Media and business trailblazer Ita Buttrose AC OBE is a popular speaker for good reason – she’s seen it all since she entered the industry as a 15-year-old copy girl and has learnt some valuable lessons along the way.
Her first public speaking appearance since the arrival of COVID-19 was at a Business Moreton Bay Region luncheon last Friday. It’s a presentation that was cancelled twice due to border restrictions and the journey from Sydney to Brisbane was her first on an aeroplane since the pandemic started.
She admits she was a little nervous, but pleased to be in Queensland where things are a little more relaxed.
Before she addresses a small group of invited guests and then a packed ballroom at the Eatons Hill Hotel, she sits down for coffee and a chat with Moreton Daily.
Her greeting is warm and friendly as she enters the room, where a flat white coffee is waiting for her.
We start with her dreams as a child to be either an opera singer or a journalist. She seriously considered both, but says her love for journalism must have outweighed her love for music.
“I made my mind up to be a journalist, when I was about 11. I did for a minute think I’d like to be an opera singer because I like music and I think I have a reasonable voice,” she says.
“When I was at school, we did these vocational guidance tests, when you got to about 14 and you had to put down what you wanted to be when you left school. I put 1. Opera singer 2. Journalist. “When I had to go and talk to the teacher about the results, they ignored the opera singer (suggestion). They didn’t even discuss it with me. They told me, ‘yes journalism, that would be OK’.
“My father was a journalist and my parents’ friends were all journalists, artists and photographers. I knew what it was. It was getting a story, it was reading the newspapers, it was being informed, it was being involved in things.”
So, at 15, she started her career as a copy girl for the Australian Women’s Weekly. Just eight years later she wrote to Sir Frank Packer and applied to be the women's editor of the Telegraph.
Half the staff quit because they didn’t want to work for someone so young, but she worked hard and proved herself.
It’s something she’s had to do many times during her career, but with each opportunity and its associated challenges, she’s made the decision to “play in the jungle” and prove her worth.
The founding editor of Cleo magazine says all her mentors were men, because she didn’t know any women in senior roles. Her first was her father, whom she believed initially hoped one of her three brothers would follow him into the industry.
“No-one talked to me about having a career when I left school. I was going to work for a few years, get married and have children. My mother and my aunt used to tell me I’d be fine – I’d be running my household and I remember saying to them one day, ‘maybe I might be bored’,” she recalls.
“‘Oh no, they said you won’t be bored, you’ll have your family, and the house to clean.’ So even then, I was thinking ‘mmm maybe there’s more’ but I didn’t know what more was then. It was later that I realised what more was.”
Ita says sharing the lessons she’s learnt and opening minds to the possibilities has been something she’s tried to do in the workplace, and also at home.
The mother of two, Kate and Ben, and grandmother of five recalls a conversation with her daughter many years ago.
“When she was about eight or nine, she said something about being a nurse when she grows up and I said ‘really, what about being a doctor?’ and she said ‘can girls be doctors?’. I said ‘yes, girls can be anything they want to be’ and she said ‘in that case, I’ll be a fireman’.”
Kate didn’t end up fighting fires, instead pursuing a career as an architect.
Ita says the message she gave her daughter was the same she’s shared with her son and her grandchildren, in the hope they will pursue careers that make good use of their talents and bring them happiness.
Identifying and nurturing talent in the office continues to bring Ita tremendous joy and satisfaction. She recalls a couple of women she employed whose careers changed direction for the better after she made them realise their strengths.
“I think when you’re employing people, sometimes you see things in a person that they sometimes don’t understand themselves and with a bit of direction, you can put that person on the right path,” she explains.
“I think sometimes you have to give them a bit of a shove and say ‘of course you can do this. Don’t you realise how good you are? Don’t you realise what you do?’”
Ita’s talent, determination and ambition obviously caught the eye of Sir Frank Packer, who took her on as editor at the age of 23, once she’d reassured him she wouldn’t be having children just yet.
“I flagged with him that I had some ambition, that I was prepared to work hard. I had to work hard because there was a lot I didn’t know, so I had to improve my knowledge,” she recalls.
“I think then, he knew I was a woman who was interested in challenges. He subsequently offered me the editor-in-chief of Cleo and so it went on.
“Although we’ve all seen him portrayed in TV mini-series as a tough bloke who lost his block and so on... Yes, he probably did, but I never saw it. He was old-school, he was very respectful towards women. He’d doff his hat to you in the lift.
“Kerry, his son who took Cleo over because Sir Frank couldn’t understand the new progressive woman that was emerging … he was much the same. Again, we saw him portrayed as somebody who lost his temper, and no doubt Kerry did have a good temper, but he was always curious about what we were doing.
