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The Bold and the Backlash

CEW Annual Dinner: Speech by Natasha Stott Despoja AO

Good evening, everyone.

I begin by acknowledging the traditional owners the Gadigal pe­­­ople of the Eora Nation.

I pay my respects to their elders past and present and emerging, and to any other elders from other communities who may be present or listening today.

The Gadigal People are the original custodians of this land and I acknowledge the historical impact of colonisation and its continuing effects.

Thank you, Sonja Stewart, for your generous Acknowledgement of Country. I pay particular tribute to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, including those bold and inspiring leaders in the room tonight, and especially those who have championed The Voice.

It was a unique experience to be on the Prime Minister’s Referendum Council and see the painstaking work and collaboration that went into the Uluru Statement from the Heart, and I implore Australians to support the Voice, just as I appeal to those of you in this room to lend your solidarity and support.

What an honour to address this dinner on the topic of the Bold and the Backlash.

I do so as a former Senator, former Ambassador for Women and Girls, as a member of the UN Treaty Body CEDAW and a Principal at Deloitte, and, as the former inaugural Chair of Our Watch – the national organisation to Prevent Violence Against Women and their Children.

The latter has meant, every day, I have been conscious of one of the most heinous manifestations of gender inequality: violence against women and children.

It is a global phenomenon that is omnipresent in our UN assessments.

These days, my not-for-profit work involves protecting and advancing the rights of women and girls in UN Members States.

I have just returned from a session in which we had State Party dialogues with countries ranging from Norway to Tunisia, Slovenia to Hungary.

Regardless of the differences, no country has achieved gender equality, including Australia.

Yet, no country or community, regardless of its circumstances, can reach its full potential while drawing on the skills of only half its population.

I may have been in the rarefied air of Geneva, but the discriminations and the disadvantages women and girls face – be it child marriage or FGM – are real and haunting.

Despite much progress over the past decade in the rights for women and girls, even in recent weeks, we have seen egregious examples of attacks on women’s human rights globally: in Afghanistan, in addition to banning girls from education and women working in NGOs, the Taliban is now forcing women back to violent ex-husbands and denying women and girls contraception; in Iran, girls have been poisoned to stop them going to school; and, in South Carolina initially 24 legislators co-sponsored a bill to support the death penalty for women who have abortions.

The backlash is real.

We are not only dealing with countries who have been slow to advance gender equality, we are now confronted by countries actively backtracking.

The High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Turk, has warned about the “pushback and backsliding”, the “systematic countering of women’s rights and gender equality”.

The UNSG Antonio Guterres said on International Women’s Day, “the patriarchy is fighting back”. Warning it would take 300 years to achieve gender equality at the current pace.

And, yes, I am conscious of quoting the two highest ranking officials in the UN who are both men, because the UN has never had a female Secretary-General.

How quickly rights can revert. It doesn’t take much.

During this session we examined Tunisia. A country that in 2016 implemented an electoral law to include the principle of parity and alternation between men and women on candidate lists in certain elections.

In municipal elections, where quotas were mandated, almost half of those elected were women. 

In stark contrast, in 2022, Tunisia’s president introduced an electoral law to eliminate gender parity on party lists, with disturbing results: in the most recent federal elections, women represented 15% of candidates. Only 3% of voters were women.

Quotas are bold and quotas work.

This CEDAW session of course took place against the backdrop of continuing conflict in the Ukraine which is now the first country to document rape as a weapon of war.

It is hard to convey what it was like conducting a hybrid dialogue with a member state with people wearing bullet proof vests.

In one virtual meeting with a Ukraine Minister, I could hear the sound of bombs got louder in the background, so we asked if she needed to go somewhere safe. She replied that these issues were too important, and we should keep going.

If you want to exemplify tonight’s theme — being bold — it is hard to get better than that.

COVID has also sent us backwards.

The global pandemic has exacerbated existing inequalities and made the lives of those already marginalised — including the poor, people with disabilities, and women and girls, worse.

Before COVID, approximately 244 million children were out of school, mostly girls. Now, the education of almost 1.5 billion young people is at risk.

As a result of the pandemic, over the next decade, up to 10 million more girls are at risk of becoming child brides.

I use these examples which show that everything is relative and of course Australia is doing comparatively well. But, the enduring comment I get from colleagues about Australia is that they are surprised that we are not doing better.

We have no right to be complacent and every reason to be bold.

The Financy report a fortnight ago, showed there has been one key improved indicator for women – largely as a result of Covid – and that is behavioural change on the part of men in terms of contributing to family and home related unpaid work.

But the reality remains that when it comes to gender parity in Australia:

women are still paid less for the same work, are more likely to engage in part-time and casual work, carry the primary responsibility for care-giving, for both children and parents, and retire with less superannuation.

These situations are compounded for women from poorer, diverse and Indigenous backgrounds and for women with disabilities.

As this is the CEW dinner, it is relevant that women represent less than 36% of board positions, there are only 10 female CEOs of ASX 200 companies, (gone backwards) – as you all know men named Andrew or John are more likely to lead businesses than women, women comprise 20% of the ADF workforce and until recently, Australia had fewer women in its highest ranks of government than nearly every OECD country.

