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CEDA Women in Leadership series Women in leadership – Capital Hill – women as agents of change

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Speaker: Penny Williams, Australia's Global Ambassador for Women, E&OE

Hyatt Hotel, Canberra

I acknowledge the traditional Ngunnawal custodians of the land on which we stand today and recognise elders past and present of the oldest living culture in the world.

I'd like to thank CEDA for the invitation to speak today, and acknowledge the preceding speakers: Stephen, Nikki and Wendy.

It's very valuable to hear side by side different perspectives from the public and private sectors.

In 1971, a milestone was achieved in Australia's road to gender equality and specifically the path to women's equal representation in Australia's foreign service.

That year, Dame Annabelle Rankin became the first woman to head an Australian diplomatic post.

A former politician rather than a career diplomat, Dame Annabelle was appointed High Commissioner to New Zealand in recognition of her long service and considerable achievements as a senior federal cabinet minister.

The appointment was covered extensively by the Australian and New Zealand press and Dame Annabelle used this exposure to encourage broad acceptance of women in the role of head of mission, separating the notion of gender from the position itself.

She refused to be drawn on questions about being a pathfinder for women. Her view was that, and I quote, "it is important for a woman to remember that when taking up an executive position or any job with big responsibilities, she should do so as a citizen not only as a woman."

Last year, exactly forty years after Dame Annabelle's historic appointment, the Australian Government introduced another milestone.

On 13 September, at an event at Parliament House, on Capital Hill, I was privileged to be appointed Australia's first Global Ambassador for Women and Girls.

Not only as a woman, but as a senior career diplomat with more than 20 years experience as a public servant including as Australia's High Commissioner to Malaysia, as Executive Director of the Australian Passport Office, as head of our Corporate Management Division, and head of our Diplomatic Security, Information Management and Services Division.

I would like to talk a little about my role, particularly the background to the establishment of this ambassadorial position and the work I've been engaged in since my appointment on 13 September last year.

The Australian Government was committed to women having a voice in the world and creating the ambassador position and it received strong prime ministerial support.

The non-government sector was very keen, too, to have such a position.

The decision was made to base the position in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade as a high level diplomatic appointment.

The status of women has been raised significantly since the early twentieth century; but a quick flip through any of the current UN or World Bank reports on the situation of women around the world provides a disturbing and compelling reminder that we are nowhere near finished with our work.

Women around the world continue to suffer disproportionately from violence, poverty and disadvantage.

At least one in three women is beaten, coerced into sex or otherwise abused in her lifetime.

Women make up 70 per cent of people living on less than one dollar a day.

And two-thirds of the one billion people in the world who lack basic literacy skills are women.

According to UNESCO, more than 30 million girls worldwide are not even getting basic primary-level education.

Having a dedicated Ambassador for Women and Girls gives Australia a stronger voice in promoting the rights of women and girls on the world stage.

The position gives greater focus, coordination and a higher profile to Australia's efforts to promote the rights of women and girls internationally.

It champions the role of women in Australia's aid program – evidence shows aid is more effective when women are central to our investment.

It enables Australia to build stronger partnerships with other countries and advocate more effectively, regionally and globally, for women.

And it encourages the world to listen more attentively to its most vulnerable, those most at risk of being silenced.

The position has a special focus on the Asia-Pacific because two thirds of the world's impoverished currently live in the region.

Of the eight UN members with no women represented in their parliaments, four are in the Pacific.

Mothers in Papua New Guinea are on average 80 times more likely to die in childbirth than mothers in Australia.

And in some Pacific countries two out of three women and girls experience physical or sexual violence in their lifetime – a truly horrifying statistic.

It is not just the region where we believe we can be most effective, but the region where we need to be most effective.

Achieving gender equality and empowering women are imperative goals in their own right.

When women participate in decision making, their needs and aspirations are taken into account and we see better policies and better distribution of services.

Failing to include women as part of the solution to the world's most pressing problems exacts a measureable cost.

In efforts to achieve food security, to take one example, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that if women farmers had the same access to seeds, fertilizer and technology as men, their crop yields could be improved by 20 to 30 per cent.

Across the economy more broadly, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimates that the Asia-Pacific region alone is losing up to $47 billion annually because of women's limited access to employment opportunities.

At home, according to Goldman Sachs, closing the gap between male and female participation in the economy would boost Australian GDP by 11 per cent.

And in the field of global security, less than eight per cent of the hundreds of peace treaties signed in the past 20 years were negotiated by delegations that included women.

It is hardly surprising that without broad input from all parts of the community, nearly half of all peace agreements reached in the 1990s failed within five years.

The statistics on women's leadership around the world sadly reflect, and magnify, these low levels of participation.

Today's speakers have ably covered some of the familiar statistics on women's leadership in the corporate world, so I'll focus on the political.

Of the 193 members of the UN, only about 10 per cent have elected a female President or Prime Minister.

Women hold just over 19 per cent of all parliamentary seats worldwide, and in the Pacific, only about two per cent.

And while for the first time in Australia's history, our Head of Government and Head of State are both women, our own record on parliamentary representation leaves room for improvement.

Women members currently make up 29.2 per cent of the Federal Parliament and just over 30 per cent of the Federal ministry.

