Speech by Senator the Hon Ursula Stephens

“Women are the real architects of society” – Harriet Beacher Stowe

Location: UNIFEM Australia Young Women's Leadership Conference, Sydney

*** Check on delivery ***

Hello everyone – I hear you have had a very exciting day, so I’m very pleased to be able to welcome you here and congratulate you on being here.

We are meeting on the land of the Gadigal people of the Eora nation, and I honour their elders, their wisdom, culture and traditions, proudly knowing that in doing so, we are all acknowledging that we share in both their history and their shame, and must do what we can to honour the commitment that the Prime Minister made to the Stolen Generations.

I am delighted to be here tonight in a room full of buzzy, bright and vibrant young women. Congratulations on putting yourself forward – because as we all know, women are pretty good at leading from the middle. Often these kinds of opportunities come from an organisation being asked to nominate someone to participate. UNIFEM, however decided to ask you all to do that yourself – to step I and say, I can make a difference here and I’ve got something to offer. So, go girls!

This UNIFEM forum is a wonderful opportunity for young women around the country and the Asia Pacific to hear from amazing speakers, workshop leaders and other young people who are making or want to make a meaningful change in gender issues.

We often hear that young people like you are the future leaders of our governments, businesses and society.

But perhaps even more important than this, is the capacity you have to be the architects of change – questioning old practices that are no longer appropriate and advocating new ways and new approaches to working, learning and living.

Women, of course, have been doing this for decades. Just the other morning, I heard Germaine Greer, who is visiting Australia from the UK, speaking on the radio with her usual provocative flair. And our current Governor-General during her legal career was a very elegant outspoken advocate for women’s equality.

Women like these over the generations have achieved many milestones. But a lot more needs to be done, and it will be the young women of today – you here in the room this evening – who will provide the leadership we need to secure meaningful equality in the future.

Women represent just over half of our population, yet our proportion in many leadership roles still remains low.

Increasing women’s participation in decision making is vital if we are to equally shape policy and programs that will benefit all Australians.

The enormous efforts over generations of many inspirational women have influenced greater participation of women in leadership roles, including politics.

Australian women were amongst the first in the world to win the right to vote when South Australian women went to the ballot box in 1894.

Our first female parliamentarian, Edith Cowan, was elected in 1921.

And today, almost one-third of my parliamentary colleagues are female.

We now have our first female Governor General, Her Excellency, Quentin Bryce AC, and two women, Julia Gillard and Julie Bishop, hold the position of Deputy Prime Minister and Deputy Leader of the Opposition respectively.

However, our work for equal rights and equal representation is by no means over.

For example, the proportion of female corporate senior executives remains low – at the CEO level there are 49 male CEOs to every female CEO in ASX200 companies.1

And the pay gap between the wages of men and women is yet to be closed – women continue to earn 17 per cent less than men. 2

We clearly still have a long way to go to achieve gender equality.

So it is terrific to see UNIFEM arranging events such as these that give young women the skills they need to become strong and skilled advocates for change.

The Government and UNIFEM’s priorities on achieving equality between men and women are closely aligned.

The Government’s three priority areas for improving women’s lives include improving economic outcomes for women, reducing violence against women and promoting equality.

The Government is a strong supporter of UNIFEM Australia. And the Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, is a UNIFEM Australia patron.

We’ve been pleased to be able to assist UNIFEM Australia to hold this important three-day conference by providing almost $70 000 from the Women’s Leadership and Development Program.

And we have also contributed $17 million UNIFEM globally as part of our international commitment to advancing greater equality between men and women.

This four year funding investment will support UNIFEM’s work in over 100 countries to:

  • reduce women’s poverty and exclusion
  • end violence against women
  • reverse the spread of HIV/AIDS among women and girls
  • support women’s leadership in governance and post-conflict reconstruction

Australia has a strong international reputation for the work we do to advance gender equality and empower women. We know that there is much more that we need to do.

In the recent budget, the government took the historic decision to establish a paid parental leave scheme in Australia.

This is truly great news for Australian women – and for men too.

The $731 million Paid Parental Leave Scheme will deliver 18 weeks’ paid leave at the federal minimum wage (currently $543.78) to be shared among both parents.

