Graduation address given by Professor Marian Baird

Professor Marian Baird gave the following occasional address at the University of Sydney Business School graduation ceremony held at 4.00pm on 5 October 2012 in the Great Hall. Professor Baird is Professor of Employment Relations in the University of Sydney Business School, Director of the Women and Work Research Group, and a Fellow of Senate

The photo below is copyright, Memento Photography.

Professor Marian Baird

Graduation address

Pro-Chancellor Mr Alec Brennan, Dean of the Business School, Professor Geoffrey Garrett, my fellow professors and colleagues, families and friends, and most importantly graduates, it is an honour to be here today to celebrate your graduation with you. For most of you this marks the end of your time at the University, but there is also a strong possibility you will continue with higher education in some form.

I have spent a lot of time at Sydney University. I sat in those same rows – some 35 years ago – in an era of tertiary education somewhat different to today.

The University of Sydney is a place I love, a place that is a central part of my own personal history ...and I hope it has been a place you have loved and benefited from.

Sydney University is also a place integral to the history of Sydney and Australia, and to the history and future of education in this country.

On October 11th, 1852, that is almost exactly 160 years ago, the University of Sydney opened its doors to students. As the recent publication on the history of the University by Horne and Sherrington (2012) explains, the University was established as a public institution with the philosophy of providing a secular education, much to the chagrin of some of the early leaders of the Churches in Australia. The University of Sydney was opened before the great public, land grant, universities of the USA and was opened as a more socially progressive institution than the religious based universities of England and Europe.

But when I say ‘open to students’, I mean men – and not that many – just 123 students in the first decade. It wasn’t until 1881 that co-education for men and women became an accepted part of the University.

So much has changed in the time since then. We now have a mass education institution – with 49,000 students. Yet there remains a common and shared experience, and that is the excellence of its research and teaching.

I went to university with the generation of Australians who had the doors of higher education opened to them by Prime Minister Whitlam, who initiated Australia’s diplomatic and trade opening to China, as one of the first countries to do so, among a generation of young women who studied economics and commerce. Some went on to be lawyers and accountants, to be union officials and government and business policy makers. Many went on to become teachers. The vast majority of these women joined workplaces that were modelled overtly around the male career path and life cycle.

I became a high school teacher first. In that job, it was accepted that returning to work after maternity leave you would stay on the grade and pay you had left prior to having the baby. However, a male who took the same time off to drive taxis, came back to a higher job grade and therefore higher pay. His taxi driving was deemed to be work experience, her mothering was deemed irrelevant to teaching. Examples such as these demonstrate inequities in work, and show how our working lives are socially constructed.

Since becoming an academic, my main research objective has been to expose those inequities at work and the faulty conventions on which they are built. My objective has been to provide research that informs policies, both government and employer policies, to better suit the contemporary world in which we live.

In this world young women and men, such as yourselves, who are fortunate to have a university education and who have invested time and money in your education, expect and hope to enter good jobs, to build careers and to receive decent employment conditions and fair pay. At the same time, most will expect – at some point - to have families and to combine their careers with care responsibilities. To do both you will need understanding from employers and sufficient flexibility from workplaces.

At first you will enter the labour market as employees. Remember that your salaries and conditions of employment are not set by magic, that they are the negotiated outcomes of the employment relationship and of government policy. Later, you may indeed become the managers and employers who have capacity to change the conditions of employment. I urge you, as graduates of commerce and liberal studies degrees, to always consider the role and responsibility of business in its social context - and of your roles in contributing to making sustainable quality jobs and workplaces.

On an occasion like this you may think I would quote the great philosophers, but instead I will quote an author with whom I think most of you would be more familiar than me! That is JK Rowling, creator of Harry Potter ... This seems quite fitting as we sit in this Great Hall, opened in 1859, with it's Hogwarts feel ... I read in a newspaper article last weekend, that when Rowling addressed a Harvard University commencement - and her subject was failure. Seven years after graduation she said she had 'failed on an epic scale' ... She was jobless, a lone parent and basically as poor as can be without being homeless. But in words, her failure ‘set her free’, she realized that she was alive, she had a typewriter and a big idea!

It's not that I am hoping you experience failure in order to find success, but to remind you that with an education you have a resource you can always draw upon. The ability to have ideas, to research and to critique, these skills you have developed while at University, will always be yours.

One of the great symbols of the University of Sydney is the jacaranda tree in the quadrangle. In a few weeks time its purple blossoms will contrast with the golden sandstone of the Quadrangle’s walls - and will remind students that exam time is near.

As I finish this address, I would like to say to you that I hope your careers blossom as the jacaranda does ... and that at this time of each year you recall your University days – not just the fear of exams and final assessments of course, but also the pleasures of learning and achievement among colleagues and friends.

It is a great privilege to have had the opportunity to teach you and to work with my colleagues, seated here with me. We also learn a great deal from you. All of us encourage you to make the most of the skills you have gained at University, both for yourself and for others. I congratulate you all on your graduation.