JG Website Logo

Speech: International Women’s Day 2018

By GOffice Uncategorised 8/03/2018


I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet and in the spirit of reconciliation pay my respects to elders past and present.

Thank you all for your warm welcome. It is an absolute pleasure to gather here with many women, and some supportive men, to celebrate the 110th International Women’s Day. Today, we recognise the great achievements made on the hard fought path to equality for women, and draw attention to what more needs to be done.

History of IWD

Let’s start by looking at how women’s lives have been transformed for the better over the last 110 years.

At the turn of the 20th century, before there was an International Women’s Day, life looked very different for women. The average life expectancy of a woman was just 58.8 years old in 1902. Women’s roles in society were mostly confined to the home. Their rights confined in a way that today, we find hard to imagine. Men were the unchallenged head of the household. Men were the influencers and decision makers.

If a woman was working, it was likely in very poorly paid job with substandard working conditions. Their role was usually limited to something similar to what a woman did at home – sewing, cleaning, cooking and caring. It was a genuine and real concern for a woman that while pregnant, or soon after giving birth to a child, she could die from complications or infection. Women did not get the right to vote in Victoria until 1908 and couldn’t stand for parliament until 1923. It wasn’t until 1943 that Enid Lyons became the first woman elected to the Federal Parliament.

But, as a result of the industrial revolution, women had entered the workforce in huge numbers. Women – across the world – wanted better. Better working conditions. Better pay. Better treatment. A better future for their sisters and daughters. And they decided to do something about it. It was in 1908 in Manhattan, that around 15,000 female garment workers marched to Union Square, demanding better working conditions. At that march, fierce union leader and suffragette Rose Schniederman is quoted as addressing the rally with these words:

“What the woman who labors wants is the right to live, not to simply exist – the right to life as the rich woman has the right to life, and the sun and music and art. You have nothing that the humblest worker has not a right to have also. The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too.”

Schneiderman’s ‘bread and roses’ became the rallying cry for working women, who demanded that they were entitled to both basic economic rights, and better living standards.

As momentum in the women’s liberation movement built, the next year at the Socialist International meeting in Copenhagen, at a conference attended by over 100 women from 17 different countries, a pledge was made to establish an international day for women to recognise the women’s movement and continue the push for equal rights. Then, a crusade was born. The next year in 1911, one million women and men in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland marched for ‘International Women’s Day’.

Those pioneering women, who marched for our rights – for our bread and roses – have paved the way for enormous progress.

In 1961, the contraceptive pill was introduced, revolutionising reproductive health for women, and creating a wave of sexual liberation. In Australia in 1965, women even gained the right to drink in the front bar of pubs. It wasn’t until the next year in 1966 that women were no longer required to resign from the Commonwealth public service if they were married. At least women were able to finally go to the pub and celebrate that victory together. Amazingly, it wasn’t until 1983 that women didn’t need their husband’s approval to get an Australian passport. Can you imagine?

We’ve seen many milestones since then. I hear we’ve even managed to have our first female Prime Minister.

The women’s movement has gained traction and evolved since the days of Rose Schniderman and our sisters gathered at that first march. Thankfully, healthcare for women has improved in huge leaps and bounds. Women are healthier and live longer. The chance of a women dying as a result of childbirth has plummeted. The average life expectancy of a woman is now a distinguished 84.6 years.

Women’s Mental Health

But there is still plenty more to do, particularly in the area of women’s mental health.

I’d like to acknowledge the tremendous work the Royal Women’s hospital does in this area with your dedicated Centre for Women’s Mental Health. We’ve already heard from Sue today about the incredible impact you are making to support our mothers, sisters, daughters, nieces and friends, when they need it most.

Women still take on the lion’s share of the caring role in their households and communities, with over two thirds of primary carers being women. Then again, are we even using the right language when we describe women as carers? Would blokes be primary caregivers or be promoted to the title of ‘life managers,’ or ‘Ministers of Home Affairs’? Because when women ‘look after others’ they are actually taking control and responsibility. I’m sure most of us took for granted the huge weight on our mother’s shoulders and the myriad of things they did for us, often without thanks, reward or acknowledgement. 

While caring for others brings joy and fulfilment to many, balancing paid and unpaid work demands can have an impact on physical and mental health, financial security and independence. When you hear a woman say, “I can’t afford to get sick”, it’s not necessarily because she has no money in the bank. She means she can’t take a break from the exhausting work making sure the household trains are always running on time.

This constant juggle of family, career and self-care can take a significant toll. Indeed, women experience some mental health conditions at higher rates than men. As we have heard from Sue today, around 1 in 5 women in Australia will experience depression, and 1 in 3 women will experience anxiety during their lifetime.

One in four Australian women has experienced physical or sexual violence by an intimate partner, and one in four has also experienced emotional abuse by a current or former partner. More than half the women who have experienced violence have children in their care.