“We’d be having an editorial conference to plan something and he’d be absolutely fascinated about what we were talking about … the things that women were doing, the things that women were dreaming about, the things that women wanted. The calls that we made for better education for girls and women. He found all of that really interesting.”
“They’re all best-ever at the time. I’ve interviewed Michael Crawford and I really enjoyed that, and I’ve interviewed Michael Parkinson and I loved talking to him,” she says.
But there’s one interview, at Berrimah Prison with Lindy Chamberlain, that she remembers vividly.
“I was in the main jail, which is quite big but there was a smaller jail adjacent where the women’s prisoners were housed, at least where she was. She came from over there and she was … she’s not tall, but she was very tiny, very slim and I remember thinking ‘golly gosh, she looks like a girl’. She looked like an adolescent girl and very vulnerable.
“I can see it now, it made quite an impression on me. I did ask her if she had killed her daughter because you have to ask these questions when you’re doing these things and she said ‘no’. Her eyes filled with tears and she said to me that she felt the jury at the time did not understand the forensic evidence, were not well-enough equipped to understand the forensic evidence.
“She was later acquitted because the forensic evidence was proven to be not what everyone imagined at the original trial, which found her sentenced for murder. So, I think Lindy was quite a memorable interview for me.”
Ita, 79, is regarded as a trailblazer … smashing the glass ceiling early in her career and now changing misconceptions about older people and their ability to contribute to the workforce in a meaningful way.
I ask her, the current chair of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, if she agrees with that assessment.
“I don’t think I realised I was a trailblazer in the beginning. I think when you look back, you do see what you’ve been up to. I was just doing something that I really enjoyed,” she says.
“I’m glad that I’m a trailblazer for older people because there are so many misconceptions about us. The only thing that prevents older people from participating in the workforce, as much as they would like, is people’s misconceptions about what older people can and can’t do.
“All the research tells me that older people are more reliable as workers, they take fewer sick days, they don’t spend all their time texting messages, they’ve got a very strong work ethic. They’re good employees.”
So, is there such a thing as a use-by date?
“I don’t think so and I think that older people know when they’ve reached their use-by date in a sense that they might think ‘well, I’m really enjoying this but I’m now finding it a bit hard and maybe my health is not what it should be and maybe I might retire’,” she explains.
“But you know a lot of people are forced to retire, a lot of people are tossed on the scrap heap and the Human Rights Commission did a report and it showed that one in 10 bosses in Australia will not recruit people over 50. And you think, really, 50? I mean 50’s nothing, it’s really young. There are some very odd attitudes to age.”
Ita firmly believes there should be a balance of men and women, of all ages, in the workplace to make the most of the wealth of experience and diversity of thought out there.
“I think when you’ve got a workplace that’s made up of all the different ages, you have a much better workforce because you have a contribution of ideas. I do think that as many ideas as possible in the workplace, is a better workplace,” she says.
And with International Women’s Day coming up on March 8, she believes we should embrace the theme - Choose the Challenge – and make pay equality a reality at long last.
“I’m only two years into my role as chair and my term is five, so the next three years will still be with the ABC,” she says touching the timber of the table.
“I don’t know what else I want to do. I’ve found that opportunities come when you least expect them. You’re coasting along down a path and then somebody comes and says ‘would you be interested?’”
She will continue her work in public health, including with Dementia Australia.
“I like working for them, my father had vascular dementia and I understand what dementia’s like. There’s about 90,000 Queenslanders now living with dementia and we have no vaccine, no cure,” she says.
“We need specialised carers in aged care – I’m sure that’s going to come out of the Aged Care Royal Commission – who understand dementia.”
Also on her list is a trip of a lifetime, when COVID-19 travel restrictions allow.
“I never made it to Antarctica and for some reason I always wanted to go to Antarctica. I had thought that maybe I might have gone last year and then COVID came along,” she says.
Conceding that traipsing across the ice might not be a great idea at her age, she’s instead planning to see the natural wonder from the air.
“So, I’ve booked my trip to Antarctica for February 2022. That’s my big adventure so far for 2022,” she says.
In her opening remarks to the audience at the Business Moreton Bay Region luncheon, Ita recalls her first visit to the Moreton Bay Region during Princess Alexandra’s regional tour of Queensland in 1959.
She was part of the media contingent covering the tour and clearly remembers their stop in Redcliffe. Throughout the tour, the media had taken to singing the jingle I Love Aeroplane Jelly, a reference to the rigours of the travel associated with the tour.
The Princess caught wind of the tour’s unofficial theme song, and the media pack was asked to sing it to her when they were in Redcliffe. It’s a performance the once-aspiring opera singer will never forget.
“Redcliffe, I will always remember you,” she told the audience, laughing.
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