Perhaps the greatest manifestation of the current Gillard administration’s commitment to the promotion and protection of the rights of women and girls in Australia and around the world is the appointment last year of Penny Williams as “global ambassador for women and girls.”
Describing her job, Williams told Australian broadcast station ABC that she sees it “as a championing of what we’re doing already, promoting the sort of activities and programs that focus on women and girls, but also engaging at a diplomatic level with other governments and with women themselves in the region.”
Working mainly within the Asia-Pacific region, Williams is expected to, in the words of Emma David of “The Hoopla” website, “advocate for the rights of women and girls, eradicate domestic violence, empower women and increase their representation in leadership roles.”
It’s a tall order, even for an experienced diplomat.
“Last year,” she recently told a group of visiting Asia-Pacific women journalists, “[the Australian government] decided to put women and girls at the center of its aid program.” Her post, one of only “a handful” existing in the world, is meant to enable the Australian government “to engage, at a senior policy level, and at bi- and multi-lateral levels, with other governments on raising the status of women and girls.”
Williams cautions that her work is done mainly abroad, advocating for gender concerns and advising the government on policies that can push the gender agenda in areas where Australian foreign relations, military assistance and aid are present.
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At home, the work of looking after gender concerns falls to the Office for Women, represented at our table by Mairi Steele. “This is a big year for women’s equality,” Steele told us journalists. With its first woman prime minister in office, Australia is mainstreaming gender in its policies and programs, a trend that began many years ago but is now gaining momentum, she said.
And not a moment too soon. While women’s concerns would seem to be of high priority in policy and programs, the concept of women’s equality and rights doesn’t seem to have seeped down yet to the level of ordinary Australians, or even of leaders of Australian business and industry.
In a previous column, I wrote about the just-released census on women’s leadership which revealed that, in terms of leadership in the private sector, measured in terms of women’s presence on the boards of companies, Australia “is still not doing well.” Indeed, when counting the increase of women on boards, it turns out that movement has been “glacial.”
Elizabeth Broderick, who heads the Sex Discrimination Commission, cites the appalling statistics concerning domestic violence within Australia’s borders. A total of 1.2 million women, she says, “are currently in a violent relationship or have experienced violence.” One area they need to work on, she says, is to let leaders and managers in workplaces “be aware of domestic violence as a problem.” She notes: “Theirs is the missing voice business needs to be aware of the impact of domestic violence on their women workers, and of the need to keep women in paid work.”
Broderick has the statistics to back her assertion: “Employers lose about $1.6 billion annually to domestic violence due to lost working hours, while Australia loses $1 billion to overall loss of productivity.” Indeed, she asserts, “what affects employees affects employers.”
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Broderick has adopted what she admits is a “controversial” measure to promote gender equity in Australia’s workplaces. And that is to create the body known as “Male Champions for Change.” The group, she says is meant to represent “men who advocate for women’s leadership, from the private sector to military leaders, to talk to other men about women’s equality.”
To form the “Male Champions for Change,” Broderick deliberately targeted the most powerful and influential men in Australia, sought them out and “made a strong case for equity.” “Once you get really powerful men on board,” she adds, “other men leaders will want to be invited, too. They can get very competitive.”
Other women, she admits, have balked at seeing onstage at events celebrating women’s leadership “a row of men championing women’s rights.” But, comments Broderick: “Let’s get real. Men listen to other men, preferably men who hold more power than them. Only by getting the men champions to speak out and influence policies in their workplaces can we reach men at lower levels who really affect the workday lives of women.”
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We heard testimony of how gender-friendly policies could be applied in Australia’s workplaces on the last day of our visit. In Melbourne, we sat with three women officers of the National Australia Bank (NAB), one of the leading private banks in the country.
Jacinta Carboon heads the office of “women’s markets,” Vera Ou-Young is manager of strategy innovation and new business, while Kristine McCann works with corporate affairs.
Jacinta says part of her job description involves ensuring “internal diversity” at the NAB, which aims to get more women on the board of the bank and in senior management (an increase to 33 percent in senior management by 2015), and to tap the bank’s women to sit on the boards of nonprofit foundations.
Indeed, says Kristine, NAB has been named “Employer of Choice” for the past six years.
Vera reaches out to women customers that other banks traditionally overlook, including women entrepreneurs and self-employed business owners. Reaching out to women, teaching them the basics of accounting and management, giving them access to loans and networks have proven not just helpful to the women, says Vera, “it has also proven profitable for the bank.”