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A will to succeed

Qantas chairman and Monash graduate Margaret Jackson has been a trail-blazer for Australian women in the male-dominated world of business. Fellow Monash graduate ANDREW PROBYN reports.

Monash University in the late 1960s and early 1970s was a radical campus in a sea of conservatism.

Margaret JacksonAs a breeding ground for free-thinkers likely to shun the stuffy social rules of the times, the Clayton campus was perfect, Margaret Jackson says.

"There were moratoriums, Albert Langer and the Save Lake Pedder campaign in Tasmania," Jackson remembers. "There were lots of demonstrations and mass movements of students in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Monash was still quite a young university then, an interesting place to be, but the outside world was still very conservative."

Just how conservative she was to find out in 1973, when, after graduating with a Bachelor of Economics, she set about trying to find a job as an accountant.

Jackson knew she was already in a minority, given that only five per cent of those with a major in accounting were women, but she was not prepared for what arrived in the post from some of Melbourne's biggest firms: "Miss Jackson, though you have very impressive academic results, our firm does not employ women."

"It's a pretty astonishing thing to repeat in the year 2002, but that's what it was like. I was brought up in a household where I was equal to my brother: we had the same opportunities, the same encouragement and I never thought about gender differences," Jackson says.

"I had never come across sex discrimination until I actually applied for a job, and I found it astonishing."

No one had ever told Jackson she could not do something before at Warragul High School, she had even been taught welding and woodwork. Her determination to become a chartered accountant was steeled.

She landed a job with Price Waterhouse and later became a member of the Institute of Chartered Accountants, at a time when less than one per cent of its membership was women (it is 25 per cent now).

In 1983, as a 30-year-old partner at accounting firm BDO Nelson Parkhill, Jackson became the second Australian woman to sit on the board of Telecom, now Telstra. She has since held directorships with BHP, Pacific Dunlop and the Australian Wool Corporation and has been chairman of the Transport Accident Commission and the Playbox theatre company.

At 49, Jackson is now a relatively young member of the senior establishment she once had to fight. But asked how her experience of the so-called 'glass ceiling' may have differed from some of her contemporaries, Jackson becomes shy.

"I don't like to use that term, but I think that all through my working life I have believed in my own abilities," is her seemingly well-rehearsed reply.

"I have always been a very determined person, and whenever someone has said that I couldn't do something for whatever reason, it was always what I wanted to do. I've avoided doing 'women' and the 'glass ceiling' sort of stuff."

Emphasising this point, Jackson insists on being called chairman, not chairwoman or chairperson.

In her 29-year professional life, Jackson believes the time she spent as a multi-client chartered accountant best prepared her for juggling multiple roles.

When she's not wearing the hat of Qantas chairman, Jackson is also deputy chairman of People Telecom, director of Billabong International and a director of the ANZ Banking Group.

The September 11 terrorist attacks and the coincidentally-timed collapse of Ansett have meant her role with Qantas has recently dominated her time. She nominates the day after the attacks on New York and Washington as her most challenging.

"I love a challenge, obviously, but the most challenging day of my life both professionally and personally was the 12th of September," she says.

"My father had heart surgery on the morning of the 12th, and I chaired a Qantas board meeting from his hospital bed phone while he was down in surgery. We had to deal with September 11 and the ramifications for Qantas, and what we were going to do with Ansett.

"That day, Qantas rejected an offer from Air New Zealand to buy Ansett, and two days later Ansett ceased flying. The rest is history."

For more information about the Monash MBA, visit www.mba.monash.edu.au

Andrew ProbynAndrew Probyn (LLB BA 1994) is a Canberra-based political journalist for the Herald Sun newspaper, and a past winner of the Golden Quill award from the Melbourne Press Club.

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