I am delighted to be at this 10 year anniversary event to celebrate the establishment of Women in IT Executive Mentoring Program (WITEM) by Dell, and I congratulate Dell, Angela Fox and the team at Dell, for this inspiring initiative.

It was in response to a call by the then Minister for Communications Helen Coonan who was concerned about the number of women entering the IT sector, and concerned about the number of girls who were undertaking STEM subjects or courses – science, technology, engineering, mathematics – and we really do appreciate Dell championing this cause.

The panel this afternoon will focus on the very timely topic of the role of women in future workforces, the workforces of the future, and that will obviously have a significant emphasis on the IT sector.

As Angela said, we are at a time of unprecedented change and disruption where technology is so dynamic, it's changing the way we live, the way we work, our whole society.

No doubt you'll be talking about issues such as the pay gap that persists even to this day in Australia and elsewhere, it's about 16 per cent in Australia, and yet no country in the world can claim not to have a gender gap when it comes to pay.

No doubt there'll be issues about how to attract more women and girls into the IT sector and then how to retain them once they are there; issues of parental leave and flexible workplace arrangements. Yet I've been part of these discussions for such a long time. I do look forward to hearing the outcomes of the panel discussion. I've been a champion of mentoring programs, formal or informal, throughout my professional career and I'm looking forward to hearing your ideas based on the experience that the mentors and the mentees have had in your WITEM program.

Back in another life when I was the managing partner of a major law firm in Perth, a national law firm, I had in place informal mentoring programs – that was when being a female partner of a law firm was still a curiosity and there were fewer women graduating from law than men, but of course today it is the reverse.

It was important for women to know that there was someone looking out for their concerns, prepared to hear what challenges they faced. Sure, we talked about breaking the glass ceiling but it came down to what practical action could we take, how could we support each other to ensure that women had equal opportunities, of course enshrined in law, but what did it mean in the workplace.

When I became Education Minister in the Howard Government, I was struck by the success of formal mentoring programs that had been trialled in a number of our universities. Indeed one of our South Australian universities put in place a control experiment for female academics: a number were in a formal mentoring program with mentors, mentees, performance indicators and the like, and a group of women were not. The controlled experiment ran for a number of years.

The empirical evidence was overwhelming: those in the formal mentoring program were far more likely to be promoted, to receive grants for their research and work, and had a much higher job satisfaction than those who were not. So I didn't need convincing but it was instructive to read the results of this control experiment which was shared amongst our universities.

Whether the program is formal or informal, the fact is mentoring works. I've always sought out mentors – male, female, people who are prepared to give you the benefit of their wisdom, experience and advice, and actually care about what happens to you in your career.

It's not only the smart thing to do, it's the right thing to do. But if you are ever doubtful about the wisdom of supporting, helping other women, always remember that very controversial statement of Madeleine Albright's, the first female Secretary of State in the US, when she said, "There's a special place in hell reserved for women who don't help other women."

In my current role as Australia's Foreign Minister, I'm the 38th Foreign Minister since 1901, and the first female to be appointed to the role, I've sought to embed gender equality, gender empowerment and support for women within our foreign policy and also within the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. I believe in promoting on merit and I'm delighted that the Australian Government has a target for our Government boards of 50 per cent female representation or 50 per cent male representation on Government-appointed boards, and we're making great progress in that regard.

When you have a target you stop and think about it. When you're presented with a list of names for appointment to a board and they are all male it prompts you to ask the question: are you seriously telling me there's not one woman of talent that could be considered for this role? That's the kind of attitudinal change that Angela was talking about.

I'm delighted that I was able to appoint Australia's first female Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Since 1901 there must have been dozens of male Secretaries of that Department but Frances Adamson, who was our very successful Ambassador in Beijing, has now taken up that role. At last count I think at least a quarter of our Heads of Mission overseas are female.

Interesting that you should mention unconscious bias. In one of my first conversations with Frances, we were talking about how we could change some of the attitudes at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and much work has been done in this regard – we have an Executive Mentoring Program in DFAT, we focus very much on ensuring women and men are viewed equally for promotion, for roles within the Department.