Self-employed parents, contractors and casual workers in particular will benefit from this new Scheme, as many do not currently have access to employer-provided paid parental leave entitlements.

Less than one quarter of women on very low wages currently have access to paid parental leave.

Only around one-third (32 per cent) of women who work part-time currently have access.

So for women in these working environments, the new Scheme is an essential and long overdue reform.

Not only will the Scheme provide greater financial security for parents, it will also help families to find a better balance between paid work and caring responsibilities.

It will allow mothers to spend time with their newborn babies and still remain connected to the labour market, without the fear of being unable to get back into the workforce.

Like our reforms to paid parental leave, the increased payments and reforms to the pension system in the recent budget will be of particular benefit to women.

This is because more women than men in Australia retire with fewer savings and therefore rely on the age pension.

So whilst we have made progress in improving women’s economic outcomes, it is clear that much more needs to be done to enable women to achieve financial equality with men.

The Government is implementing a wide range of measures, such as strengthening our industrial relations system, inquiring into pay equity issues and reforming our taxation system to address these inequalities.

And as young women with a desire to make a positive change in your communities, I strongly recommend that you find out about these reforms and get involved in shaping their outcomes.

But we recognise that gender issues are not limited to financial inequality and that much more needs to be done to redress the broader ramifications of gender inequality.

In particular, there is the unacceptable violence against women that is still happening in our communities.

Nearly one in three Australian women suffers physical violence in their lifetime and one in five experiences sexual violence.

The scope of the problem and its impacts on society are vast and devastating.

It is by no means an insoluble problem, and the Government is determined to address this issue that is completely unacceptable in this day and age.

The Government recently released Time for Action, the most comprehensive report on domestic violence in Australia to date, and developed by the National Council to Reduce Violence against Women and Their Children.

The Government welcomes the Time for Action report and has agreed to immediately progress 18 of the 20 priority recommendations, investing $42 million to achieve these much-needed recommendations.

We will further consider the other two within the context of developing the National Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women.

The Government will refer Time for Action to the Council of Australian Governments so that all governments can collaborate to develop a nationally agreed plan to reduce violence against women in 2010.

We will continue to work closely with state and territory governments to coordinate and combine our efforts to eradicate violence against women and children in our community.

We know that to tackle this problem, we need active involvement from all levels of government and the community.

In particular, we need the contribution and leadership of young women like you.

As I look across the room at 120 young women from across Australia and the Pacific, including Indigenous leaders, I am inspired by the courage, passion, skills, knowledge and experiences of each and every one of you.

You have all contributed to your local communities, businesses, and the economy with sustainable approaches.

Events like this forum provide an ideal opportunity for you all to hear from a raft of inspirational keynote speakers and workshop leaders.

Women like Sue Conde, the President of UNIFEM Australia, who has been a long standing advocate on women’s issues and has had various leadership roles on a state and national level.

Some of her achievements have been her work on the White Ribbon Campaign, as well as her strong engagement in the women’s non-government organisation sector over the last 10 years.

Sue’s work to encourage the development of young women leaders in UNIFEM and before that in Girl Guides Australia has been an invaluable investment in our country’s future.

Sue is just one fine example of the women in our community who are passionate about creating an Australia where men and women enjoy equal opportunities, equal pay and equal recognition.

It’s about passion and from what I have heard about this upcoming three-day conference, none of you lack that most powerful and change-enabling of attributes.

It is important for women in Australia, particularly young women, to have the opportunities to develop their leadership skills on an economic and social level.

This forum presents you with one such valuable opportunity and I encourage you to grasp it enthusiastically with both hands.

I also feel that this forum will be one of those wonderful times in one’s life where new encounters lead to personal growth, friendship and the creation of lasting memories.

I wish you all the best for this very special event. And as you grow and progress in your leadership roles, I imagine I will be seeing some of you in the halls of parliament in the coming years

  1. Tanya Plibersek, Speech to Australian Public Service Commission International Women’s Day event, 18 March 2009
  2. Office for Women, 2009-2010 Women’s Budget Statement, Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, Canberra, 2009 from Australian Bureau of Statistics, Average Weekly Earnings Australia November 2008, Cat. no 6302.0, average weekly ordinary time earnings of full-time employees, seasonally adjusted data.