If some Australian women are so intent on demonstrating how capable and smart they are, how deserving of quotas that help them and their sisters into senior positions and onto boards, can someone explain one simple thing to me: their shoes.

Men don’t wear the kinds of shoes that you can see on so many woman with a public profile. That’s because, when it comes to plumage, 99.9 per cent of men still manage to demonstrate they care about their comfort. Meanwhile, leading women totter around offices and events in eight centimetre stilettos, somehow believing that by doing so, they are demonstrating their invincibility, their power, their “tallness” and equivalence to men.

If I ever say to a woman in such shoes, “Gosh, how do you wear those?” I always get the same refrain: oh no, they’re actually really comfortable.

Yeah, right.

Sky News, on Sunday March 10, covered the “Leading While Female” panel event at the Sydney Opera House. The discussion was about female representation in our parliaments and the four women on the panel were politicians Julie Bishop, Sarah Hanson-Young, Julia Banks and Linda Burney.

What authenticity looks like now?

Hanson-Young was keen that they should advance the feminist agenda “because if we don’t do it, no-one will”.

Asked by an audience member about the two skills any woman should hone if they wanted to get into public life, Bishop and Banks were keen on being true to yourself.

“Don’t let others define you … be authentic, be yourself,” said Bishop. “Be your authentic self … stay authentic,” advised Banks, “and the other one is resilience.”

As they talked, I became transfixed by what these three women were flashing on their feet. Very high heels, vertiginously so in the case of Banks and Hanson-Young. I couldn’t see what Burney was wearing on her feet but she was the only one who looked truly at ease.

Every time the television cameras switched to show the whole stage and panel, up would also come the bright red poster for “Leading While Female”. On the right of the poster, the trousered legs of a pair of men. On the left – you guessed it – a pair of shiny red pumps with stiletto heels.

Dear God, do we really not think it’s possible for a woman to rise to leadership wearing shoes that aren’t going to cripple her later? I’ve never been a fan of the attention given to Julie Bishop’s wardrobe of stilettos. Are we back in some version of pre-revolutionary China where until the early 20th century, the only way a woman, particularly an upper-class woman, could win an acceptable place for herself in life was to submit to footbinding from the age of four?

Hospital calling

This is what two British health researchers had to say about stilettos and what wearing them regularly does to a woman’s body: “Our findings, published in the journal BMC Public Health, showed consistent evidence linking high heel wear to an increased risk of bunions, musculoskeletal pain and injuries to the wearer. Some of these injuries, such as ankle fractures, were serious and required hospital attention.”

They went on to say, “It is important to note, however, that the overall risk of injury is moderate… It is clear though that frequent wear tends to be more detrimental for long-term health, while the highest and narrowest heels are those that are most linked to serious injuries, such as ankle fractures.”

Show me a woman who is regularly seen in heels higher than six centimetres (roughly two and a half inches) and I will show you a woman who appears to be too insecure to be her comfortable self. Which is pretty funny given all the yap these days about women standing up for themselves and being authentic.

Back in 2008, I remonstrated with then marie-claire editor Jackie Frank about this same issue. Her magazine was about empowering women of all ages, but every fashion shoot and many other shoots featured ridiculously high heels (and often on very ugly shoes). Frank was impervious then to my pleas to showcase shoes with lower heels.

Flat means free

But I can still remember, as a very young journalist, who was expected to wear heels to work every day to my job at The Australian Women’s Weekly, the discovery – on a press trip into the countryside – what it felt like to spend three days wearing flat tennis sandshoes. The freedom! The energy! It was what they call a Damascene moment.

Of course I have some heels in my wardrobe of mostly flats, but I wear them judiciously and most of my pumps anyway would come in at 6cms or lower.

I have two pairs of high heeled evening sandals – they are worn very rarely and for impact. Let’s not beat about the bush here; high spike heels are about sex and sexiness. They do look fabulous. This shot, of Faye Dunaway, taken the morning after her 1977 Oscar win by photographer Terry O’Neill (they later married), is still one of my favourite pictures of all time.

