International Women's Day Dinner

  • Speech, check against delivery

Australia'sHigh Commissioner to Malaysia, Rod Smith, and our Deputy High Commissioner,Angela Macdonald, thank you for the extraordinary work you both do with yourteam in representing Australia here in Malaysia.

Ministers,Members of Parliament, dignitaries, friends of Australia, friends of Malaysia,I'm delighted to be here in Kuala Lumpur at this event to mark InternationalWomen's Day.

It's nevertoo late and never too early to celebrate the achievements of women. It is alsoa time to reflect on the challenges that lie ahead before we can confidentlysay that women have opportunities equal to men to reach their potential.

I am alwayspleased to be back in Malaysia because it brings back such fond memories. As avery young university student at Adelaide University, I was studying law, myolder sister was studying medicine, and we decided to be very adventurous, orbold, and go on our first overseas holiday together, and saved up. Most of ourfriends, if they were able to travel overseas, went to London. We decided thatour first overseas trip should be in our region, our neighbourhood, and we setoff to Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, Hong Kong, New Territories, this waslate seventies.

I remembermy time here in Kuala Lumpur so very vividly, and I have such warm and fondmemories. Every time I return to Kuala Lumpur I remember those days, because ofcourse much has changed in both Australia and Malaysia in those years.

And in thepast ten years in particular, we've seen gradual, but profound, and positivechanges in the role of women in our respective societies. I learned today thatjust over that past ten years, there has been an eight percent increase inwomen's labour force participation here in Malaysia. It's now about fifty threepercent.

Of course,women hold positions of influence, as members of parliament, governors of thecentral bank, leaders in politics, in the community, in society more broadly.

Theempowerment of women is not just the right thing to do, it's the smart thing todo. And governments and corporations soon learn that if you give women a voice,indeed an equal voice, you will prosper. That applies to nations. Nations willprosper, economies will be more resilient, if half the population are able torealise the opportunities that are there.

I also thinkthat societies are much stronger, if women have an equal say and an equalvoice. Decisions made by men and women are more likely to reflect, societiesneeds and more likely to meet the demands.

Of coursewomen bring a different perspective, different life experience, differentinsights, different skills to the table.

This camehome to me rather vividly, last year, when I attended the United NationsGeneral Assembly leaders week and one of my first meetings was with twenty fiveForeign Ministers, on the issue of counter terrorism, countering ISIS, thesituation in Iraq and Syria. Of those twenty five Foreign Ministers, I was theonly female.

Later thatday, I attended a meeting of twenty five Foreign Ministers, same topic, counterterrorism, countering ISIS, the situation in Iraq and Syria, but every singleForeign Minister was female, because there are about twenty five to thirtyfemale Foreign Ministers around the world.

The contrastbetween the two meetings was utterly profound. Same topic, same positions asForeign Ministers, yet the approach taken, was utterly different. We could havebeen in parallel universes, in fact, I guess we were.

That showedto me that we do see things differently. We do focus on different perspectives,and I think it is something we need to take into account, when we are insituations where we are representing the views of others or advocating onbehalf of others.

I must say,and I'll say it to the women in the room, so gentlemen just talk amongstyourselves, I've often found myself as the only female in meetings. And when wecame back into government in 2013 after a period in opposition, I have to say Iwas surprised to find that I was the only female in our cabinet meetings. Idon't know whether you've been in this positon before, but I found that I wouldsay something, that wasn't particularly brilliant, but I thought it was a fairenough contribution to the debate. Not one of my male colleagues would comment,and then halfway around the room, one of my male colleagues would say exactlythe same thing and the others would go, "that's brilliant".

I suspectedthis would strike a chord amongst my female colleagues here, but it's true,because subsequently more women were appointed to Cabinet. And a number of themcame to me and said, "have you ever noticed that when we say something the guysnever comment, but if they say the same thing, they slap each other on theback?"

