UNSW Sydney has paid tribute to Susan Ryan AO, who pioneered extensive anti-discrimination and equal opportunity legislation and had a long relationship with the University. Professor Ian Jacobs, UNSW Vice-Chancellor said that he “admired her many years of service to the nation and the impact of her contributions to equality, women’s rights, education and to UNSW”.

In 1998, Ms Ryan was appointed one of the first two Pro-Chancellors at UNSW, a position she held until 2011. She was a long-serving member of the UNSW Council and in 2010 was appointed as the inaugural chair of the Advisory Council for the Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences. In 2012, Ms Ryan received an Honorary Doctorate of Letters from UNSW in recognition of her eminent service to the community.

“Susan was outstanding, both in her contribution as a Council member and for her advocacy around our Council table, and generally for women and all students,” UNSW Chancellor David Gonski AC said.

“She was a first-rate person who displayed a wonderful mixture of a love for education, a strong feeling for fairness and opportunities for the educationally disadvantaged, and an outstanding mind and understanding of what was achievable. 

“We, and I suspect Australia generally, will miss her enormously.”

Professor Eileen Baldry, Deputy Vice-Chancellor Equity Diversity and Inclusion, said, “Susan brought her wealth of experience and knowledge from her pioneering policy and reform work and development in the government’s education and women’s portfolios to UNSW. 

“She not only contributed to the broader University as a Pro-Chancellor but most generously to the Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences, advising and supporting equity developments in the faculty. 

“Susan continued to advocate for gender equity at UNSW, including mentoring senior women into leadership.”

Ms Ryan served in senior portfolios in the Hawke Government where she was the first woman to hold a Cabinet post. In 1983, she became Minister for Education and Youth Affairs. She was also handed a new portfolio – the Status of Women – aimed at dismantling gender inequities in Australian society. In her time as Education Minister, secondary school retention rates improved and participation at universities and TAFEs increased.

Ms Ryan retired from Parliament in 1987 and then held a number of senior positions in industry, including president of the Australian Institute of Superannuation Trustees.

In 1990, Ms Ryan was appointed an officer of the Order of Australia for her contribution to Parliament.

In 2011, she returned to public life to serve as the Age Discrimination Commissioner, and in 2014 added disability discrimination to her roles at the Human Rights Commission.

Professor Andrea Durbach at UNSW Law was seconded to the Human Rights Commission in 2011 as Deputy Sex Discrimination Commissioner, where she worked closely with Ms Ryan.

“Given her pioneering work in enabling the Sex Discrimination Act decades earlier, she was an inspiring colleague and friend – generous, insightful and a brilliant strategist,” said Professor Durbach. 

“What a huge loss when the world so deeply needs people like Susan to help it find its way.”

In 2019 Ms Ryan was appointed as a Fellow at the Whitlam Institute, leading research into gender inequality.

Ms Ryan died on 27 September, aged 77.

Belinda Henwood