In fact Australia has slipped on this measure compared with other nations according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union's ranking of numbers of women in national parliaments.

Australia fell from 21st place in 2001 to 38th in 2011.

We have seemingly reached a plateau of growth in women's participation in senior leadership roles.

With many of the obvious legislative and policy barriers to women's success removed, we must redouble our efforts to avoid complacency on this front.

The history of women in the Australian diplomatic service is a useful case study of the progression of women's involvement in public life and ascendancy to leadership positions.

Australia has a long history of advocating on the international stage for the principle of non-discrimination on the basis of gender, right back to the negotiation of the UN Charter.

Yet attitudes in the diplomatic service for many years mirrored community bias against the employment of women.

Change and opportunity knocked, as it did for many women, as a result of World War II.

But it wasn't until the 1960s and 1970s, with the removal of the marriage bar in 1966, and the introduction of equal pay in 1972 and paid maternity leave in 1973, that the department became a workplace where women could gain the experience and skills needed for senior diplomatic appointments.

In 1974, following Dame Annabelle's political appointment as Australia's first female head of mission, Ruth Dobson was appointed Ambassador to Denmark – making her the first woman career diplomat to become an Australian Head of Mission.

Trends in the department's recruitment of diplomatic cadets reflect the growth in women's participation experienced across the Australian economy, lifting from around one in six in the 1970s to one in two by 1985.

But in a familiar story, increased participation by women did not carry through to senior leadership roles.

From 1974 to the end of 1992, only 13 women were selected to head Australian posts overseas.

Fast forward to 2012, and 28 of our 95 overseas posts are led by women, with women making up over half of the department's workforce.

It's worth noting here that Australia is roughly in line with the US, UK and Canada in terms of our leadership profile.

Some of the remaining gap can be explained by the lag effect of policies and attitudes which disadvantaged women in promotion and career advancement even after legislative changes in the 1980s made overt discrimination illegal.

For example, the practice of assigning women officers to administrative or consular work, or what were then regarded as 'soft' policy areas such as human rights or cultural relations, continued into the 1980s.

And women diplomats faced entrenched attitudes that some overseas posts were not suitable for women.

It was only in 1990 that Australia appointed its first woman to head a Middle Eastern mission.

This is not to say there hasn't been real and impressive institutional and cultural change for women in the public service.

The passage of the Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act and the Public Service Reform Act in 1984 were important milestones for women officers.

And practical measures taken since, like onsite childcare and parenting rooms, more flexible working hours, and job-share arrangements have greatly increased women's ability to balance family and work commitments.

With legal barriers removed, a culture of equal opportunity entrenched, and increasingly flexible work practices due to new technologies, it would be reasonable to expect that the number of women in senior roles would increase without further intervention.

But we know that this isn't happening, and it's important that we keep asking why – and highlighting why we should care.

The benefits of diversity in leadership groups have been well documented, not least as a strong driver of corporate profit.

Boards with a diversity of skill-sets, experiences and perspectives have been shown to be more independent, more accountable and more consultative.

Having a significant number of women role models in leadership positions also encourages and sustains other women in their careers, particularly young women.

The under-representation of women in leadership roles is a lost opportunity for Australia not just domestically, but globally.

As a strong and vocal proponent of gender equality, the example we set at home reverberates around the world.

As one of the top 20 global economies we have both the responsibility and capacity to be a leading advocate for women.

And if we are to continue to speak with credibility on gender equality and women's empowerment, particularly in our own neighbourhood, I believe we must lead by example.

The good news is Australia is taking strong action on a range of issues affecting women, domestically and internationally.

And we are earning the respect, and imitation, of other countries in the process.

Australia's National Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women is being used by the UN as a template for countries around the world.

From January next year we will entrench our support for UN Women, the UN's key agency for coordination of gender issues, by becoming a voting member of its Executive Board, and this year we became the agency's fifth highest donor.

The new direction for Australia's overseas aid program promotes gender equality and women's empowerment as a critical, cross-cutting objective, with three of our 10 development objectives specifically relating to this goal.

These include providing access to maternal and health services, promoting education, and empowering women to participate in the economy and leadership roles.

In practice this has meant, for example, that in Papua New Guinea we've helped boost the number of female village court magistrates from 10 in 2004 to more than 600 by the end of 2011.

In Vanuatu, we've helped increase the proportion of women officers in the Vanuatu Police Force from six per cent in 2007 to nine per cent in 2011.

And in the Solomon Islands, the AusAID-funded Women's Leadership Mentoring Program has worked with local women leaders since 2008 to build networks and develop leadership skills.

As much as Australia's foreign, trade and aid policy is our voice in the world, the foreign service which helps deliver those policies is Australia's face in the world.

Parity of representation by women and men at all levels of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, both in Australia and at our overseas missions, is an important element to ensure the world sees us for who we are, and what we believe.

And while this parity remains an active aspiration rather than an immediate reality, there are other critical ways Australia promotes its domestic and international commitment to women's economic, political and social empowerment.

Among those measures is my work as Australia's Global Ambassador for Women and Girls.

As a senior representative of a country in which equality of opportunity and aspiration – regardless of gender – is fundamental.

As an advocate for women's rights globally.

As a role model for young women of how expansive their futures can be.

And as a champion of women as leaders and agents of change.

Last Updated: 19 September 2014
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