The impacts of this violence are deep and long lasting, rippling through the lives of women and those in their care for decades. Women who have experienced physical or sexual violence are more likely to have depression and anxiety, misuse drugs and alcohol, have suicidal thoughts or attempt suicide and have post-traumatic stress disorder. In fact, although it is more commonly thought of as a combat injury, women experience post-traumatic stress disorder at higher rates than men.

Eating disorders are also more common in women.

Major life transitions unique to women like pregnancy, motherhood and menopause can bring up challenges that overwhelm.

Work of beyondblue

I’m proud to be Chair of beyondblue, which is shining a light on many of these mental health issues, and continually working on ways to help people find the support they need. In fact, around seven million Australians turn to beyondblue each year for support. We are often the first port of call for people making their initial, often tentative steps toward recognition, referral and recovery. They come to us for information, advice, brief counselling via our 24-hour Support Service, or peer support via our online forums.

Our mission is to promote good mental health through behaviour change, whether that is systemic and policy-driven or in settings like workplaces, schools and online or at an individual level from prevention, early intervention or crisis support.

Since joining the beyondblue board three years ago, while on my many international travels for other purposes, I have taken the time to try and find out what is happening on mental health in other countries. I’ve concluded that beyondblue is unique. We are proud of that and we have clearly defined our path.

We want to give all Australians the knowledge and skills to achieve their best possible mental health. We want to bring anxiety, depression and suicide out of the shadows and into everyday conversations. And most of all, we want to prevent them, across the spectrum of mental health and in every corner of the community.

But perhaps our biggest transformation has been stepping into developing new evidence-based service models that challenge the status quo – and giving people earlier access to more affordable support. We identify a need and then attract and apply funding from non-government sources to research, co-design, incubate and pilot new services. Once we have the evidence the service works, we advocate to have them scaled up, commissioned by governments and help embed them into the system. And then we plan to exit. So that we can move on to the next area of profound need. We see that as our duty and responsibility.

For instance, beyondblue’s Way Back Support Service provides intensive psychosocial support to people for up to three months following their suicide attempt, when they are at most risk of another attempt or dying. Professional support workers link people to clinical treatment and help the person to make and keep to a safety plan. They also help the person identify and resolve the factors that contributed to their suicide attempt – employment and relationship challenges, isolation and loneliness. What started as a small trial in Darwin in the Northern Territory is now a service saving lives in seven sites around the country.

At beyondblue we have also designed, trialed and evaluated NewAccess – a low intensity coaching service based on the UK’s ‘Improving Access to Psychological Therapies’ and adapted for Australia. Trained coaches – with rigorous oversight by clinicians – provide early intervention support for people with mild to moderate anxiety and depression. An independent evaluation found NewAccess:

  • is both clinically successful and economically viable: there was a 67.5 per cent recovery rate in people who participated in the program;
  • appeals to Australians – for every person to make an initial appointment, 88 per cent proceeded to treatment and 72 per cent completed treatment; and
  • overcomes stigma – it is free, it requires no medical referral, sessions are delivered face-to-face or over the phone, there is no labelling and its practical exercises appeal to those who don’t traditionally seek help.

The model is now being commissioned by primary health networks and is available in regions populated by six million Australians. All this is demanding but rewarding work.

But at beyondblue we know that we do not yet have all the answers to the challenges we face. The only way to find the answers is to connect, learn and work together. We need to make sure that the care and services provided are being catered to the needs of women, like the wonderful programs run here at the Royal Women’s Hospital. How do we ensure that women’s voices are heard?Their concerns not sidelined.

Women in Leadership

Well, it starts with having more women in the room, raising issues on behalf of women, prosecuting their arguments on behalf of women. Women advocating change, and putting women’s needs firmly on the agenda. Because the reality is, in Australia and across the globe, women are not being given the opportunity to serve in equal measure to their male colleagues. This is true of the public sector and the private sector. It is true of universities, hospitals, boardrooms, courthouses and small businesses.

Currently, women make up just 23% of national parliamentarians, 26% of news media leaders, 27% of judges, 15% of corporate board members and 24% of senior managers worldwide.

Just over a week ago, in Washington, our Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull attended a dinner with President Trump and leaders in the business community. Of the 51 attendees, there were more men named Andrew (5) than the total number of women (4) who attended the event! At the current pace, it will take another half-century for the number of women in national parliaments to reach parity with men.

And, even worse, when progress is made, it can also be reversed.  Women are more under-represented in the American cabinet than at any time since the Reagan administration. Even in Nordic countries, often held up as beacons of progress, there has been a 6.2% drop in the number of female ministers since 2015 to 43.5%.

It’s not just in the political world that progress has stalled. The number of women in senior management globally has risen just one percentage point in 10 years, from 24% in 2007 to 25% today. The reality is that women face significant barriers to progress at every stage of their careers.