Let’s be honest

And I know that one of the key appeals of Charlize Theron’s 2017 thriller Atomic Blonde was seeing her slice and dice the male villains while wearing shoes and boots with 10cm heels that could easily double as lethal weapons to the heart and groin, in the metaphorical as well as the literal sense.

Conceding that sexual appeal, the British researchers, Max Barnish from the University of Exeter, and Heather May Morgan from the University of Aberdeen, in that same article about foot health, wrote: “One element of high heel wearing that is often ignored in the high heels public health debate, but which we took into account in our study, is the psychological benefits they bring to wearers. Like it or not, high heels are a symbol of modern (heteronormative) female sexuality.

“We found consistent evidence that high heel wear offers benefits to women in terms of how they perceive their own beauty, how attractive they were to men and also men’s willingness to help them …”

Body impact

Meanwhile, the American Spine Health Institute has a piece entitled How High Heels Affect Your Body, pointing out that “daily high heel use over a number of years can actually lead to changes in your anatomy … spondylolisthesis, or the slippage of one vertebra forward over another, frequently occurs as a result of wearing high heels, especially in the lumbar region of the spine where the body’s weight is concentrated.”

A diagram, showing a woman in flat shoes against a woman in heels, points in the latter to the distorting effects on various parts of the body, from chest to knees.

So what would it take for high profile Australian women, who are campaigning for better representation of women at top levels across the landscape, from politics to business to design, to be real role models, choose health and comfort, and, except on rare occasions, ditch the stilettos?

That is, a lot more Angela Merkel, a lot less Charlize Theron.


In 2011, as Edmund Capon (photographed above with his favourite acquisition, Three Studies from the Temeraire by Cy Twombly) prepared to step down from running the Art Gallery of NSW after 33 years, I was lucky enough to be commissioned to do an interview for The Sydney Magazine. The trouble though was that the extraordinarily charming and very knowledgeable Capon, who had made such an impact on Sydney and elsewhere, had been interviewed hundreds of times already.

I fretted about how to do it in such a way that seasoned readers wouldn’t just turn the page and eventually came up with a format, “One Last Question, Mr Capon”. I went to a series of people, from John Kaldor to Neville Wran, Tim Storrier, an art gallery security officer, a house painter, a rival gallery director and so on, and gave them a chance to ask one last question of this perpetually surprising man.

The questions – all queries I would never have thought of asking – were put to Capon without him knowing who had asked each one, and his answers were wound through the feature. The artist Cressida Campbell was generous enough to give two questions but I could only fit one of them into the final piece. But writers hoard everything. So here, finally, is Edmund Capon on his favourite collector.

Q: Who was your favourite collector, why and what did they collect? Artist Cressida Campbell.

Edmund Capon (photograph by Gary Grealy, National Portrait Galley in Canberra): “It was probably a man called Sir Harry Garner who was one of the most humble of men and he was a scientist, so he had the kind of mind that was the complete antithesis to mine, which is instinctive and his was analytical.

“He was a metallurgist and he was part of the team, I believe, who discovered metal fatigue in aeroplanes. But he was the most incredible collector of Chinese art, mainly from the 11th to the 18th century era.

“He lived with his wife in a suburb of London and his house was just full of boxes with these treasures in … He was somebody who is very much stamped on my mind as a person who collected works of art because … he would look at things and he could see both the subtle aesthetics of these things and the technology that created them.”

At the time, the ‘70s, Capon was at the V&A. He remembers Sir Harry coming in one rainy, wintry day and giving him a box that turned out to contain a piece of China ware that was probably worth a hundred thousand pounds and now would be worth many millions. “And then he went out and he stood at the bus-stop to catch a bus. He didn’t have a car, and he gave virtually everything away.

“I was in my late 20s so it was very formative to meet someone of such humility but such extraordinary vision. There were no tax benefits so he was a remarkable man.”

What Capon admired – and he also said he saw it in businessman and art patron John Kaldor – is a “belief in, and the capacity to recognize creativity and the imagination that feeds creativity… The thing they [both] had absolutely in common was the absolutely abiding passion for their pursuits.”

