Speech by The Hon Julie Bishop MP

International Women’s Day 2007

Location: Parliament House, Canberra

Welcome to the Great Hall in our national capital on International Women’s Day.

It is a day to celebrate – but our thoughts are with those involved in the air crash in Indonesia – and their families.

I am delighted to see so many supporters of International Women’s Day here – it is a global celebration. 

It connects women all over the world as they celebrate women’s social, political and economic advancement over the past 100 years. 

The 1st International Women’s Day was held in 1911 in Europe, and 96 years later it remains a significant date on the world calendar. 

In the lead up to International Women’s Day there are thousands of events being held around the world.

Just to give you an indication of the global impact of International Women’s Day.

I was rather taken by the fact that it is now an official holiday in countries such as Armenia, Belarus, Bulgaria, Mongolia and that bastion of women’s’ rights – and even Kazahkstan! Borat must be wrong!

The first International Women’s Day in Australia was marked by a rally at the Sydney Domain on 25 March 1928. 

I am delighted to be hosting this event again this year as Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Women’s Issues.

and I thank Janet and Ilana for their thought provoking speeches on our theme for today – Women’s health and Women’s wealth. And just picking up on a few of Janet’s words –

Over the last 100 years we have witnessed the most dramatic improvements in women’s health in human history.

Women in Australia enjoy a level of care that has nearly doubled their average life span over the course of a century.

At every level the quality of women’s health care has been enhanced and strengthened through advances in research, behavioural patterns, diet, pre-and post-natal care, new drugs and surgical treatments, immunisations, and the general commitment of millions of Australian women to lead healthier lives.

While there are many accomplishments that stand out in terms of improving women’s health, perhaps the most important has been the simple recognition that men and women have some fundamentally different health needs and that women’s health needs should be pursued in their own right.

I am pleased that the Australian Government last year decided to fund the cervical cancer vaccine, Gardasil, for girls and women aged 12 to 26 from 2007.

An additional $100 million for this program was announced yesterday – bringing total funding to $537 million over four years.

We have come to see that extending life is not in itself sufficient – the longer we live, the more threatened we are by conditions such as cancer, diabetes, heart disease.

Duration of life and quality of life go hand in hand –which makes prevention more effective than treatments.  The major health challenges of the 21st Century are largely preventable, or the onset can be delayed – related to diet, exercise and lifestyle factors.

We have more power to take control of our health outcomes than generations ago.

Women’s health is one of the priority areas I focus upon in my role as Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Women’s Issues.

It is a role that allows me to bring to the national debate issues of concern to women across Australia.

As well as health, my priority areas for women include the education of women and girls, women’s employment, women’s safety and increasing women’s participation in leadership roles.  

Actually the first Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Women’s Affairs, was – Tony Street –  appointed by Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser in 1976.

This was the first time such a portfolio had been created in Australia, and while the irony of having a male in that position would not have been lost on anyone, we must remember that between 1975 and 1980 the House of Representatives was an all-male house!

In this role I pursue priorities, not just through the work of the Office for Women, but as a Parliamentarian and a Cabinet Minister. 

It is not often recognised in these terms – but ‘women’s issues’ are deemed to be of such significance in the Australian government that the portfolio is represented in the most significant decision-making body in the nation – the Cabinet.

As I stand here in a room full of women who are successful businesswomen, public servants and leaders in the community it is easy to overlook how much has changed for women over a relatively short period of time.

Our experience of social and economic life is vastly different from that of our mother’s generation.

My mother grew up on a farm during World War 2, she was a bright girl and won a scholarship to a selective girl’s school in Adelaide. She longed to be one of the few girls in her class who would go on to university.

But as her brothers had enlisted in the war effort, after her leaving honours she had to go home and help run the farm.

She married at 21 and had four children – around the average number for women in the 1950s.

Her experience was typical of the time.

Even in the 1960s – university education was not the usual pathway for a woman – and by the end of the 60s only a quarter of university students were women.

As a feature article in The Bulletin in 1967 asked ‘What should we do with the educated woman?’

At that time, if a woman was in the workforce she would be discriminated against as a matter of course on the grounds of gender or marital status, and that was not only considered legitimate by many people, it was enshrined in legislation.

In the Commonwealth public service in 1960 only 17% of the workforce were women, and they were confined to the typing pool, or a clerical assistant in the lowest levels of the service, known as the ‘fourth division’.

And of course once she got married she had to resign – or hide her wedding ring in the hope she could keep it secret!

The 1970s saw dramatic and fundamental change which set the foundations for women’s rapid social and economic advancement. 

The milestones to get to that point included –

  • introduction of the contraceptive pill in Australia in 1961;
  • lifting of the marriage bar Australian Public Service in 1966;
  • establishment of equal pay for equal work in 1973;
  • introduction of ‘no fault divorce’ in 1975

Thinking of my family – the experience of my two older sisters embody the pace of attitudinal change at the time.

