Speech by The Hon Julie Collins MP

Commonwealth Business Council Special Forum on Women’s Economic Empowerment 10th Women’s Affairs Ministers Meeting

Location: Dhaka, Bangladesh

Opening remarks

I’d like to begin by acknowledging the Chair, ministers, officials and delegates.

Before I start, I’d like to say how deeply saddened I was to hear of the tragic collapse of the Rana Plaza complex.

Australia sends our heartfelt condolences to the workers and families affected by this tragedy.

I’m pleased that a number of Australian companies have recently signed up to the safety accord.

It is my absolute pleasure to be in Dhaka, and to be here today, leading the Australian Delegation and representing Australia as Commonwealth Chair-in-Office.

I thank the Commonwealth Business Council for the opportunity to address today’s forum on Women’s Economic Empowerment.

And I congratulate the Government of Bangladesh for hosting this, the 10th Commonwealth Women’s Affairs Ministers Meeting.

Australia’s enduring relationship with Bangladesh

Australia is a close friend of Bangladesh and our relationship is an enduring one.

Through the provision of bilateral development assistance, Australia is a major supporter of Bangladesh’s efforts to improve the lives of its most vulnerable citizens, particularly women.

The breadth of these efforts is impressive.

  • More skilled attendants are attending births.
  • More women are receiving medical care for pregnancy-related complications.
  • The Acid Survivors Foundation is continuing to provide critical support to victims of acid violence – the overwhelming majority, of course, being women and girls.
  • And asset transfers, skills training and cash stipends are helping hundreds and thousands of women to lift their families out of poverty.

In 2011, at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Perth, our two prime ministers Julie Gillard and Sheikh Hasina chaired the “Empowering Women to Lead” forum.

It was a remarkable moment and one for the history books.

Setting the scene: women and work

It was at CHOGM too that Australia’s Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, strongly endorsed the Commonwealth Businesswomen’s Initiative.

This initiative, as those of you here would know, is an international strategy aimed at promoting and advancing women in business.

In recent years, we’ve seen a growing – if sometimes grudging – acceptance that there is a correlation between higher female workforce participation and a thriving economy.

And, as a result, the gender participation landscape is slowly shifting.

It is clear that the “life” choices available to women – and men – in 2013, are vastly different to those 40 or 50 years ago.

Fifty years ago, we were still some way off talking in any serious way about the economic value of women’s participation in the workforce.

In the West, women’s liberation was in its infancy.

There was talk about the undervaluing of work done by women in the home and even the suggestion housewives should get a wage.

Over time, the debate shifted from the private to the public sphere and “women’s work” became a battleground with its own slogan – “equal pay for equal work”.

Sadly, it’s a slogan we still hear today some 50 years later.

The Australian experience

In Australia, there are fewer women than men doing higher paid jobs.

And women continue to do the bulk of “unpaid” work – about 16 and a half hours a week more than men.

For the past 20 years, the gender pay gap in Australia has remained persistently between 15 and 18 per cent.

It is currently 17.6 per cent.

Today, however, there is a new dimension to the gender and work debate.

In Australia, we know that increasing the participation of women in the workforce could increase our GDP by as much as13 per cent.

Gender equality has long been talked about as a social justice issue but today there is growing recognition that it has a very significant economic component too.

In Australia, as elsewhere in the world, we continue to look for ways to boost our productivity and remain competitive in a fast moving global economy.

At the same time, we are driving strong reforms aimed at removing barriers to women’s full, equal and meaningful participation in the workforce.

In 2009, we introduced the Fair Work Act, a piece of legislation that provides fairness and flexibility for women, and promotes opportunities and equality in the workplace.

Last year, 150,000 of Australia’s lowest paid workers were awarded wage increases of between 23 and 45 per cent by the Fair Work Commission – 120,000 of these workers are women.

This historic equal remuneration case was long overdue recognition of the vital work done by Australia’s social and community sector – a sector which is made up largely of women and one that has been undervalued because of it.