So we workedout a plan. Whatever I said, it didn't matter whether it was, "can somebodypass me a cup of coffee?" or "I think this is the strategy for our new foreignpolicy" the other women in the room would say "fantastic, did you just hearwhat Julie said". Around the room we do it. Can I assure you it works, itreally works!

There is onearea, where I believe women are yet to make a significant impact and they must,and that is in the area of STEM. Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths. Theseare usually male dominated disciplines and fields of endeavour.

The fact is,there is a global shortage of STEM skills, and so here is the obvious answer.Open the doors to half the population to the STEM world and we meet the globalshortage, we supply the market.

I know thatin both Australia and Malaysia we are grasping these opportunities to ensurethat more women have opportunities to study in the science, technology,engineering, and maths disciplines and take up careers in those fields.

In fact, Iam informed that in Malaysia, as more women are gaining higher educationqualifications, we are seeing more women gain qualifications in the STEMfields. In fact, fifty three percent of graduates from computing science inMalaysia are women. So we see women professors and researchers and doctors andscientists and we are going to see more female entrepreneurs, more females instart-ups and in high-tech positions, and that, I think, is where we willreally start to see opportunities for women flow.

I have neverunderestimated the power of mentors and role models. As they say, if you can'tsee it, it's hard to be it, and so, as women gain positions of influence inthese fields, more young women will see an opportunity for themselves to takeup such a position.

Mentoringworks. When I was the Education Minister, between 2006 and 2007, I saw a veryimportant example of this. A university in South Australia set up a controlledexperiment with their female academics. Half the women were in a formalmentoring program, the other half were not. It was done over a number of years.At the end of the period of the controlled experiment, the women who were inthe formal mentoring program were more often promoted, received more governmentgrants, had much higher levels of work place satisfaction, far fewercomplaints, and were much more satisfied with their career as an academic, whencompared with the women who were not mentored. So whether the mentoring programis formal or informal, whether it's a male mentor or a female mentor, the powerof mentoring is profound.

It was thatthinking and that observation that led me to introduce an element of mentorshipinto our New Colombo Plan initiative. First, I want to acknowledge the originalColombo Plan scholars who are here this evening, because of course Australiaand Malaysia were founding members of the original Colombo Plan that was set upin 1951 and served South East Asia so well, in particular during the 1950s, toabout the 1980s. There were opportunities for young people to come to Australia,live and study at our universities and gain a qualification and return back totheir home country and contribute to the life and society with an Australianqualification.

What wasimportant though, was the enduring connections and friendships that were made.

When Ibecame Foreign Minister, given my background as Education Minister, I knew thatthe spirit of the Colombo Plan should live on but in reverse, and it was timefor Australia to fund our young undergraduates. It was way time for Australiato fund our undergraduates to have the opportunity to live and study atuniversities in our region, and yet I wanted it to be more than justqualifications and even the wonderful experience of living in another country.I wanted them to immerse themselves, even if they were only here for a shortwhile.

So we cameup with the idea of having mentorships, or internships, work experience,practicums, so that the young Australian graduates would see life outside ofthe universities and actually be in businesses in the community and see howwork was done, how life was lived. From a pilot program in 2014 to the end of2017, about 18000 young Australian undergraduates, will have lived, and studiedand undertaken a mentorship or work experience in one of forty countries acrossthe Indian Ocean Asia Pacific.

Now I amdelighted to say that Malaysia came on board as a partner in 2015, and thatabout twenty five of our forty two universities have partnerships withuniversities here to ensure that our students had the opportunity to partake ina whole range of disciplines and experiences here.

I know anumber of our New Colombo Plan students are here. Perhaps they would like tostand. Four students are here this evening are among the eight hundredAustralian undergraduates who are taking part in the New Colombo Plan here inMalaysia up until 2017 and of course that number will increase as our youngAmbassadors go back home and relate the positive empowering experience thatthey have had here.

