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A Bonza Eve Mahlab
14 / 03 / 2013
A Bonza Sheila is a regular Q and A section which pays tribute to a good woman, interviewed by Sheilas Editor Sarah Capper. Sarah writes:
Since Sheilas inception mid last-year, I have wanted to include Melbourne feminist, businesswoman and philanthropist Eve Mahlab in our ‘Bonza Sheila‘ club of awardees.
I spent time with Eve in 2007 in Seattle, USA, while attending the Women’s Funding Network international conference as a rep for the Victorian Women’s Trust, along with Executive Director Mary Crooks. During our time together in beautiful Washington state, the three of us first discussed the concept of creating a website for Australian women. From these preliminary discussions, in between conference sessions, visits to the Pike Street Markets, and a boat ride to Bainbridge Island across the magnificent Puget Sound, the concept for ‘Sheilas‘ was born!
Since then, I have thoroughly enjoyed getting to know Eve and in becoming aware of all the work she’s been involved with. In preparing for this interview with her, I was even more impressed by what she has achieved over her lifetime. Thank you Eve Mahlab, for not just contributing to the concept of this website I now write for and edit, but for being a ‘Bonza Sheila’ in general!
BONZA SHEILA QUESTIONS WITH EVE MAHLAB
1. You were born in Vienna in 1937 and emigrated to Australia aged 2 with your parents. Apart from one year in the United States, your family was based in Melbourne. Did you have a sense of being a migrant in 1940s and 50s Australia or did you feel very ‘Australian’ because of the young age in which you arrived?
At first I felt “ different”. Most Aussies were fair where I lived, but I was dark. My parents spoke differently, we ate different food, but we were totally accepted by our neighbours. The more diverse Australia got, the more Australian I felt.
2. You went to girls schools in Melbourne, including Methodist Ladies College. I’m just wondering when you became aware of your Jewish heritage and how was that embraced?
I wasn’t aware of any Jewish heritage until I was a teenager and read a book by Howard Fast called ‘My Glorious Brothers’, which is the story of the Jewish uprising against Greek occupation in Israel. This made me affiliate with the Jewish people emotionally and culturally. I do not connect “religiously”.
3. You began studying a law degree in 1954. We hear a lot about ‘boys clubs’ and I imagine law in 1950s Australia would be very much in line with this! Indeed many women during this era would not have commenced and finished further education. What was the driving factor for you in studying a law degree?
My father whom I loved and respected advised that as I was an opinionated female, it was unlikely that I would find a husband who would stay with me, so I had to be able to support myself. As I was also determined and articulate, he suggested I study Law. (I’m happy to report that I’ve been married happily to the same man for 52 years).
4. After your degree you travelled, and then returned to do your articles (following which you began work with the NSW Public Solicitor). Around this time you also married, and after having children had a desire to return to work (and did so). I believe during this time you saw the potential market for a part-time workforce (and its appeal to young mothers). Can you describe your own experience in balancing work and family that led you to create a recruitment business, Mahlab Recruitment?
I had three children in 3 ½ years and I needed intellectual challenge but I couldn’t find satisfying part time work in the Law. I knew there was a supply of other smart women lawyers and if I could create a demand for them, it would keep me in touch with the profession until I could go back to work full-time. So I started an employment agency for lawyers which grew, diversified, prospered and opened up opportunities for women lawyers.
5. What would you say shaped your feminist awareness?
My legal practice experience as a Matrimonial Causes (now called Family) Lawyer in the early 70s. The Act was based on “fault” which had to be proved, and proving was expensive, so it disadvantaged women. At that time, it was almost impossible for mothers to find work which paid so they were stuck in unhappy and often abusive marriages. Nor on dissolution was their unpaid contribution as a wife and mother recognised financially. This enraged me.
6. In the early 1970s you were heavily involved in the Women’s Electoral Lobby. What inspired this involvement and what was one of your achievements in this capacity?
I was inspired by the gutsy Victorian women who started WEL. Beatrice Faust, Iola Hack. Carmen Lawrence.
7. The Gillard Government has seen record numbers of women in Cabinet, forming the basis of a “critical mass” (or start of one!) which I imagine would be part of the vision the original WEL members had in shaping that organisation 40 years ago. In May last year you wrote an article published in the Age about the “witch hunt” against the Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, detailing some of the sexism and double standards to which she is judged. As one of the early WEL members, has this been a bit of a bittersweet experience to witness this response?
