Suzanne Newnham’s memoir What Glass Ceiling? chronicles her mother Patricia’s extraordinary journey in establishing her career during a period of Australia’s history when women did not have many opportunities to do so. Newnham’s fluent storytelling reveals her mother’s inquisitive nature, fostered by her parents when she was a small child in the 1930s, encouraging her questioning mind and enabling her to succeed later.
As a young girl in the 1950s, Patricia is intelligent, hard-working and determined to attend university to study medicine. While this dream is unrealised due to bureaucratic reasons, Patricia studies accountancy at college, just as her beloved father (and her role model) did. Later, she begins an internship with an accountancy firm, showing great aptitude for auditing and bookkeeping. Her work assignments are fascinating – auditing the accounts of a veritable ‘Who’s Who’ of Australian companies, giving Patricia (and the reader) rare insights.
Newnham’s colourful bird’s-eye descriptions of Sydney’s city streets create tantalising images. We ‘see’ Patricia arrive to brief company board members wearing her smart two-piece and heels (she had done some modelling in her twenties, so she knew how to enter a room), carrying ledgers, pencils, and paper in hand, confident of her skills. One gets the sense that Patricia is undeterred by the social norms of the times, entering this male-dominated field expecting full access. When one company’s board member assumes he will be briefed by a male version of ‘Pat’, Patricia remembered:
“As I walked into the board room for a client meeting with a group of executives to discuss accounts, I was greeted by many incredulous expressions: this was in addition to hearing a lot of fussing about me being a female and not a male accountant, so I calmly queried “do you think I had two heads?” It probably wasn’t a mature way to speak, but an educated woman in a position of responsibility within a company shouldn’t be considered odd!”
Over the years, Patricia adds marriage and four children - fitting her work and voluntary activities around family life. She epitomises ‘work-life balance’ before the term is in common usage. Yet, as we turn the pages to the story’s end, Newnham’s evident love, pride and respect for her mother’s achievements leave a lasting impression.
What Glass Ceiling? is a ‘must-read’ for daughters of today’s generation as they evaluate how to ‘do it all.' They would learn a great deal about one woman’s unintended leadership shaping a fulfilling career just ‘by doing’ at a time when it was often exclaimed: “Ladies, just don’t do that!”
What Glass Ceiling? reveals the merits of walking beyond the obstacles that aim to prevent us from achieving. Rather, we should not consider life a strategic project - all mapped out in front of us. It should be taken in bite-sized portions, never more than we can chew.
Karen Kentwell 2023