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Clare Margaret Burton (1942–1998)

by Melanie Nolan

This article was published online in 2023

Clare Burton, by Kate Krinks, c.1995

Clare Burton, by Kate Krinks, c.1995

photo provided by family

Clare Margaret Burton (1942–1998), anthropologist, employment equity researcher, and consultant, was born on 30 October 1942 in Canberra, second of three daughters of New South Wales-born Cecily Margaret, née Nixon, and her Victorian-born husband John Wear Burton, public servant. Clare grew up on the family’s farms in Melrose Valley, Tuggeranong, and the old Weetangera district in the Australian Capital Territory. She attended Telopea Park School and then Canberra High School, where she was a prefect. By 1955 the family had shifted into Canberra, where from 1957 John ran a bookshop, the Green Square Book & Record Shop. At home the girls were never ‘shooed from the room or excluded from lively discussions’ of ideas (Frith 1994, C3). It was an intellectually stimulating environment, with the Burtons’ wide circle including public servants, politicians, diplomats, trade unionists, and academics. Clare remembered a ‘difficult’ adolescence, however, as her parents’ marriage unravelled. She was ‘somewhat lonely’ and believed her upbringing had ‘left her ill equipped to handle relationships easily.’ By her own admission, ‘she chose for much of her life to bury herself instead in her work’ (Frith 1994, C3). Her Methodist background on ‘both sides’ (Frith 1994, C3) and involvement at the Methodist National Memorial Church during her teen years meant for Clare not only ‘a strong sense of obligation to alter the world’ for the better, but also the necessity of being ‘active all the time’ (Cadzow 1989, 6).

Attending the University of Sydney (BA Hons, 1964) from 1961, Burton lived in Women’s College and graduated in anthropology, for which she was awarded the university medal. In December 1963 she embarked on a working holiday, finding employment as a research assistant at the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations, London. Back in Canberra, she became a research assistant in the anthropology department at the Australian National University (ANU). Described as ‘tall … with a gentle manner and a definite purpose’ (Canberra Times 1964, 12), she intended to enrol in a doctorate, examining trade union affairs and political developments in the Territory of Papua and New Guinea, with the ambition to become a lecturer at the university planned for Port Moresby. Instead she met a fellow student, Peter Arthur Krinks, and they married at the Australian Capital Territory Law Courts on 14 August 1965. She accompanied him to the Philippines, where he was doing his postgraduate research; the first of their three children was born in 1967. Following a brief return to Canberra, the family moved to Sydney in 1970, where Peter embarked on an academic career at Macquarie University.

‘Immersed … in domesticity and tiny children’ (Burton 1985, vii), at first Clare claimed to have barely noticed the feminist movement. She attributed her ‘transformation from a wife and mother into a person’ (Burton 1985, vii) and activist in large part to her friendship with Joyce Stevens. With another friend, Di Graham, she joined a women’s liberation group at Lane Cove. She enrolled as a doctoral student at Macquarie University (PhD, 1979) in 1974, the year she and Peter separated. Supervised by Bob (Raewyn) Connell, she completed a thesis that explored the theoretical explanations for women’s subordination. It was published as Subordination: Feminism and Social Theory in 1985. Her marriage ended in divorce in 1978, by which time she had reverted to her birth surname.

Burton began her academic career in the department of administrative, social, and political studies at Kuring-gai College of Advanced Education, where her interest developed in the gendered nature of organisational structures. This focus reflected another aspect of her upbringing that she would later emphasise: ‘that very strong position my father took on acting upon what he saw to be inequities’ (Frith 1994, C3). Her eyes were opened to the issue of employment equity and the gendered concept of merit. She was joint winner of the Australasian Political Studies Association’s Women and Politics prize in 1984 for her essay ‘Public and Private Concerns in Academic Institutions.’

Increasingly Burton researched pay equity. She joined others arguing that discriminatory practices prevented women advancing to the top of their fields. With two colleagues, she published Women's Worth: Pay Equity and Job Evaluation in Australia (1987), in which they analysed the gender bias in the implementation of the Hay model of job evaluation at a college of advanced education. They argued that ingrained cultural perspectives were at work, leading to women’s attributes, such as manual dexterity and social skills, being undervalued, while men’s physical strength was well regarded and remunerated. In 1988 she was a founding member of the National Pay Equity Coalition. She was all too aware that Australian female unionists disagreed over whether wage-fixing bodies or employers ought to determine work value. While ‘not entirely pessimistic,’ she was ‘sober about’ how much affirmative action and anti-discrimination legislation could accomplish (Dowse 1991, C9). Although centralised equal employment opportunity (EEO) policy was important, she argued that the introduction of unbiased job-evaluation schemes by employers was also crucial. Redefining Merit, her 1988 monograph, became an essential companion text for practitioners of employment equity. Her friend Quentin Bryce later noted that ‘women’s groups depended on her for the research we needed to underpin our political action for equal pay, affirmative action, sex discrimination and Equal Employment Opportunity (Bryce 1998, 8).