I have been heartened by the response of many women and men world-wide but also dismayed by the fear and resentment of Aussie Macho Men and their envious female accomplices. I am ashamed by the double standards applied to women as compared to men. I’m alert to the attempts to silence protest by stigmatising it as “playing the Gender card” (just as the voice of women was silenced by the media portrayal of mainstream feminists as ugly, hairy and anti men). I’m disappointed that the fair go doesn’t apply to ambitious women who are torn down unless they stay in their place (ie in traditional low paid jobs or as the helpmates to ambitious men).
8. Do you think Gillard’s treatment will encourage or discourage aspiring young women interested in politics?
The vicious sexual politics and reportage designed to humiliate the PM is intended to discourage all women from competing with men. However IF enough influential women and men are courageous enough to “name” the appalling behaviour for what it is, namely BULLYING, IF we protest enough, we will be inspiring models for our daughters and ensure that women’s voices and women’s values continue to influence national policy.
9. In 1982 you were named the Qantas Bulletin Business Woman of the Year and in 1993 you were the first woman appointed to the Board of Westpac, a position you held for almost 10 years. Westpac now has a female CEO Gail Kelly, but I’m wondering in 1993 how challenging it was to be woman on the board of Australia’s oldest bank?
It was hard and it was lonely. Like so many women in similar positions, my contributions were overlooked or trivialised and my shortcomings were taken very, very seriously. Nevertheless, I was able to support the CEO’s strategies to bring more women into leadership positions and Westpac prospered while I was part of the Board.
10. There’s more and more evidence that companies which have women on the boards have better bottom lines than companies which don’t. Considering how Australia lags behind in regard to women on boards, how do we better address the issue?
A more innovative approach to analysis, recruitment and selection of board members is needed – similar to that which I introduced into the legal profession in the 70s.
11. Addressing workplace discrimination seems to be a bit of a theme over your working lifetime – through your own business in creating opportunities and advocating for women with part-time work, through WEL with cases like lobbying for female drivers at Victorian Railways, and later with your consultancy work with JB Weir (looking at religious discrimination, and broadening this policy out to include other forms of discrimination). What’s been the driver behind this area of interest?
I’m interested in economics and I hate waste. If we are to maintain our living standards in a post industrial world, we cannot waste the brains and talents of 50% of our population. We must find innovative ways to realize the potential of women without compromising the wellbeing of the next generation.
12. You’re a former President of Philanthropy Australia and more recently, one of the founders and Chair of the Australian Women Donors Network. In an Age article in 2010, it was suggested that the “third wave” of feminism needs to focus on ensuring more philanthropic funds reach women and girls. What convinced you of the benefits of directing more philanthropic funds to women and girls?
I remembered the Golden Rule – “They who have the gold make the rules”. I became aware of the leadership shown by innovative courageous passionate philanthropists, who funded the first free schools, the first hospitals, the first public libraries and especially the research into the contraceptive pill. I thought that once again philanthropists could take the lead by influencing grant seekers to consider the often different, circumstances of women, so that the disadvantages borne by women were addressed and their talents of were harnessed.
13. Who inspires you and why?
Hilary Clinton. She played an integral part in the successful presidency of Bill Clinton. She fought a fantastic campaign to get the democratic nomination for President herself. She thought big, she was gutsy, she worked hard, she put up with the misogyny but always kept her eye on the bigger picture. She has changed the role of US Secretary of State and for the first time put Poverty and Women’s Empowerment on the global agenda.
I also admire Margaret Thatcher for her innovative encouragement of market forces (which have since gone too far!!!) and for her courageous willingness to lead.
14. Which women of history would you invite to a dinner party?
The American feminists like Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan and Bella Abzug.
15. What’s next for Eve Mahlab?
Spreading practice of the Gender Lens in pursuit of Genderwise Philanthropy —–leading in turn to a social sector which alleviates the disadvantage of women and harnesses their talents in the interests of all humanity.
Eve Mahlab AO is a businesswoman and philanthropist.
She is the co-founder and Chair of the Australian Women Donors Network.
In many respects she has been a trailblazer, with many ‘firsts’, creating her own business, having been elected to various prominent board positions, being involved in feminist advocacy, and in raising awareness of philanthropy and promoting the importance of funding projects for women and girls.