Speech by The Hon Tanya Pibersek MP

Speech at Slater and Gordon ‘Inspiring Women’ lunch; Cockle Bay Wharf, Sydney

Location: Cockle Bay Wharf, Sydney

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I would like to pay my respects to the traditional owners of the land on which we are meeting, and to their Elders past and present.

History has given us many inspiring women.

One of them, the US writer and anti-slavery campaigner Harriet Beecher Stowe, observed succinctly and pertinently ‘women are the real architects of society.1

The inspirational women honoured in this series – not least among them Cheryl Koenig whom we honour today – bear out Harriet Beecher Stowe’s dictum.

And yet, a century and a half after she penned those words, many in our society are still struggling to acknowledge them.

Stowe may have found a certain irony in the fact that the obstacles that continue to beset women are described in architectural terms.2

The glass ceiling is the best known – the vertical barrier that prevents women with potential from advancing to the top echelons within communities or organisations;

Then there are glass walls – the horizontal barriers that restrict women to service areas on the grounds that women cannot handle policy and budgetary responsibilities.

And sticky floors – jobs with little occupational prestige and limited opportunity for promotion.

And trap doors – the gendered ethos of roles, enshrined when only men were in the workforce and still prevalent in many organisations.

Ceilings, walls, floors and doors – one might say the architecture of discrimination.

Change, in the form of gender equality in all spheres of life, will ultimately benefit men as well as women, and their families.

Since coming to Government, I have been working very hard to generate public debate about the meaning and importance of gender equality.

Public discussion and debate are a primary means of generating attitudinal as well as behavioural change.

Engaging men in these discussions is crucial – it is important that issues of social and economic inclusion are not seen as women’s issues alone.

Greater equality economically and socially between men and women is good for us all.

It is obviously good for women, and despite the fact that men might have to share the better jobs, I argue that it is good for men too.

And most importantly, it strengthens our nation.

The Australian Government’s campaign for gender equality is based on three priorities:

  • Improving economic outcomes for women;
  • Ensuring women’s equal place in society; and
  • Reducing violence against women.

Improving women’s economic and social outcomes is important for women themselves and also for developing a stronger and more robust economy.

Women in Australia earn less than men – we are ranked eleventh in the OECD with a gender pay gap of 17 per cent.

That also means women retire with substantially fewer resources than men.

The gender gap in reward and recognition begins at the very start of a woman’s career.

Male graduates start work on a median salary $2,000 higher than female graduates for example.3

The Government has taken several actions to address this inequity.

We have launched a review of the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Act and the Equal Opportunity for Women Agency.

The Review of the Act gives us an opportunity to modernise efforts to promote equal opportunity in the workplace, to tackle all those ceilings, walls and floors of inequality.

We are looking to ensure effective and adequate ways of promoting opportunities for women as well as advancing pay equity.

As well, I have been working through MINCO – the Commonwealth, States, Territories and New Zealand Ministerial Conference – to coordinate work on pay equity both in Australia and across the Tasman.

We also have research underway on the impact of a sustained gender pay gap on the economy and the impact of wage-setting arrangements on the gender pay gap.

Workplace culture and discriminatory practices will not change unless both men and women share their work and caring responsibilities.

The establishment of the Office for Work and Family last year and, more recently, the implementation of the Fair Work Act, with new provisions relating to caring responsibilities, encourage this flexibility.

Perhaps most importantly – there is our historic Paid Parental Leave scheme.

The Scheme will provide greater financial support to families, increase workforce participation and promote early childhood development.

Paid Parental Leave will give more babies the best start in life.

It will enable more parents – men and women – to stay at home to care for their baby full-time during the vital early months of social, cognitive and physical development.

And it will allow women to maintain their connection with the workforce and their careers.

This reform should go a long way to helping women over one of those so-called ‘tripping factors’ that hold women to the sticky floor, barring many from even experiencing glass walls let alone glass ceilings.

We need to ensure women’s equal place in society extends from the community to the Board Room.

