Speech by Senator the Hon Kay Patterson

Address to an International Women’s Day Function

Location: Great Hall, Parliament House, Canberra


Distinguished guests
Ladies and gentlemen

Thank you Jeff (Harmer, Secretary of FaCS) for your introduction.

As the Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Women’s Issues, I am delighted to host today’s celebrations, to mark this year’s International Women’s Day.

Each year on March 8, millions of people celebrate the achievements of women and recognise the issues that affect them – not just in our country, but in countries around the globe.

The first International Women’s Day was held on 19 March, 1911 in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland.

Altogether, more than one million women and men turned up at rallies to demand that, among other things, women were given the right to paid work, to vote, and to hold public office.

We can be proud that Australia’s pioneering women had already won the right to vote and stands for Parliament nine years earlier in 1902.
In Germany at the time, Russian revolutionary and feminist, Alexandra Kollontai, wrote that there was:

“… one seething trembling sea of women. Meetings were organised everywhere … in the small towns and even in the villages, halls were packed.”

She also wrote that bloodshed was narrowly averted, at the last minute, after the police tried to remove the demonstrators’ banners.

The United Nations adopted International Women’s Day. The reasons for having the day are just as pertinent today as they were in 1975.

This was reinforced when I recently led the Australian delegation at the meeting of the United Nations’ Commission on the Status of Women in New York.

It was a significant event, because it marked the tenth anniversary of the Beijing Platform for Action.

It is a clear and practical blueprint for action, to protect the human rights of women and to help achieve gender equality.

Called ‘Beijing plus 10’, this year’s meeting of the Commission in New York was a unique opportunity for member countries to review their progress against the Beijing goals, to learn from and build on one another’s experiences, and to renew our commitment and efforts to address the challenges that remain.

In New York, the UN Secretary General reported that a worldwide survey had found improvements in education, poverty reduction, and women’s health.

However, his report highlighted the need to increase women’s participation in public life and decision-making, and to address women’s property inheritance and land rights, as well as access to economic resources. There are messages in this for every country including Australia.

In delivering Australia’s country statement in New York, I was proud to report that in Australia we have made substantial inroads in the past 10 years. Indeed, I told the conference that:

Today, our women have the same or better outcomes than men in several key areas such as education and health, and continue to make steady progress in other areas.

In 2003, for example, women made up 59 per cent of Graduate Diploma and Graduate Certificate students, 56 per cent of Advanced Diploma, Diploma and Bachelor Degree students and 51 per cent of Post Graduate students.

We have come a long way-one small example in the Public Sector Informant serves as a reminder.
It refers to a 1963 departmental minute written by an officer to his director outlining reasons for not appointing women as Trade Commissioners. I won’t quote the entire articles, but here is a small sample;

One of the reasons listed as:

Number 8 – A spinster lady can and very often does turn into something of a battleaxe with the passing years, a man usually mellows. He conceded that though a woman might be more effective than a man in the area of women’s clothing and accessories he warned she ” would not stay young and attractive forever and later on will become a problem.”

The Director agreed that in some cases we have no alternative but to dismiss women (on overseas postings) in their late forties or early fifties who, although competent and efficient ten years ago, have turned into complete tyrants, demoralising other staff members and frustrating the total office effort.”

Last week I had the pleasure of launching a wonderful display ” Women Working For Australia”, the display charts the history of Australian Women in foreign affairs. Alexander Downer will launch this today at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

However, this afternoon what to us might seem unbelievable now were significant and insurmountable barriers for women in the 1900’s. It is pleasing that in Australia we have 19 female ambassadors or high commissioners. However, there is no reason why we shouldn’t have more.

While we still have many challenges ahead there have been some significant achievements

The achievements and challenges are reported in Women in Australia 2004, which I’m launching today.

The third of its kind in a series, Women in Australia once again paints a picture of contemporary Australian women.

For instance, it looks at decreasing fertility rates, work and family life, and ageing.

