Breaking the rules with Dr Penny Burns – Celebrate Living History

Breaking the rules with Dr Penny Burns

To celebrate International Women’s Day we are shining the spotlight on senior trail blazers who are making the world brighter in their own way. Today we meet Dr Penny Burns who is a strong advocate for education and breaking discriminating rules. Reflecting on the past where she helped paved the way for more opportunities for women.


She is a resident at Trinity Green, South Australia and Chair of Talking Infrastructure, a not-for-profit association helping decision makers choose infrastructure that will survive the coming climate, demographic and technological changes .

‘Do you plan on further study?’ It was an apparently innocent question by a fellow student after I had completed my honours degree, yet I detected a note of concern that seemed strange. I assured him that further study was not in my plans and he relaxed. “Good,” he sighed.

Amused, I asked him why ‘good’. ‘Well’, he said, ‘You are going to find it hard enough to get married as it is.’’ The logic was that I would not consider marrying anyone unless he had a superior degree and, as I had a first class honours, I had already greatly limited the possible pool of contenders. To go further and do a masters or a PhD would therefore be disastrous and likely confine me to a life as an old maid.

A few weeks later I was at a bank job interview with about a dozen fellows. While they were taken off into another room, the Manager brusquely informed me “When women are the breadwinners, then we will consider you!”

This was 1965, my goodness, not the dark ages, but there I was, potentially un marriageable and unemployable. With attitudes like that it was not difficult to understand why, out of a first-year economics class of over 300, there were only seven women!

Today, opportunities for women are, of course, very different. But I wonder whether, deep down, a change in our attitudes has kept pace.

There is an increasing number of women’s networks – in economics and infrastructure asset management, which are my own fields, but also in science, engineering, law and many others. Yet within these groups there seems to be a sort of victimhood and a focus on proving that we are just as good as the men. This is crazy. The world doesn’t need more people to think and act like men, it needs capable decision makers who think and act like women!

Looking back at my achievements over the last 50 years, they have all come about because I am female – not despite it. Admittedly discrimination can be a powerful spur to action, and there is nothing like a patronising pat on the head to bring out sheer determination, yet the idea that female success is achieved by being like men is completely wrong.

I am greatly indebted to all the wonderful men I have had the pleasure to work with. My contribution was that I thought differently. It pays to disregard the rules. The first rule I disregarded was marrying up. My husband had no degree at all. He was a computer programmer for the Defence Department. Today such jobs require extensive coursework, but this was when computers were first coming into use.

They were huge mainframes that could really only be afforded by organisations like Defence. There were no courses of study, and programmers learnt on the job and were selected on the basis of potential, although I have no idea how this was done. But a more encouraging and supportive husband I could not have chosen. We were married for 46 years. I miss him.

The second rule was an implicit Know your place. Women today do not have to settle for lesser jobs (although they still have to fight for proper pay for the work they do!).

While the private sector was subject to old-fashioned notions of breadwinners, the public sector was more open.

I went to Canberra ‘where all the decisions were made’. On my first day I was met with warm smiles of welcome from all the males who assumed that, being female, I would be a typist. How disappointed they were when they realised I would join them in demands for the very scarce clerical assistance.

Thirdly, and most importantly, if a rule does not seem to make sense, don’t accept it without investigation. This has been the source of everything I have achieved. You can upset a lot of people this way, so it pays to have a thick skin and a ready smile! But if you stay the distance, you win. It was how I was the first in Australia (and about the fourth in the world) to gain a PhD in Experimental Economics.

Today, some 40 years later, almost every economics department teaches it, and many have their own experimental laboratories and I take pleasure in knowing that my own works are on their study agendas. However, when I said I wanted to see if experimenting were possible, and if it were, could it do anything that our current techniques could not do, I was told it was impossible and considered a crank.

Some five years later, I was able to show this technique could examine markets that were not yet in existence – a feature that came in handy when the federal government set up the national electricity grid and I was invited to help. (A series of experiments I conducted in South Australia and Queensland also identified how easy it would be for participants to rort the system – but that is another story!)

Challenging rules that don’t make sense is fun and useful. After completing my degree, I joined the water authority in South Australia. The Minister had declared that irrigators would be charged what it cost to supply them with water. ‘How ridiculous!’ I said, ‘The Minister and the department have no idea what it costs’.

When I joined the Department, I was the only female in the entire department who was not a typist or a tea lady! I was also their first economist, and no-one quite knew what economists did, so when I undertook to find out how much it cost to supply all our water and sewer service users, the idea was quickly taken up. For this I needed information from many others, which could have been slow and difficult had it not been for my habit of challenging rules. This was a small thing but proved very helpful. I like tea, but I don’t like drinking it from a canteen urn where it has been stewing for hours.

On our floor was a small tea-room reserved for the CEO and jealously guarded by his Secretary, but early one morning she was not around, I sneaked in, made my tea – and in walks the CEO! What else can I do but smile broadly and ask if he would like coffee? He accepted, invited me to join him and that became a regular morning routine. Now, if you want to get co-operation from anyone, being on the right side of the boss helps! My work for the water authority was so novel and interesting, I was invited by the Parliament to do the same for all major infrastructure agencies, resulting in eight Parliamentary reports, and the birth of a new, world-wide, discipline, physical asset management which I continued to develop for the next 30 years, while publishing “Strategic Asset Management”. I challenged accounting procedures, introducing business accounting methods to the public service.

Today, I am Chair of Talking Infrastructure, a not-for-profit association helping decision makers choose infrastructure that will survive the coming climate, demographic and technological changes – and I continue to challenge.