Yet, increased number of women in leadership roles leads to improved distribution of resources, and the maintenance of public infrastructure, better natural resource management, and actually has a positive effect – right down to measures as simple as profit and loss.

Companies with more women in senior management teams have about 30% higher profit margins than those with lower gender diversity.

The business case is compelling.

The recently released Deloitte Access Economics report on Gender Norms finds that more flexible ideas around gender could lead to an additional $128 billion each year for Australia’s economy and 461,000 additional full-time employees.

Apart from this being the fair thing to do, increasing women’s leadership and voice are the right thing to do.

One of the most enduring statistics is that decreasing the proportion of women in parliament by 5 per cent means that a country is nearly five times as likely to use military violence in resolving international disputes.  

We know there is a strong correlation between peace agreements signed by female delegates and durable peace and yet only around seven out of every ten peace processes have not involved women mediators or signatories.

Research also shows women in leadership positions changes perceptions regarding the roles and aspirations of girls (including reducing the time girls spend on household chores in developing countries), results in more girls attending school and becoming equipped, themselves, to play leadership roles, including in conflict prevention.

We can’t be what we can’t see.

When I became a Senator, so many messages came from young women, saying that “if I could do it so could they”.

That was more than 27 years ago, and the federal parliament was around 14% female and I was sure that we’d have gender parity by now.

We have been shamefully slow.

Australia once led the world: my home State of South Australia has the fine distinction of being the first place to achieve women’s suffrage and the right to stand for parliament, without caveats, this included Aboriginal women who were important advocates for suffrage and voted the 1896 election, even when they were actively discouraged.

The Hansard and media reports of the era remind us that that sexist sledges in politics are nothing new. Some comments were vitriolic and others laughable.

Robert Caldwell MP thought women were more ‘easily excited than men’.

And the Hon. Mr Grainger decried if women could vote, the price of broomsticks would go up.

Being relatively young and female, I was conscious of a novelty factor. But even I was surprised by some of the ridiculous stereotypes that I encountered and people’s perceptions of what constituted leadership.

But, I was serious about changing public perception around what constituted a politician and worked to change the policy landscape for women generally, and the culture of the parliament specifically.

The novelty of being a younger woman underscored these experiences, but no woman is exempt, and these experiences are compounded for women of colour, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, lesbian and trans-women and for women with disabilities.

All of whom have been profoundly under-represented in our parliaments and whose injustices deserve attention. Along with those of older women, the fastest growing group moving into poverty.

I mention these personal examples partly because the way women leaders are judged – everywhere, especially in public life– then and now – can be debilitating but also it taught me that our perceptions of leadership were outdated and narrow. 

Some stereotypes persist:

A fifth of Australians still believe men ‘naturally’ make better leaders and should hold positions of power, because they are more ‘rational’ and ‘less emotional’. 

This is not necessarily my experience but nor do I want men to be non emotional, confined by rigid gender stereotypes.

What bold steps do we need to create a more gender equal future?

This is especially important, given the inextricable link between gender inequality and violence against women and children.

We need to tackle the historically-entrenched beliefs and behaviours that drive gender inequality, and the social political and economic structures, practices and systems that support it.  

That means we have to make changes in all the areas in which we live, love, learn work and play!

From schools to the sporting field, in our media and community, in our homes and our workplaces.

It should not be up to women to fight for gender equality, men – especially the powerful in this room – can step up, be allies, and advocate and enact change.  

I know many of you are working on these issues and other seemingly intractable issues of our age including climate change – which also has a disproportionate effect on women – but it’s now time to turbo charge our efforts. Be bolder.

If you talk about these issues and you don’t have gender parity in your boardroom or in senior leadership what are you going to do tomorrow?

22.3% of boards in Australia have no women.

Do you champion flexible work and parental leave for both men and women and nonbinary colleagues and staff so everyone can better balance career and family?

Are you proactive in addressing the systemic aspects of gender inequality in the workplace, like the gender pay gap and the superannuation gap.

Our bold challenge is to embed equality and fairness in the DNA of organisations, from the top down be it in our corporates or in my former profession of politics.

Indeed, the Respect@Work and Set the Standard reports by the Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins provide roadmaps for how we can achieve respectful and equal workplaces.

The Wiyi Yani U Thangani report, gives us a First Nations women and girl-led agenda to achieve First Nations gender justice and equality.

It must be an intersectional approach, because gender inequality is not the same for all women.

As individuals, we can model healthy, respectful relationships. Have the courage to be bolder bystanders: call out bad behaviour.  

You can add your powerful voices to CEW’s call for expanded PPL, including extending the superannuation guarantee to the PPL scheme and immediately increasing JobSeeker and Parenting Payment Single payments as a means helping some of the most vulnerable and poor women in Australia right now.

I know change takes time. I learnt that about legislative and policy change but, cultural change can take generations.

But just as rights can be eroded quickly, positive change can be implemented fast.

The challenges we are still striving to address in Australia are a common story for women across the globe.  Indeed, these challenges are magnified in many countries in our region and beyond.

The challenges to women’s representation in political spheres are mirrored across the board in sub-national decision-making, in economic life, in financial and digital inclusion, and in social and family affairs. 

There are hard won rights that we must protect and advance, in spite of global backlash.

This is not a women’s problem: this is everybody’s business.


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