Explicit barriers, such as rules and laws that act to constrain women’s activity continue to exist in today’s world. In fact, still today, in at least 18 countries husbands can legally prevent their wives from working. How can we expect to get women into leadership positions if we can’t even get them into the workforce? More often though, the barriers are less obvious – informal rules and norms of institutions that seek to exclude women.

Men are more likely than women to have networks that connect them to high-status others and pull them into leadership opportunities. We’ve all seen this in action – like knock off drinks or a sports match with just the blokes invited.

And unfortunately, pervasive and long held gender stereotyping can mean women are simply not as readily associated with competence, decisiveness and assertiveness, and are thus overlooked for leadership roles. As women are more likely to face the difficulties posed by juggling work and family life, they bear the adverse career consequences that can result from taking maternity leave and seeking flexible or part-time work options.

Women’s progress can also be hindered by environments in which it is expected that sexual harassment will be tolerated without complaint. We’ve seen a great focus on this recently with the #metoo and #timesup campaigns. But then the battle doesn’t end for women who do manage to secure leadership positions. 44% of the 55 female parliamentarians surveyed from 39 countries by the Inter-Parliamentary Union said they had received threats of death, rape or violence, and 22% said they had been subject to sexual violence.

There is also plenty of credentialed research available today that shows we are all likely to correlate leadership and likability for men while doing the reverse for women. As a result, when a woman breaks through and is seen as a decisive leader, she is likely to be stereotyped an unlikeable.

Let me give just two quick examples of that kind of research. In the US , there is an online tool called Rate My Professor, which students use to critique their lecturers. A huge interactive exploration of 14 million reviews on the site discovered that male professors are disproportionately likely to be described as a “star” or “genius.” Female professors are disproportionately described as “nasty,” “ugly,” “bossy” or “disorganized.”

What are we to conclude from this? That every male academic in the US is good looking? Or could there be some gender bias at work? If you are unsure, consider the results of an experiment conducted at a university in North Carolina. There researchers asked students to rate teachers of an online course. The students never met the teacher in person and this enabled the researchers to present the same teacher to some students as a man and to other students as a woman.

Disturbingly, when students were taking the class from someone they believed to be male, they rated the teacher more highly. The very same teacher, when believed to be female, was rated significantly lower. Given this research, the fact that gender influences perceptions seems undeniable.

All this means there are still many hurdles in the way of women getting into leadership positions and then being treated with respect as a leader. Those hurdles are even higher for women from communities at risk of marginalisation because of ethnicity, race, religion or poverty.

So that’s all the problems. But what are we to do?

Globally we are seeing increasingly the spotlight on these issues, in both practical and research capacities. There are academic papers, leadership training and activism and a raft of other initiatives. But while there is a great amount of activity, there appears to be very little articulation or testing of whether and how this research might be coordinated and combined to real and lasting change.

While it is pleasing to see a great deal of energy and advocacy about these problems, I think those of us seeking change can be more effective. Globally, there is too little research available about what works to achieve equality for women’s leadership, and far too much fragmentation and siloing of reform efforts.

In particular, I have been struck by how little dialogue there is between those around the world who are studying unconscious bias, those working to address structural barriers like lack of childcare, and those running ‘lean in’ or empowerment programs. Where research does exist, it’s not easily accessible to those who need it. And of course, too often the perspectives of women and girls in conversations about leadership are too narrowly defined in the context of high income, developed, Western Countries.

By uniting our efforts and institutions, we can work to ensure we live in world in which being a woman is not a barrier to becoming a leader in any field, or a factor leading to negative perceptions of an individual’s leadership.


And I am an incredible optimist about our ability to create that world. Last year, on International Women’s Day, March 8, I spoke in my home town of Adelaide and said these words:

‘We can identify (across history) the waves of change that have swelled and then enabled the cause of equality to surge forward. In my view another of those waves is building.

It is being fed by the anger we share at the shooting of Malala, the mass kidnapping of girls by Boko Haram, the menace of violent attempts to impose an ideology of women’s enslavement.

It is being fed by our dashed hopes for a female President of the USA.

It is being fed by our connectedness, our ability to better see our world and build networks between us.

It is being fed by our revulsion at the fact the same technology is often choked with sexist bile.

It is being fed by our itchy frustration that we aren’t there yet, we aren’t in that equal world.

The signs of the coming wave are all around us.

Feminism is fashionable, with models now strutting down catwalks emblazoned with women’s slogans. Feminism is on the streets with many millions turning out for the women’s marches. Feminist analysis and entreaties are widely available, in everything from airport novels to mummy blogger sites.’

This morning, I would add to that #metoo has exploded and already changed our world. This surge in activism for women’s equality gives me profound hope, even joy.

I am realist. I know that – yes – at the moment the scene all looks a bit chaotic, full of contradictions, even long on the symbolic and short on the feasible solutions. But that’s how the waves always start. And then a sweet spot is hit where energy and analysis combine into clear demands for change. That’s where we are headed.

Happy International Women’s Day!