The woman at his side

How we will all miss Mr Capon and my thoughts go to his family and close friends, especially his wife, the equally knowledgeable, warm and charming, Joanna Capon, “the unsung heroine” as his good friends dubbed her. For the 2011 article, David Gonski, current president of the AGNSW Trust and a long term supporter of the gallery, told me: “She always comes to every opening. She’ll chat to everyone, and she’ll tell Edmund, ‘Oh, he’s not happy’, and then Edmund will go over. We got more than Edmund, we got Joanna as part of the consular services. And she does it with joy.”

Joanna Capon also related a story, with a happy glint in her eye, over tea at Bambini Trust. I retold it for the feature.

“Even though Joanna is always at Capon’s side at openings, she enjoys a certain anonymity through her own preference for privacy. She once sat on a plane next to a man who, all unknowing, tried to chat her up. At one stage, he claimed to be a good friend of Edmund. ‘Oh really?’ she replied. ‘I’m his wife.’

“ ‘I didn’t even know Edmund had a wife!’ he spluttered before asking to be moved to another seat.”


It’s women like Joanna Capon who really impress me in these times when the very fact of presenting as a woman (see, how carefully we have to write these days; I originally wrote “having a vagina”, nope that wouldn’t do, I realized; then I tried “having the XX chromosome”, nope again…) can turn the most unlikely female  into a heroine amongst large groups of feministas.

Joanna Capon is something else. When she and Ed arrived in Sydney in late 1978, she quickly realized that though she was a trained European art historian who, like her husband, had been working at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the AGNSW’s small size meant, as she put it crisply to me, “One Capon was enough. I got it instantly.”

Feminista canonization

So she took her knowledge and learning elsewhere, to the Westmead Children’s Hospital where she was able to help build a substantial collection of art for the hospital’s wards and corridors. Even more impressive than her scholarship, said her fans, is the detailed guidebook she compiled to 75 of China’s museums.

Massive achievements, and done strategically with no “look at me, look at me” fuss.

Meanwhile, Michelle Guthrie looks as if she is heading towards canonization, whether she wants it or not. Guthrie has been making headlines ever since she was plucked from Google to run the ABC and then removed by the board in September 2017. After a legal stoush, and vows that her action against the public broadcaster, claiming unfair dismissal, was never for personal gain but to make a point, Guthrie is leaving with a total of $1.64 million.

Just after that news broke, she was asked to speak at an International Women’s Day lunch at Sydney’s Union Club where she talked about her experiences as the first woman managing director of the ABC and “balance for the better”.

My message: go quietly and with elegance.

Is it a vain dream to hope that the feministas who throng IWD events don’t succeed in turning Guthrie into a victim of the patriarchy to be paraded on stage, in panels, as a keynote speaker at such events from now on? I hope, and suspect, Guthrie will have the sense to resist them.

Limelight deprivation

Janet Albrechtsen, in a recent column in the Weekend Australian, captured some of what I feel as she reviewed the events of the latest International Women’s Day, including the politicians’ panel event in the lead item above.

“IWD has become an annual reminder that limelight-seeking women are not always, or even often, the best role models for women,” Albrechtsen wrote. “And the groupies around IWD are a modern-day version of the dullards in that Danish fable, The Emperor’s New Clothes… Some of us prefer our feminism straight up, on the rocks, so to speak.”

She had a couple of unsung heroines in her piece, politician Nicolle Flint, who with fellow politician Nola Marino successfully campaigned in the Liberal partyroom for improved policies and more money for women’s health in regard to endometriosis. Flint then worked with senator Jim Molan to lobby the federal health minister on stillbirths, winning millions of dollars for research and education programmes.

Albrechtsen too had a plea to the heavens, as she described what “feminism on the rocks” could look like: “And please God, none of those tedious navel-gazing panel sessions where whiny, privileged women talk about themselves while pretending to further the cause of other women. Let March 8, 2020 come and go quietly with no grandstanding female politician to be seen.”


Again, in her column, last weekend, Albrechtsen took on supposed women role models. Since last Tuesday, the women’s club has been in a self-righteous ferment over a widely publicised attack on the lack of real diversity among the women now sitting on top boards.