Always the ‘activist researcher’ (Hunter 2000, 40), in the words of Margaret Gardner, Burton transitioned from academia and analysis to the detailed work of implementing ‘realistic and practical strategies to deal with some of the more difficult EEO issues’ (NLA MS Acc01.042) when she was appointed director of equal opportunity in public employment in New South Wales in 1989. She focused on how to assess EEO programs, measure the implementation of fair job evaluation, and develop policy so that EEO programs could be ‘devolved to line managers and remain effective’ (NLA MS Acc01.042). A review of the office of the director of equal opportunity in public employment just after her appointment endorsed plans for it to have an ’enhanced policy development and research role’ (NLA MS Acc01.042). The tone of her work changed, as shown in The Promise and the Price (1991), to accepting indications of progress: better and improved personnel policies and practices. Her work emphasised the complexity of EEO and the inevitable gradualism of cultural change. She threw herself into prosaic human resources management procedures: collecting data, reporting, accountability, and outcomes. Her initial focus on women broadened to consider systemic biases against Aboriginal people and those with physical disabilities or from non-English speaking backgrounds. It was her persistent belief and message that EEO was good for business and that discrimination was costly.

In 1992 Burton took up the position of commissioner for public sector equity under the government of Wayne Goss in Queensland, which set out to overhaul the public service after thirty-two years of conservative coalition rule and to catch up with other States in its EEO policies. Attracted to the challenge, she singled out ‘high expectations’ (NLA MS Acc01.042) as causing tension in her role. In 1996 she decided to work independently as a researcher and consultant in employment equity based in Canberra. She was increasingly called on as an expert witness for EEO cases. A member of many groups, she was particularly dedicated to the Women’s Electoral Lobby, and worked on WEL submissions on the 1997 Federal public service bill and the 1998 review of the Commonwealth Affirmative Action Act 1986. She undertook a number of equity reviews in universities, and conducted reviews of the Australian and New Zealand defence forces. Her report to the New Zealand Human Rights Commission, Report of the Gender Integration Audit of the New Zealand Defence Force (1998), was her final finished work.

Tucked into Burton’s professional papers is a pamphlet on pain relief. Seemingly healthy, although a lifelong smoker, she developed chronic occupational overuse injury and wore a splint. In April 1998 her relationship with Geoff, her partner, came to an end; typically, she threw herself into work. Then she began to suffer serious abdominal pain, initially misdiagnosed as a twisted colon. Widespread cancer was diagnosed and she died on 23 August in Canberra, survived by her two daughters and one son. Her ashes were interred at the Northern Suburbs Memorial Gardens and Crematorium, North Ryde, Sydney.

Although an atheist, at her request Burton’s memorial service was held at the Wesley Uniting Church, Forrest. Philippa Hall noted that ‘friendship and work with Clare were deeply rewarding’ albeit ’demanding and challenging as well’ (Hall 2022). She was passionate about her feminist views, but at the same time she was a ’very private person’ (Shannon [1998]). Hard-working and a meticulous researcher, according to Margaret Gardner, ‘she always seemed a tightly coiled and focussed bundle of energy and it was this that drove her work forward’ (Hunter 2000, 40). The respect for her work is evident in the way she was remembered. The Australian Technology Network of Universities, along with her friends and family, established the Clare Burton memorial lecture from 1999 and the Clare Burton memorial scholarship from 2002. In 2017 ANU staff established the Clare Burton award for excellence in equity and diversity.

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • Bryce, Quentin. ‘Debt of Gratitude to Women’s Champion.’ ANU Reporter 29, no. 13 (9 September 1998): 8
  • Burton, Clare. Subordination: Feminism and Social Theory. North Sydney: George Allen & Unwin Australia, 1985
  • Burton, Pamela. Personal communication
  • Burton, Pamela, with Meredith Edwards. Persons of Interest: An Intimate Account of Cecily and John Burton. Canberra: ANU Press, 2022
  • Cadzow, Jane. ‘The Power of Sisterhood.’ Sydney Morning Herald, 21 January 1989, Good Weekend 6
  • Canberra Times. ‘Student with a Purpose—Her Eye Is on New Guinea.’ 23 December 1964, 12
  • Dowse, Sara. ‘Lingering Predominance of Patriarchal Power.’ Canberra Times, 24 August 1991, C9
  • Edwards, Meredith. Personal communication
  • Frith, Marion. ‘The Burton Girls.’ Canberra Times, 8 October 1994, C3
  • Hall, Philippa. ‘Burton, Clare Margaret (1942–1998).’ Obituaries Australia. 2022. Accessed 16 November 2022. Copy held on ADB file
  • Hunter, Rosemary. The Beauty Therapist, the Mechanic, the Geoscientist and the Librarian: Addressing Undervaluation of Women’s Work. Broadway, NSW: ATN WEXDEV, 2000
  • Krinks, Kate. Personal communication
  • Krinks, Peter. Personal communication
  • Krinks, Rachael. Personal communication
  • Krinks, Stephen. Personal communication
  • National Library of Australia. MS Acc01.042 and MS Acc03.027, Papers of Clare Burton, 1987–1997
  • Sawer, Marian. ‘Clare Burton 30 October 1942–23 August 1998.’ Canberra Bulletin of Public Administration, no. 91 (March 1999): 61–64
  • Shannon, Elizabeth. Tribute in ‘Tributes to Clare Burton [1998].’ Equal Pay Watch. 4 December 2000–20 February 2007. Accessed 12 March 2022. Copy held on ADB file

Additional Resources

Citation details

Melanie Nolan, 'Burton, Clare Margaret (1942–1998)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2023, accessed online 24 June 2024.

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