issue is to get women involved, active and participating. Once their confidence grows their potential is limitless.