So the NewColombo Plan is yet another example of the power of mentorship.

I have alsostrongly believed that the empowerment of women should be a fundamental pillarof our foreign policy and in particular, in our development assistance, ourforeign aid program.

Sincebecoming Foreign Minister, I have focussed our attention and our funding on ourregion. Resources are very scarce in development assistance and I was of theview that instead of spreading our development assistance too thinly around theworld, we would take responsibility for our region, our neighbourhood, our partof the world, where we can make the biggest difference, and that of courseincludes the Pacific. I decided that we have to ensure that women wererecognised in our development assistance efforts.

So I set atarget that eighty percent of our aid programs, whatever their objective, musttake into account the gender equality outcomes, the empowerment of women. Andwe have seen some dramatic results as a consequence of putting in place thiseighty percent figure.

In relationto the empowerment of women, we focus on three issues. First, providingopportunities for women to take leadership roles. Whether in their family, intheir village, in their town, their cities, in communities, in government, in business.Empowering women to be leaders.

We alsofocus on the economic empowerment of women. Giving women the opportunities,through our aid funding, to take part in the formal labour market. To beemployable. To be educated.

And third,our third area of focus is to prevent violence against women. No country isimmune, but there is a particular prevalence in our part of the world, in thePacific specifically. So many of our programs focus on ensuring that women,their children, their families, are safe from violence.

We have seensome dramatic results, and I believe that it's necessary for countries aroundthe world to consider the impact of their aid programs, to consider the impactof their foreign policy, on women.

To that end,we have, as part of our diplomatic tools and resources, the position ofAmbassador for Women and Girls. While many countries have a Minister for Women,it's usually focussed on the domestic agenda, and we of course have a Ministerfor Women. We also have an Ambassador for Women and Girls, who's role is topromote and advocate gender equality and gender empowerment in all that we doin our international engagement. Not just at the United Nations and where weare part of the Commission on the Status of Women, but also more generally, inour bilateral, regional and multilateral engagement.

I urge othercountries to observe what we've done, look at our experience, see what ourAmbassador for Women and Girls can achieve. Our first was in fact, Penny Williams, who was the High Commissionerhere in Malaysia, and many would remember her.

Then we hada former Senator, Natasha Stott Despoja, and she made a significant impactwherever she went, and our newest Ambassador for Women and Girls is Dr SharmanStone, who was a longstanding Member of Parliament, and retired at the lastelection, and she is hoping to come to Malaysia to share her experiences andgain insights from you later this year.

In 2017,Australia will seek to be elected to the United Nations Human RightsCouncil. We have not been on thisCouncil before, and there has not been a member before from the Pacific Regionat any time on the Human Rights Council.

While we arelumped in with Western Europe and Others (WEOG), in terms of the UN groupings,for historic reasons, I think it's important that a voice from our region is onthe Human Rights Council. Our campaignis based on the themes of good governance, strong human rights institutions,and capacity building, the rights of indigenous people, freedom of expressionand gender equality.

As wecampaign around the world, our five pillars resonate, but increasingly andparticularly, our emphasis on gender equality, gender parity and theempowerment of women. I'm pleased to saythat Malaysia is supporting our campaign to be on the Human Rights Council, sothis wasn't an advertisement, but in case you have friends in other countries,pass on the word!

So ladiesand gentlemen I am very proud to be part of a government that is a powerful advocatefor women both in our domestic agenda and in our foreign policy, whether it isthrough trade policy, our economic diplomacy initiatives, or our developmentassistance, we truly believe that women should be at the heart of governmentpolicy.

I know it isa view shared in Malaysia, and why I feel so comfortable with you all here thisevening, discussing what can sometimes be sensitive issues in countries. Weknow, pragmatically, logically, emotionally, morally, that giving women a voiceis the right thing, the smart thing to do. And that when women can hold up half the sky, we know we will haveachieved great things for our nation.

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