I start this by saying that while I was at the ABC I was afforded an array of opportunities (I stayed for more than 11 years, when initially I thought I’d only want to be there for two at the most). But I consider myself to be one of the lucky ones who was given opportunities. I know this is not always the case. So to position the ABC as some sort of egalitarian utopia for working mothers, as Erin O’Dwyer does in her story for Fairfax’s Sunday Life, is naive.

Does the ABC look after its people who want to have kids and return to work? Yes and no. While the ABC has provisions for those who leave work to have kids and return on a part-time basis, not all are treated the same. I know there are former colleagues who have left the national broadcaster because they weren’t given part-time work opportunities and were instead pushed into full-time work, which became untenable to balance with small children. The national broadcaster resembles not a utopia, but George Orwell’s Animal Farm: “All people are equal, but some are more equal than others.” And I admit there were times during my career there when I was the beneficiary of this inequitable system.

From allowing for flexible work, to employment appointments, to how salary is negotiated, the ABC is not all things to all people, even though it pretends to be. Some people are allowed to negotiate a market rate salary, whereas others are stuck in the public service band and point system. Some people are “appointed” to a position without an interview, while others have go through a futile interview process when the ABC has an internal candidate in mind. And some have the red carpet rolled out in the foyer at Ultimo when they return from having a baby, while others do not.

The other myth the Sunday Life story perpetuates is that women are changing ABC newsrooms around the country. Kate Torney’s appointment to national news director was historic and very exciting for all of us at the time, but there is still a long way to go. Women in EP and on-air positions are not new, and they are not changing the culture of ABC newsrooms. The ABC’s male-dominated power structures are still firmly in place. Apart from Torney, the rest of the corporation’s top executive are Mark Scott (managing director), Mick Millett (director of communications), Richard Finlayson (director of TV), Jon Casimir (head of entertainment), Justin Holdforth (head of sport), not to mention most of the news executive are male appointments, such as Gaven Morris (head of news content), Craig McMurtrie (head of news-gathering), Bruce Belsham (head of national current affairs) and Tony Hill (head of News 24).

If you want to change something you have to admit there’s a problem and deal with it. Acknowledgement is the first step, and I’m afraid the ABC is still in denial.

The other deeply disturbing aspect of O’Dwyer’s story is the photos. Why not really show these ABC presenters on the job as they really are? Why turn them into an ABC equivalent of a Vanity Fair Oscars cover?

Inspiring young women by showing how they can be smart and lead without appearing like a doll should be the message. But what we have here is a strong visual message that underpins the traditional view that to get ahead you have to be pretty and glamorous with an opinion that doesn’t challenge the status quo.

* Whitney Fitzsimmons is a former ABC TV News presenter and host of Business Today. She is a director on the board of the 100% Project, which campaigns for equal representation of women and men at board and executive level across Australia.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey