At the forefront of pioneering workplace equality for women in the 1980s, Valerie Pratt’s attention now turns to discrimination against older people.
Tell us about your role as founding director of the Affirmative Action Agency. What were your biggest successes during that time?
Following the Sex Discrimination Act in 1984, the agency was instrumental in improving HR practices. At that stage they [the companies] weren’t serious about career development and a vast amount of women were still in secretarial positions or were PAs – very few were in management jobs.
We achieved a very high level of compliance and got companies to recognise the limited career development possibilities for women, as well other issues around sexual harassment and juggling work and family, which had previously never been raised.
As director of National Seniors Australia Limited, what are some of the issues facing older people today?
It seems to me that we’re not doing ourselves justice by retrenching so many people who are 45- or 50-plus. There are many people in their 50s with degrees and lots of experience and yet they are finding it difficult to find employment.
Changing demographics, the high divorce rate, later marriage and the fact that many people in their 50s still have school-aged children, means that financial security is extremely important. There is both an economic and social benefit [to increasing employment for older workers].
What can be done to improve the conditions and access to employment for older workers?
I think the use of targets is always a good opportunity. If you have a good HR group researching the ageing structure of an organisation and looking at where skills can be maintained, I don’t see any reason why they can’t set a target for retaining a percentage of older workers for certain jobs.
The other difficulty is industries such as construction, where workers get [physically] worn out but that doesn’t mean they can’t contribute in a mentoring or supervisory capacity.
It’s a matter of adjusting the mind that there is still talent to be used when you’re 50-plus and celebrating the companies that are implementing these practices and using them as a role model for others.
During your time at CSR Ltd, what were some of the challenges you faced with regards to its multicultural workforce and remote locations?
I was lucky enough to join CSR [in 1976] when the GM was trying to initiate some major cultural change. It was very easy for me to start off researching a number of issues that could be used to complement personnel policies and practices.
After persuading them I should work on the line with the migrant workers, I discovered very poor language skills, no use of interpreters, no possible career development and some major OHS issues.
As a result, work policies were introduced about English-language classes and trying to find ways of promoting skilled women.
One of the highlights of my career was being part of a multicultural team looking into some remote developments where we found high levels of industrial unrest and strikes, a lot of which had to do with the quality of life. The company then embarked on plans to improve everything from housing and community facilities to entitlements that would allow workers to return regularly to the big cities.
How have you applied your experience to the various board positions you’ve held, such as the Civil Aviation Authority, Breast Cancer Institute and the NSW Ministerial Advisory Council?
My experiences have given me the opportunity to underline the fact that it’s not all about economics: it’s about the people in the organisation.
It’s also given me a real appreciation for the culture of organisations and how that culture can affect, for better or worse, the health of an organisation and the wellbeing of employees.
From a board perspective, I would encourage all companies to have women on the board and a cultural spread because when you get a good group of people with diverse ideas and a common goal, the actions and strategies that flow from that are superior.