The office of the past - thankfully

By Carole Ritchie
Records Officer

Our guest contributor this month is Carole Ritchie, a Records Officer for Business Advisory Services and a woman who has embodied strength, tenacity and resilience in her 76 years.

I started in the Sydney head office of the Commercial Bank of Australia (now Westpac) at 16, employed as a Stenographer (turning speech into shorthand) and was placed as Secretary to the Head Ledger Keeper – Mr Phillip Douglas Southwell-Keely. He was a tyrant and ran the Ledger Department like he was a Major General. If I dared make a mistake in a letter it would be thrown at me and I was instructed to type it again. I was scared stiff of him. There was no liquid paper in those days. Part of my job was to type all the letters that I had taken shorthand notes for, as well as typing the names and addresses of customers onto the statements and ledger cards. I also typed up the envelopes for each statement sent out. All letters were typed in triplicate with carbon paper between each sheet of paper. If only we had photocopiers then.

This was long before the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act came into force in 1977, and fair to say gender discrimination was rife:

  • Mr Southwell-Keely was furious at being given a female assistant, named Audrey, so he set up the office with her at one end of the floor and him at the other.
  • There were five separate ledger sets at that time and each had a senior male as the Ledger Supervisor. Females were only employed there as machinists or trainee machinists.
  • The bank supplied uniforms and the ladies had to wear them. We were not allowed to wear them to work on public transport and had to change when we got to work. We were not allowed to wear trousers at all, even in winter.
  • There were no married ladies on the Commonwealth Bank staff in the 60’s. If a girl married she had to leave. Much of these were then employed by banks such as the Commercial Bank of Australia.
  • Females were not entitled to staff housing loans no matter how long they had worked in the bank. Males were entitled to them after 7 years of service. Even when the anti-discrimination laws came in, the bank refused to take over existing loans from other banks or change current loans to staff rates. Mine was eventually changed because the State Manager helped me get it.
  • Females did not hold senior positions. Many department heads refused to have females on their staff and the Head Ledger Keeper was absolutely furious when a female was eventually appointed as his assistant.
  • There were male and female rates of pay. Even though two people were doing exactly the same job, the male would be paid a higher rate than the female.
  • Males were often promoted over more capable females, and often because they were incompetent! It was easier to promote them than to try to get rid of them any other way - it was called “getting rid of the dead wood”.
  • When we were Westpac, I was transferred to the Managerial Dept. As the only female Manager’s Assistant, I was left by myself on a Friday at lunch time while all of the guys went for a boozy lunch. Friday was payday for most companies and nearly everyone was paid in cash. Someone would come in to cash the wages cheques. The managers and their assistants would be out boozing while I was left to decide whether to honour the wages cheques or not. A hard decision when so many accounts had large overdrafts. To refuse payment would mean workers went unpaid and it could ruin the company.

Since leaving the bank in 1996, I worked in accounting, the CBA Loans Processing Centre and a share registry. I tried to retire but Marie Ridgway brought me into Lawler Partners 12 years ago and here I remain at the now PKF.

As a footnote, Audrey & I became very good friends and we still are to this day. I speak to her over the phone nearly every week – she recently turned 90.