Gender no barrier
Skaidrite Darius innocuously forged a path for gender equality while making a significant contribution to the University’s first computer processing program. Rebecca McKenzie-McHarg reports.
The job wasn’t meant for females and I thought, I’ll never get it.
Skaidrite’s inspiring story came to light after her grandson Tomas Walsh sought a copy of one of her payslips from the late 1970s. For his grandmother’s 90th birthday, he wanted a meaningful item to connect her with fond memories of her time at Australia’s national university.
These payslips were often a topic of conversation – they specified her gender as male because she was employed to develop and manage the electronic processing systems of the administrative functions of ANU, such as payroll, student records and employee records. This was a male-only job at the time.
Unfortunately, the payslips were destroyed in 2004 as part of the University’s document destruction protocols; however, once Skaidrite’s story surfaced, it was too fascinating not to explore.
Training with IBM
From 1955 Skaidrite worked as an accounting machinist in the John Curtin School of Medical Research when her boss suggested she apply to join the University’s new IBM data processing team.
“In those days, when they put ‘male’ in an advertisement it meant only males could apply – the job wasn’t meant for females and I thought, I’ll never get it,” she recounts.
Her boss continued to encourage her and after she was told 35 men had failed the test, she was curious. She wanted to know why the test was so hard and why they had failed.
She decided to apply. On the day of the test, Skaidrite walked from ANU to the IBM office in Canberra’s Civic Centre.
The test was scheduled to take three hours and she was concerned she would miss the last bus home.
As the hours went on, she decided to miss her bus and walk home to Yarralumla. This split-second decision to walk home made a significant impact on her life – a short time later she acquired a major role in managing the electronic administrative systems, the University’s first female in such a job.
In this new role, she travelled to attend IBM courses in Sydney and Melbourne.
“I spent the whole year going from one place to another,” she says. “The first trip was to Sydney. Downstairs was the course for the punch operators and upstairs was for the programmers.
“I walked in but I was a bit late. I went upstairs and opened the door and the room was full of males. The lecturer didn’t even ask my name, he just said, ‘no, no, you’re in the wrong place – it’s downstairs, that’s where the punch operators, the girls, are’.”
However, Skaidrite was registered to attend so when she told him her name, he was shocked she was female. This became a common scenario as the years went on.
“I don’t know how many courses I went to, but it was always the same – all males and me – but I did reasonably well and I understood what it was all about,” she says.
At one training course, the group was asked to form pairs to complete the work. She was the last person picked.
For an entire week, she worked with her partner and they came first, sometimes second, in the challenges. Her peers could see that she knew her stuff and at later courses, Skaidrite was always the first one chosen.
Computing at ANU
The first computer at ANU was on the top floor of the Physics building. The entire floor was reserved exclusively for academics during the day. Administrative functions could be processed only between midnight and four in the morning.
During the day, Skaidrite and her team would carry out the preparation, such as writing or checking programs and assembling the data to be processed. An operator would go in during the night to do the processing.
“However, if you did anything wrong during the day, like if you misspelt one word, then it wouldn’t work,” she says.
More often than not, Skaidrite was called when issues arose during the processing.
“I wouldn’t even get out of my pyjamas – I’d put on my dressing gown, drive to ANU, go up to the computer room, try to figure out what was wrong, correct it and go back home again,” she says.
“Sometimes the next morning I’d ask my husband ‘did I go out?’ It got to where I didn’t even notice it. It was not every night, but every third or so, and then in the morning I went back to work again. I didn’t mind it, I loved it, it was challenging.”
It was not only the work that was a challenge. Meetings and networking events were often held at a men’s-only members lounge or at a hotel bar where women were not allowed. Her colleagues worked to overcome this by negotiating access for her or choosing a location where she could be included.
Skaidrite made an effort too. Her impressive cricket and rugby knowledge and love of the sports grew as she took interest in the things her male peers enjoyed. It seems Skaidrite and her colleagues would break down the invisible walls at every opportunity.
Despite the challenges, Skaidrite was not deterred and when her boss Patrick Wilson retired, she was appointed head of data processing at ANU.
In 1963 work-life became uncertain for Skaidrite.
She was expecting a child but was told extended leave wasn’t available.
“There was no such thing as maternity leave at the time,” she says. “I asked if the job would still be there when I returned but I was told that only if it was free because they were going to employ someone else.”
A group of her male peers spoke up and rallied behind her. She was called to a meeting to discuss the situation. She was nervous about what they would say as not everyone was supportive of her position and the leave request.
“They told me they could give me leave without pay,” she says. “I was very close to losing that job – that’s what it was like for women then.
“I took the maximum leave that I could which was five months. I enjoyed those five months with my daughter and after that, I got one babysitter after another – whatever I earned, I paid half to those ladies.”
Skaidrite went on to retire when her daughter became pregnant in 1988. She wanted to help her daughter and son-in-law as they juggled their challenges of raising a family around work commitments.
However, Skaidrite still retains the principles she learned when working on the first IBM integration program at ANU.
“In one of the very first courses I did, we were told that whatever you do, you have to take a bird’s-eye view,” she says. “That is very important as you don’t see it as a whole otherwise. And that’s how I look at everything now – just work out what you want and go for it!”
Skaidrite’s drive and determination have built her an extraordinary life, a life that many of us today can reflect upon and learn from when challenged with adversity.