Frances made me aware of a small but symbolic issue. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is housed in a very grand, for Canberra, office building called the RG Casey Building, named after Richard Casey one of our finest diplomats. All of the meeting rooms in DFAT are named after distinguished Australian diplomats; every meeting room is named after a male, but there are eight smaller meeting rooms and they are named after flowers – the Banksia Room, the Acacia Room. Frances said to me, "Minister, it's just a little issue but it's symbolic." I said, "I know exactly where you're going." So we've named those eight meeting rooms after some of the women who were firsts in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Like Ruth Dobson, the first female Head of Mission appointed in 1974 – we now have the Dobson Room.

While it's only a small matter, it has sent a very strong message through the Department: we value women's contributions, we appreciate what they do and we recognise their efforts. If you want to name rooms after the first male diplomats, let's do it, but likewise what about the efforts of the women?

In our foreign policy, obviously there is a significant focus on foreign aid, overseas development assistance, and I have ensured that our focus is very much on the Pacific – it's our neighbourhood, it's our region, it's where we can have the biggest influence and it's also fundamental to our own peace, prosperity and security.

As a pillar of the aid program, I have ensured that we focus on gender equality and the empowerment and girls, and our aid program focuses very much on the impact of our programs on women and girls, and that is one of the issues that we must address. For example, we had a road construction and maintenance program in Timor Leste and people were acquiring skills and learning a whole range of construction and technical engineering aspects building roads. I was told that every single participant from Timor Leste was male, and again I said, "Is there not a role for the women of Timor Leste in this aid program?" We focused on it – now 30 per cent of the participants are women, gaining skills and qualifications that will of course be of value to Timor Leste society.

That's just one example. We are doing it across our region under three headings:

  • Leadership programs, not just political leadership although we are seeking to encourage more women in the Pacific to become involved in public life as elected representatives – it's currently at about five per cent female representation in the parliaments across the Pacific. The global average is about 22.5 per cent and Australia is about there, so there is much more that we can do it that regard. Not only leadership at a political level, leadership in business and industries, in the community and in families.
  • We are also focusing on economic empowerment because if women can take part in the formal labour markets then they can contribute so much to the economic sustainability of the nations of the Pacific.
  • And also the scourge that affects countries around the world and that is the incidences of domestic violence, not only social but the economic consequences of domestic and gender-based violence.

So they are fundamental to our aid program.

Likewise in foreign policy more generally, in security issues – we are aware that conflicts for example, or natural disasters can have a disproportionate impact on women and girls and many of our programs are focused on that specific perspective.

In other parts of our foreign policy, the Australia Awards – these are programs where we provide support for people to come to Australia, do their post-Bachelor qualifications here in Australia at some of our high ranking universities and then go back home to use their skills and qualifications to boost the economic prosperity of their countries. Currently under our Australia Awards there are about 200 women studying in the science, technology, engineering, mathematics fields in Australia and I think that's a fantastic show of support for women from countries in our region to come to Australia and gain qualifications in these fields, just as we are seeking to do with Australian women in the fields of STEM.

One of my favourite programs is the New Colombo Plan and this is the reverse – sending Australian students to study in our region. We established the program in 2014 and by the end of next year 17,000 young Australian undergraduates from our universities will have had the opportunity to live, study and work in one of 38 countries in our region, and their courses can range from a semester through to 12 months. Of the students who have been granted a 12 month New Colombo Plan Scholarship, well over 50 per cent are women. We have introduced a mentoring program to ensure that not only when they are away are they mentored, but when they come home and start making career decisions and finish their undergraduate degree we continue to provide them that support and wisdom and guidance and experience.

So I'm delighted that Dell has not only established but developed and grown this formal mentoring program. I think it stands as a beacon for other companies, particularly in the IT sector.

Last December when Prime Minister Turnbull announced our National Science and Innovation Agenda, a core of it was ensuring that we had a workforce for the future to embrace the scientific and technological revolution that is ongoing. That means ensuring we can encourage women to see a career in IT, see it as a career of choice, but also to support them and retain them, and an inspiring initiative like Women in IT the Executive Mentoring Program will go a long way to ensuring success in that regard.

So I wish you all the very best for your deliberations, I wish I could stay with you but my life is controlled by those little bells up there that flash red or green – it means it's time for me to go and vote. Democracy in action. Congratulations Angela and the Dell team. I wish you every success.

Media enquiries

  • Minister's office: (02) 6277 7500
  • DFAT Media Liaison: (02) 6261 1555