At the Australian Financial Review’s Banking and Wealth Summit, former competition regulator Graeme Samuel had argued there was a clique of well-known female directors locking out a larger group of women who could potentially be high quality. He also raised questions about how well those women might be performing their duties.

He only said something that many have muttered about for years: “There’s the club of male directors – it’s got a wall around it, it’s got to be broken down. Worse still, there … needs [to be] a nuclear bomb to smash down the impenetrable wall around the female club of directors.” According to one report, Samuel wasn’t even just blaming women: “He noted the ‘club’ was not necessarily created by women but those who promoted them for being ‘well-known names’.”

The road to perdition

I’ve heard aspiring women directors talk about all this for years. Samuel wasn’t being a dinosaur, he was being honest. But honesty has become the road to perdition these days.

In one retort to Samuel, published in The Sydney Morning Herald, journalist Jenna Price betrayed her “my way or the highway” attitude when she wrote: “I’m sure in the next few days, Samuel will be forced to clarify (meaning change) what he said.”

I guess you could call that being honest too; Price didn’t like what Samuel, a person with vastly more experience than her of boards and board management, had to say; ergo, he must change it.

Last weekend, Samuel did enlarge on, for clarity’s sake, in AFR Weekend, what he had said at the summit but he didn’t change the gist which is that Australian companies need better directors [of both sexes] and “that means looking outside the ‘names’ who populate the boards of the top 50-100 ASX …” He lamented the numbers of women leaders who don’t get “tapped on the shoulder for board roles nearly as often as their male or well-known female colleagues, often with lesser governance credentials”.

What is controversial about any of that?

In her piece, Albrechtsen backed her argument, and Samuel’s, with figures showing that 32 female directors held three ASX 200 seats with 26 men in the same position; four women held four board positions, one man held the same.

She then wrote of the way women had cornered the boardseat market and their decision to go for boardroom targets rather than targets for executive level jobs – which would help many more women by giving them the kind of experience that a board member actually needs. “Better to set boardroom targets,” Albrechtsen summed up, “pick up a site of swanky board seats and waft around like a role model for women.”

I love that last bit. As a baby-boomer, my life has been wound around the growth of women’s rights and feminism. Very early on, and as a journalist meeting a lot of people and also working for both men and women, I spotted, to my consternation, that quite a few of the women who made their careers and profiles out of being “feministas” didn’t, in private, seem to actually like or respect women that much.

The art of the put-down

One of our current feminista heroines used to have a particular trick in meetings. Having greeted every participant, from then on, she only ever met the eyes of the men in the room. If you were a woman, it was the equivalent of being that forgotten bag of peas at the back of the freezer. But the put-down tactic was clever, because no man in the room spotted what she was doing.

(Not always clever. I do remember one triumph for neglected peas when our feminista heroine didn’t realise the only other woman in the roomful of senior men, to whom she was pitching a business project, making much male eye-contact as she did so, was actually the person who had final say… Other women who I’ve since seen pull the same trick might want to have a little think about that.)

I also once wrote a column about the good luck I had had with the loyalty, mentoring and career-boosting efforts of so very many of my male friends, peers and male bosses in my various jobs and which contrasted with the disloyalty, obstruction, and sometimes outright malice, I had experienced at the hands of women in my profession, some of whom had professed to be my friends. (I hasten to say, I have also had terrific and supportive women friends in the business, their loyalty and warmth only spotlighting the behaviour of the others.)

But women are uneasy acknowledging any of these contradictions. As Janine Perrett wrote in the same Weekend Australian, “Graeme Samuel is lucky he is not a woman. The outrage against a mere male daring to question the female directors’ club is nothing compared to what they throw at females who do the same thing.”

Off limits too …

When, a long time ago now, I wrote a prescient magazine story about adult women bullying other adult women, it netted the biggest “mail bag” that magazine had seen in years. Shocking, and often wrenching, stories flooded in from all kinds of workplaces about the covert bullying that goes on between females.