I recall sitting around the kitchen table as a 12-year-old listening to my parents discuss career options with my older sister.

It was just assumed she would either be a teacher or a nurse – nothing else was discussed.

She chose nursing.

Within the space of 12 months, again sitting around the kitchen table, my second oldest sister announced she was going to be a doctor and study medicine at university. No questions asked.

Almost overnight, the women’s liberation revolution of the 1970s had taken hold.

By the time I came to choose a career it was left up to me, although years later my father was less comfortable with federal politics as a career for his daughter!

Today, more women than men complete year 12 as well as graduate from University – around 55% of Uni graduates are female.  But as my mother would say – educate a may and you educate just one, educate a woman and you educate and entire family.

Women have equal access to paid work, the flexibility to balance work and family or the freedom to stay at home with children, in a society that acknowledges the value of unpaid work in the home. 

Today’s Australian women have more opportunity, freedom and more choice.

In the last 10 years, over 1 million new jobs for women have been created. Women’s workforce participation is at a record level of 57.8%.

Over the past 10 years there has been strong growth in women’s full time earnings – between 1996 and 2006 full time ordinary earning increased in real terms by $173 a week.

Today women make up more than half of the Australian Public Service – And hold 42 per cent of all executive positions and nearly 35 per cent of all senior executive positions in the Australian Public Service.

Today we have six women heading major Commonwealth Government Departments and Agencies. 

The Head of the Australian Public Service Commission is Lynelle Briggs who is with us today.

And women are represented at all levels of government with 27 female Senators and 37 female members of the House of Representatives.

This makes the number of women in the Australian Commonwealth Parliament today almost double the international average.

But International Women’s Day is not just about celebrating what has been achieved. 

It is also about acknowledging the areas where more must be done

And that is where the Office for Women plays a key role in providing support and policy advice for me as Minister.

The work of the Office is based on a ‘whole-of-Government’ approach and is founded on the goal of mainstreaming women’s issues.

Put simply – ensuring that women’s business is everybody’s business.

This means working within government to ensure that women’s experiences, women’s issues, women’s perspectives are firmly embedded in the planning and policy processes of government.

We can’t see women as a single and separate group from the rest of the community. 

As a government we need to ensure that women have real choices around education, participation, work and family balance, and opportunities for leadership.

I am proud of this government’s track record for women.

For example, the Government has spent over $10 billion on child care in the six years since the introduction of the Child Care Benefit in July 2000.

Last year we provided carers, the majority of whom are women, with direct payments, including bonuses, totalling an estimated $2.4 billion

The Family Tax Benefit assists around 2.2 million families with 4.2 million children with the costs of raising children.  The vast majority of Australian families with dependant children are now eligible to receive FTB.

But there are areas where we need to continue to concentrate our efforts –

Financial literacy – women have very different financial information needs than men and are more likely to require financial advice at different stages of their life.

To address this very important issue of financial literacy, women’s ministers across the country have joined forces, to develop a guide to assist policy makers, financial institutions and community organisations to effectively communicate superannuation and financial literacy messages to women at different stages of their lives.

Many women continue to face challenges – including migrant women, Indigenous women, women with disabilities – and the government is working to address the needs of these women.

Of particular concern are the women who experience violence or sexual assault. 

It is reported that at least 1 in 17 women still experience physical or sexual assault each year. This is totally unacceptable.

We are committed to addressing domestic violence and sexual assault and the Australian Government has provided almost $150m directly towards tackling these issues since 1996.

We continue to provide national leadership on responding to domestic violence and sexual assault through a range of programs. The Women’s Safety Agenda provides funding to run the successful Violence Against Women. Australia Says NO. community awareness campaign. 

Since June 2004, the Helpline has received over 80,000 calls.

This very powerful campaign will again be appearing on our televisions in March, August and November of this year.

There is much work ahead for us – and in the spirit of celebrating women’s achievements, I take this opportunity to launch a publication Women in Australia 2007.

This publication provides an overview of Australia’s progress in raising the status of women over the past 10 years.

This fourth edition of Women in Australia is the first to present 10 year trend statistics measuring women’s progress in education and training, labour force participation, economic resources and safety.

It brings together statistics reflecting many aspects of Australian women’s lives and how they have changed over time.

It is designed to inform policy makers, academics, women’s interest groups and other interested members of the public.

Women in Australia 2007 is an essential resource –  for women, government, anyone who is interested in the enormous achievements that have occurred for women in the past 10 years and the challenges we all face in the future.

Behind the myriad of statistics are stories of women’s hopes and dreams and aspirations- mothers/grandmothers/sisters/daughters – Their successes/struggles – their loves/heartaches.

Their achievements/challenges – the very things we are here to celebrate today.

As you read your copy of the report, you will realize we have come a long way, but the journey is far from over.

Thank you for joining me here on International Women’s Day.