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At Large

Women in Australia

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SYDNEY—THIS is a great time to be a woman in Australian politics. For the first time, a woman, Julia Gillard, is prime minister, after 26 men spent time in the office. Gillard is currently undergoing heated grilling under the media spotlight, on allegations that she had abetted a former boyfriend who misused union funds. While the greater part of discretion would have been to ignore the charges, on Monday Gillard went public not just to deny the charges but also to lambast her critics, including opposition members of Parliament.

Judging from public reactions to the debate on the issue as aired in the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corp.) show “Q&A,” the charges are largely seen as all part of the political game, taken as par for the course in the hurly-burly of political one-upmanship.

In contrast to the daily stresses to which Gillard is subjected, the other senior woman in the Australian government, albeit in a largely symbolic, nonpolitical capacity, is Governor-General Quentin Bryce. Appointed to the office by Gillard with the approval of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II, Bryce holds a mainly ceremonial position although by law she is expected to respond to “constitutional questions.”

But don’t expect Bryce to be a serene official whose residence in Sydney is a wonderful colonial-era house high on a hilltop overlooking the picturesque Sydney Harbor. For one, her public career is chockful of achievement, having been a human rights lawyer, head of the sex discrimination commission, a fighter for women’s equality in Australia and around the world, and former governor of Queensland.

I and five other women in media from Asia and the Pacific, who are all taking part in the ongoing International Media Visit (IMV) Program, visited with Bryce in the “Admiralty Home.” And in our talk, she shared not just an amazing grasp of issues and concerns in each of our countries, all of which she had recently visited, but also her enduring interest in and concern for women’s issues, including reproductive health and violence against women.

* * *

EARLIER in the day, we dropped by “Government House,” the official residence of New South Wales Governor Marie Bashir, whose office is the state equivalent of Governor-General Bryce’s.

A psychiatrist for adolescents who has worked with refugees and migrants, Bashir is a great believer in education, calling it “the most powerful weapon of all.” But she is also a believer in acknowledging the efforts of those who paved the way, noting that “we have to be grateful to those who have gone before.”

Still struggling against forces ranged against greater participation of women in business is Yolanda Vega, CEO of the Australia Women’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry (AWCCI), a 2-year-old organization that, she notes naughtily, “annoys the men because we put a ‘W’ in the middle of their organization’s name.”

The “men’s organization,” notes Vega, “is 198 years old but has had zero women on their board. There is not one woman in the State Chambers of Commerce. It’s a boys’ club, very patriarchal.”

Though still fledgling and funded by government grants and private contributions, the AWCCI is working to gather data on women’s access to capital and information, as well as the grant of assistance to women to procure contracts from government.

* * *

CERTAINLY of interest to Vega and the AWCCI is the recently released “2012 Australian Census of Women in Leadership” of the government’s Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency (or EOWA, which will undergo a name-change as soon as a new law is signed). The census, say officials, is in many ways dismaying to all who hope that the cause of women has been moving forward. The report “reveals that the numbers of women at the upper levels of corporate Australia are so low that it will take decades before women achieve any meaningful representation, unless organizations adopt a more disciplined approach and set targets at leadership and management levels.”

Among the findings is that two-thirds of Australia’s top 500 companies “have no female executives, and only 12 have a female CEO.” Then it adds: “Disappointingly, Australia has the lowest percentage of female executives compared to countries with similar governance structures.”

“We’ve been conducting the Census for 10 years and frankly, you’d expect to see more progress,” remarked EOWA Director Helen Conway.

Using a combination of sanctions and incentives, the EOWA, says manager Heather Gordon, has been trying to convince employers to hire more women and reward the deserving with training and promotions. The more effective tactic, says Gordon, seems to be the use of sanctions, particularly striking off the list of eligible suppliers for federal programs companies that do not comply with equal-opportunity regulations. The incentives, especially the naming of “Employer of Choice” to companies that hew to gender-fair guidelines, don’t seem to have as much impact on the bottom-line concerns of proprietors.

* * *

THIS, then seems to be the ironic situation for women in Australia. In politics, women are making great progress, not just with the country’s first woman prime minister (elections will be held next year), but also with a good number of women in the Cabinet and other important government positions and in Parliament.

But in terms of employment and business, women are still struggling not just for equality and recognition, but also for capital, training, networking and sharing of information.

Australian women won the right to vote in 1902, a few years after New Zealand. Let’s hope that in the coming years, Australia will also lead the way in making equality a reality for all its women.


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