It was especially rewarding for me because the magazine’s female editor, someone who regularly wrote and spoke up in praise of feminism and women’s progress, had, surprisingly, waited four months before publishing it. Even then, it was placed discreetly in the back pages. Fortunately for the story – and me – on the day of publication, it scored a big and noticeable puff on the host newspaper’s page one. And so, the readers’ emails, with their appalling and often sad stories, poured in.

As far as I have observed, Samuel was right to raise questions about the women’s boardroom clique. But far more worrying, is that there is a much larger clique of women which has set itself the task of policing other women.

When it comes to what women can get up to, it’s silence please. Or else.


Another unsung heroine. Catherine Runcie, who was a senior lecturer in English at the University of Sydney from 1969 to 2004, has worked hard with scholar and retired academic David Brooks, to edit and produce a collection of passionate essays about education, Reclaiming Education: Renewing Schools and Universities in Contemporary Western Culture.

On the Monday after its launch, in the crypt of St James, opposite the Supreme Court buildings, The Daily Telegraph ran a very different kind of story, about teacher trainees struggling to pass a basic skills test. The test included questions which involved being able to tell the time correctly or read a speedometer.

A month earlier, the same newspaper reported “the next generation of Australian children may not be able to read even simple instructions”. It was quoting the head of speech and language at the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute, Angela Morgan. She described children’s speech and language skills as “the worst they have ever been”.

Brain food

The 20 essays in Reclaiming Education will help you reclaim your sanity, reassuring you that there are plenty of rigorous scholars who are doing their best to remind politicians and educators, and us, what a proper education looks like and why it matters.

In one essay, David Furse-Roberts examines the role of Robert Menzies as one of this country’s “pre-eminent education prime ministers” and his conviction that education is vital for a healthy democracy. “Menzies saw education as furnishing individuals with the capacity to bring a better world into being that was freer and more democratic”.

Other contributions, from a stellar list of thinkers, cover the need for discipline; maths as the core of the past and hope for the future; reclaiming English, the cultivation of memory, western civilization, the liberal arts and the importance of studying Latin and Greek.

But it’s an essay from the late Richard Gill, the much loved conductor and music educator, which captured most poignantly, for me, what has been lost in the last several decades as trendy theory and jargon have bulldozed their way through the wisdom of ages.

He remembers a time when “knowledge of music, and the ability to teach it at a very sophisticated level, were the principal requirements for the appointing of kindergarten teachers in New South Wales”. An applicant for training had no hope of being accepted without this keyboard skill. “Music was seen as being fundamental to the life of every kindergarten child.”

Gill lists all the things music was able to achieve for these children: marching to music instilled order and helped settle a class, while free movement to music encouraged exploration. Singing led to high intensity listening, producing a sharpened listening focus and the ability to concentrate for extended periods.

The ear’s magical world

As for teaching the art of reading music, “Once they are fluent readers they have access to some of the most wonderful imaginations and ideas in this world from antiquity to the present.”

The effect of music on learning generally is now, Gill wrote, being examined by neuroscientists the world over. “Teachers often noted that students who were the top performers in many subjects were also the top music performers.”

But as this article, from the University of Melbourne’s Pursuit website, shows, music study is being squeezed in our schools. “We first need to attribute value to music that is comparable to curriculum leviathans like maths and English,” urges its author Dr Alexander Crooke. Music must be placed within the core of educational experience, rather than seen as an added extra.

Gill finally argues that “we need to be able to persuade state governments that what every private school child has in the form of access to a specialist music teacher, every state school child should also have”.

Alas, when I called up a PDF of the latest federal government report on education, the March 2018 review to achieve educational excellence in Australian schools, “Through Growth to Achievement”, I could not find the word “music” even once.


The rabbit hole of the internet every so often leads to the unexpected treasures of Aladdin’s cave. Hunting for a clip of The Beatles doing a cover of Buddy Holly’s Words of Love, I found this video, of Mick Jagger inducting The Beatles into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988.

What is uplifting about this four minutes is not just Jagger’s beauty but his humility, grace, erudition, wit, generosity and sheer classiness. Hard to imagine this was only 31 years ago. Hard to imagine who might be able to perform like this now.