The Australian Government also recently introduced the Workplace Gender Equality Act and Agency to implement a suite of reforms aimed at transforming workplace culture and removing “attitudinal roadblocks” to women’s full and equal participation.

We also want to be able to meet the skills needs of business and industry into the future.

Our commitment extends to creating new opportunities for Australian women in male-dominated industries, including the resources and construction sectors.

One of the ways we are helping to do this is through a toolkit for employers that provides practical assistance to attract and retain women into these jobs.

The toolkit forms a part of Australia’s commitment to the Equal Futures Partnership, an international commitment to expanding opportunities for women launched in New York last year by then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

We have introduced Australia’s first Government-funded Paid Parental Leave scheme.

More than 280,000 families have benefitted so far.

And for many low paid, casual and part-time workers, this is the first time they have had this support.

Another area we are working on is strengthening protections against discrimination.

Our amendments to the Sex Discrimination Act will make it unlawful to discriminate on the ground of family responsibilities across all employment related areas, not just termination.

We know that levelling the gender playing field will not only benefit individuals, it will also benefit our economy.

I am also pleased that the Australian Government has zero tolerance when it comes to violence against women.

We are committed to a ground-breaking plan to reduce violence against women and their children.

We are also working in partnership with our Pacific neighbours to progress these important issues.

We are committed to achieving real change across this 12-year plan and we are working closely with the non-government sector to progress positive results.

Increasing high level representation

I understand that one of the priority areas of today’s forum is improving women’s representation on boards and in senior decision making roles.

The situation in Australia is, I am sure, similar to many other countries with female representation in political and public life is well below an equitable level – especially in board rooms.

Women hold close to 30 per cent of positions in our Federal Parliament and 28 per cent in our state parliaments.

We have committed to achieving a minimum of 40 per cent of women on Australian Government boards by 2015.

We have introduced a number of initiatives including regular reporting on the gender balance of Government boards and mechanisms to drive plans to increase representation if targets aren’t being met.

These are working well and we are on target to meet our 40 per cent goal having reached 38.4 per cent on 30 June last year – an increase from 35.3 per cent in 2011.

We are working to promote change in the private sector as well, where women make up only 15.7 per cent of the appointments on boards of the Australian Stock Exchange’s top 200 companies.

Driving change from the top down

There’s no question that having women succeed in business – both domestically and internationally – benefits the economy.

These women are also great role models who actively demonstrate that gender is not an impediment in the workforce.

The same can be said for women in high level positions and leadership roles who are in a position to drive change from the top down.

Earlier this year, I was fortunate enough to be able to lead the Australian delegation to the 57th Session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women in New York.

I was accompanied by an exceptional delegation including Australia’s Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Elizabeth Broderick, and our Global Ambassador for Women and Children, Penny Williams.

I am extremely pleased to say, after some complex negotiations, a landmark agreement was achieved at CSW.

I’d like to acknowledge the role the Pacific countries played in securing these important outcomes and I look forward to continuing to work with our Commonwealth partners to implement the CSW commitments.

In closing: towards a dynamic, inclusive Commonwealth

I think we would all agree that in the 21st century gender equality is well on the way to becoming a social and economic imperative.

It is difficult to visualise the future that will come from tapping the unrealised potential of those who have, for too long, been locked out of full participation.

But we do know that opening the door to opportunity has the potential to boost productivity, drive innovation and change lives.

Ultimately, what that means is that more of the world’s citizens will be able to contribute to, and share in, the social and economic prosperity of their home countries.

The journey towards gender equality has been a long one – and one that is different for every country.

Many gains have been made but there is still work to be done.

It is the responsibility of our governments and leaders to ensure all our citizens have the opportunity to reach and fulfil their potential.

Forums like this one are part of that shared global responsibility.

As we head further into the 21st century, I think more and more nations will realise this is a door we cannot afford to leave closed.

I look forward to continuing this work towards a dynamic, inclusive Commonwealth where women are equal citizens – socially and economically – and the struggle for gender equality is consigned to history once and for all.

Thank you.