The Hon. Alexander Downer, MP
The Hon. Alexander Downer, MP

Speech Notes

Canberra, 8 March 2005

To launch the DFAT Exhibition "Women Working for Australia" On the occasion of International Women's Day 2005

Thank you Secretary

It is a pleasure for me to launch the Women Working for Australia exhibition on International Women's Day.

2005 is the anniversary of significant milestones in international efforts to promote gender equality.

Thirty years ago the United Nations declared the International Year of Women.

And ten years ago, the World Conference on Women was held in Beijing.

At the UN's headquarters in New York, the Commission on the Status of Women is currently celebrating these anniversaries.

- Reviewing the many achievements of recent decades and developing programs further to promote women's rights.

Delighted that my colleague Senator the Honorable Kay Patterson, Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on Women's Issues and leader of Australia's delegation to the Commission on the Status of Women, last week also launched the Women Working for Australia exhibition in New York.

- Welcome the assistance of Australia's Office for Women in promoting this display to international delegates attending the Commission's meetings.

Women Working for Australia is an important record of the department's history.

- Set against the backdrop of what has occurred in Australia and internationally to promote gender equality.

History of women's involvement in the department mirrors trends across the public service and in Australian society generally.

- It also reflects commitments to gender equality made at the international level.

We are proud of the role played by Australian women - such as Jessie Street - in multilateral fora to combat discrimination on grounds of sex.

- The results of which we have seen in the general community, and within the workplace.

Early reluctance by all federal departments to employ women in the first few decades of the 20th century gave way to a more pragmatic approach during the Second World War.

Women were found in increasing numbers in secretarial, clerical and administrative positions in the then Department of External Affairs.

In 1943, due in part to the urging of Jessie Street, the department's first three female diplomatic cadets were appointed.

By 1947, all three had married and were required to resign because of a bar on married women working in Australia's Public Service.

Until this regulation was removed in 1961, the careers of talented women were cut short unnecessarily.

- Women such as Diana Page - one of the 1943 cadets, and Cynthia Loveday - a 1946 recruit who became our first female Charge d'Affaires (Saigon, 1959).

We are delighted that Diana and Cynthia are with us in person today so that we can pay tribute to their service to Australia.

The careers of two women featured in this display are particularly illustrative of the broad social and professional change which occurred during their lives.

Their stories are different from many others of their era because they chose not to marry and were therefore not affected by the marriage bar.

Ruth Dobson joined the department in 1943 as a Research Officer.

After postings to New York, Wellington, Manila and Athens, Ruth became the first female career diplomat to be appointed to an ambassadorial position, as Ambassador to Denmark, in 1974.

Maris King joined the department's typing pool in 1942 but, as she later reflected, she had "never been enamoured of the idea of pounding a typewriter for a living".

In 1943, Maris became the first clerical officer to be posted overseas, serving in Chungking.

She was subsequently posted to Shanghai and Hong Kong and on return to Australia was awarded a government scholarship to study economics.

Maris pioneered an economic section in the department.

Roughly 30 years after her recruitment as a typist she was appointed Australia's High Commissioner to Nauru in 1977, followed by a posting as head of mission in Tonga.

Today's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade would be unrecognisable to its first women recruits - pathfinders such as Diana Page, Cynthia Loveday, Ruth Dobson and Maris King.

Sustained efforts to address issues affecting women in the department have resulted in a new generation of women for whom recruitment and advancement on merit can be expected as the norm.

These women will take their place in all areas and at all levels of Australia's diplomatic service.

Developments in the department are consistent with what has occurred in other organs of government.

We have the largest number of women in Cabinet since Australia's Federation in 1901, and the largest number of women in charge of Australian Government departments.

Women today make up almost 30 per cent of federal and state parliamentarians; and are better represented - in number and seniority - on our many international delegations.

Women comprise more than 49 per cent of DFAT's staff.

- 25.5 per cent of our Senior Executive Service is women, compared with 12.5 percent in 1996.

- And 18 of our diplomatic posts are headed by women - compared with six in 1996 - including Paris, Berlin, Dili, Phnom Penh, Islamabad, Beirut, Santiago and Suva.

The figures represent a steady increase over previous years and these trends will continue.

In an interview given shortly before her death in 1995, Maris King observed: "If I had my life over again, I don't think I'd want it to be very different - I feel I've been able to do something for my own country, and that is something I'm quite proud of."

This exhibition reflects the pride which the government also takes in the achievements of the many women who have served Australia internationally.

- And who are promoting Australia's national interests today.

I am therefore delighted to officially open Women Working for Australia. Thank you.