The Government is committed to increasing women’s leadership in every aspect of Australian society – from representation in parliament, government, and senior levels in the public and private sectors, to leadership roles in communities throughout Australia.

Organisations which include women leaders perform better in a variety of ways, from increased profits to improved reputation.

Women currently hold around one in three seats on Australian Government boards and bodies, and around one in five Chair or Deputy Chair positions.

In the private sector, women hold around one in eight private sector executive management positions.

Women hold less than nine per cent of private board directorships.

Half of all ASX 200 companies have no female board directors, and the number of companies with no female board directors has increased over the past five years.

In your area – the law – we now have three women judges on the High Court.

In my own area of politics we have, at the federal level, also made inroads.

Happily we are unlikely to repeat of the experience of Dame Dorothy Tangney – the first Labor woman elected to the Federal Parliament when she became a Senator for Western Australia in 1943.

Dame Dorothy served for a quarter of a century in the Australian Parliament – the second longest of any woman in our history – a distinguished political career by anyone’s reckoning.

Yet I am sure it remained a great source of disappointment to her that she never served with another Labor woman for that entire 25-year period.

Because while Dorothy Tangney was the first Labor member of the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party – the second and third, Joan Child and Susan Ryan – did not arrive until 1974, six years after she had departed.

Thankfully – times have changed, and women are now more consistently achieving high office, good pay and significant influence.

Now, one third of all Commonwealth parliamentarians are women.

There are seven female ministers, including for the first time the Deputy Prime Minister, and two female parliamentary secretaries.

Rosemary Laing will soon become the first female Clerk of the Senate, when Harry Evans retires in December.

The Clerk is the most senior public servant in the Upper House of the Parliament.

Importantly, we need to encourage women voices to be heard from the community.

Including rural and Indigenous women.

I was fortunate to speak at a side event to a United Nations Commission on the Status of Women meeting in New York earlier this year with two Indigenous Australian women from Fitzroy Crossing – 2,600 kilometres north of Perth.

Emily Carter and June Oscar broke every ceiling, wall, floor and trapdoor to rescue their community from alcohol abuse and the resulting suicide and despair of the community’s young men.

An amazing story of the power of women’s determination.

Women like Emily and June, directly themselves or through representative organisations are true architects of change.

The Office for Women – for which I have responsibility – funds four National Women’s Alliances to be voices for women in public decision-making.

Recent work with the Alliances has seen them building networks to ensure representation for marginalised and disadvantaged women on broad national policy issues impacting on women.

We are in the process of expanding the number of Alliances to six.

This will mean we can engage with a broader range of women on a broader range of issues that affect women today.

I am determined to engage with the women’s movement in a strong and clear way so that ordinary women can influence the debate on issues that affect us all.

Our third high priority area is reducing violence against women

Violence against women is the manifestation of inequality in its most brutal form.

And its prevalence in Australia is shocking.

Each day in Australia, more than a thousand women suffer violence.

The Government is working with States and Territories – where much of the practical work must be done – to develop a National Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and Children for release next year, in 2010.

We are also strong supporters of the White Ribbon campaign.

The Prime Minister is an Ambassador for the White Ribbon campaign, highlighting the objective to get all men on board with the notion of ending violence against women whatever their sector, background, age or beliefs.

But today belongs to Cheryl Koenig.

If ever there was an architect of change, it is Cheryl.

A most outstanding NSW Woman of the Year.

A woman who let no ceilings, doors or anything else stand in her way to achievement on behalf of her family and many, many others.

I know everyone here will be deeply moved by your story and your example Cheryl.

You are truly an inspiring woman.

Thank you for asking me to speak with you today.

  1. Harriett Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, US anti-slavery campaigner and novelist, 1811-1896
  2. Glass Ceilings and Sticky Floors, Leone V. Still, Edith Cowen Univeristy, prepared for HEROC and Westpac, 1997 pp 10-11.
  3. Table 4 in Gradstats, Number 13, December 2008, www.gradsonline.com.au