It also highlights the story for Australian women in diverse areas-like management and politics, rural and regional living, education and training, income and earnings, as well as women affected by violence.

It is a tremendous resource for anyone interested in the position of women in Australia today, and in the changes we can expect in the future.

In looking to the future, let me outline some of the key issues Australian women continue to face.

First, women as leaders and decision-makers …

Many of you here are high achievers-in politics, the public service, the diplomatic service and the media.

I am pleased to be joined today by the ambassadors of Ecuador, Romania, Thailand and The People’s Republic of China.

In Australian political life, we now have a record number of women in Cabinet, and we have almost double the international average in our Parliament, with women making up more than a quarter of senators and members.

As well, the percentage of women in the Australian Public Service has increased steadily over the past decade, with women accounting for more than 53 per cent of ongoing employees.

While it is still too low, the proportion of women at senior level at around 30 per cent has almost doubled since 1995.

Last October, I was thrilled when the Prime Minister announced four women as new departmental secretaries. We now have six women heading up Australian Government Departments.

Unfortunately the figures for the private sector are somewhat unimpressive. Just four of Australia’s top 200 companies had a woman CEO in 2004, and 42 per cent of Australian companies had no women executive managers.

I think we must all strive to make a difference, by encouraging skilled and talented women to aspire to a higher profile and more challenging roles.

The Government is playing a part in this, with the National Leadership Initiative, the Office for Women’s Executive Search service, and the Women’s Development program-each designed to get women into leadership positions and at the table when decisions are made.

I am determined to ensure that the impact of policies on women are taken into account across Government.

An area of great concern for women is sexual assault and domestic and family violence.

The statistics show that 57 per cent of Australian women will experience at least one incident of violence over their lifetime.

Apart from the devastating effects on victims of domestic violence and their families, the cost to the nation is alarming-estimated at over $8 billion a year.

The social costs are also enormous, because they are borne not only by women subjected to violence, but by others who suffer indirectly – by children, family and friends, and by entire communities.

Let me assure you that the Australian Government, is absolutely committed to taking a leadership role in reducing and preventing violence against women.

Like many other developed countries Australia is coming to grips with an ageing population and it is women who will constitute the bulk of that aged population and, the brunt of caring for older people – we need to be mindful of this but we also need to make the most of the opportunities an ageing population will offer. Older Australian women make a vital contribution, whether through paid work, caring for other family members, such as grandchildren, or contributing as volunteers.

One of the major challenges facing older women is that they have not been able to build as much retirement savings as men of a similar age. Supporting older women to become more financially literate is an important priority.

I can’t miss this opportunity with so many of you in the room to suggest one small but practical contribution you can make to promoting women and the acknowledgement of their contribution to the community. Too few women are nominated or receive Australian Honours. I want you to make a commitment today over the next year you will make the effort to ensure you are instrumental in at least one woman being nominated.

It takes time and effort but she deserves it- It’s an Honour website (www.itsanhonour.gov.au) is where you start. Next year I want to see a record number of women nominated- it’s up to you.

I want to quote from a Daily Telegraph, ‘Women in Politics’ column, which appeared in late 1903.

On the importance of voting, Una the writer said:

Don’t think that harvesting or cooking, or Christmas house-cleaning, or making Christmas presents, or going to your boys’ school-breaking up, or any other ordinary duty is to come before the one paramount duty of citizenship -the duty of going to the polls. Remember you have only ONE DAY OF POWER.

Well things really have changed because, in my view, women now have power every, single day of their lives.

Power to make their voice heard.

Power to make the most of their potential.

And power to take an equal place in this nation’s economic, community, business and political life.

In Australia, I think we can be especially proud of our achievements for women.

Today is about celebrating those achievements, and inspiring a commitment, irrespective of our political persuasion, to sustaining and improving the position of women in Australia.

Thank you.

Related information
Women in Australian 2004