Australia’s High Commissioner to Malaysia, Rod Smith, and our Deputy High Commissioner, Angela Macdonald, thank you for the extraordinary work you both do with your team 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 International Women’s Day.
It’s never too late and never too early to celebrate the achievements of women. It is also a time to reflect on the challenges that lie ahead before we can confidently say that women have opportunities equal to men to reach their potential.
I am always pleased to be back in Malaysia because it brings back such fond memories. As a very young university student at Adelaide University, I was studying law, my older sister was studying medicine, and we decided to be very adventurous, or bold, and go on our first overseas holiday together, and saved up. Most of our friends, if they were able to travel overseas, went to London. We decided that our first overseas trip should be in our region, our neighbourhood, and we set off to Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, Hong Kong, New Territories, this was late seventies.
I remember my time here in Kuala Lumpur so very vividly, and I have such warm and fond memories. Every time I return to Kuala Lumpur I remember those days, because of course much has changed in both Australia and Malaysia in those years.
And in the past ten years in particular, we’ve seen gradual, but profound, and positive changes in the role of women in our respective societies. I learned today that just over that past ten years, there has been an eight percent increase in women’s labour force participation here in Malaysia. It’s now about fifty three percent.
Of course, women hold positions of influence, as members of parliament, governors of the central bank, leaders in politics, in the community, in society more broadly.
The empowerment of women is not just the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do. 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 will prosper, economies will be more resilient, if half the population are able to realise the opportunities that are there.
I also think that societies are much stronger, if women have an equal say and an equal voice. Decisions made by men and women are more likely to reflect, societies needs and more likely to meet the demands.
Of course women bring a different perspective, different life experience, different insights, different skills to the table.
This came home to me rather vividly, last year, when I attended the United Nations General Assembly leaders week and one of my first meetings was with twenty five Foreign Ministers, on the issue of counter terrorism, countering ISIS, the situation in Iraq and Syria. Of those twenty five Foreign Ministers, I was the only female.
Later that day, I attended a meeting of twenty five Foreign Ministers, same topic, counter terrorism, countering ISIS, the situation in Iraq and Syria, but every single Foreign Minister was female, because there are about twenty five to thirty female Foreign Ministers around the world.
The contrast between the two meetings was utterly profound. Same topic, same positions as Foreign Ministers, yet the approach taken, was utterly different. We could have been in parallel universes, in fact, I guess we were.
That showed to 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 in situations where we are representing the views of others or advocating on behalf of others.
I must say, and I’ll say it to the women in the room, so gentlemen just talk amongst yourselves, I’ve often found myself as the only female in meetings. And when we came back into government in 2013 after a period in opposition, I have to say I was surprised to find that I was the only female in our cabinet meetings. I don’t know whether you’ve been in this positon before, but I found that I would say something, that wasn’t particularly brilliant, but I thought it was a fair enough 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 exactly the same thing and the others would go, “that’s brilliant”.
I suspected this 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 them came to me and said, “have you ever noticed that when we say something the guys never comment, but if they say the same thing, they slap each other on the back?”
So we worked out a plan. Whatever I said, it didn’t matter whether it was, “can somebody pass me a cup of coffee?” or “I think this is the strategy for our new foreign policy” the other women in the room would say “fantastic, did you just hear what Julie said”. Around the room we do it. Can I assure you it works, it really works!
There is one area, 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. These are 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 global shortage, we supply the market.
I know that in both Australia and Malaysia we are grasping these opportunities to ensure that more women have opportunities to study in the science, technology, engineering, and maths disciplines and take up careers in those fields.
In fact, I am informed that in Malaysia, as more women are gaining higher education qualifications, we are seeing more women gain qualifications in the STEM fields. In fact, fifty three percent of graduates from computing science in Malaysia are women. So we see women professors and researchers and doctors and scientists and we are going to see more female entrepreneurs, more females in start-ups and in high-tech positions, and that, I think, is where we will really start to see opportunities for women flow.
I have never underestimated the power of mentors and role models. As they say, if you can’t see it, it’s hard to be it, and so, as women gain positions of influence in these fields, more young women will see an opportunity for themselves to take up such a position.
Mentoring works. When I was the Education Minister, between 2006 and 2007, I saw a very important example of this. A university in South Australia set up a controlled experiment with their female academics. Half the women were in a formal mentoring 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 in the formal mentoring program were more often promoted, received more government grants, had much higher levels of work place satisfaction, far fewer complaints, and were much more satisfied with their career as an academic, when compared with the women who were not mentored. So whether the mentoring program is formal or informal, whether it’s a male mentor or a female mentor, the power of mentoring is profound.
It was that thinking and that observation that led me to introduce an element of mentorship into our New Colombo Plan initiative. First, I want to acknowledge the original Colombo Plan scholars who are here this evening, because of course Australia and Malaysia were founding members of the original Colombo Plan that was set up in 1951 and served South East Asia so well, in particular during the 1950s, to about 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 to their home country and contribute to the life and society with an Australian qualification.
What was important though, was the enduring connections and friendships that were made.
When I became Foreign Minister, given my background as Education Minister, I knew that the spirit of the Colombo Plan should live on but in reverse, and it was time for Australia to fund our young undergraduates. It was way time for Australia to fund our undergraduates to have the opportunity to live and study at universities in our region, and yet I wanted it to be more than just qualifications and even the wonderful experience of living in another country. I wanted them to immerse themselves, even if they were only here for a short while.
So we came up with the idea of having mentorships, or internships, work experience, practicums, so that the young Australian graduates would see life outside of the universities and actually be in businesses in the community and see how work was done, how life was lived. From a pilot program in 2014 to the end of 2017, about 18000 young Australian undergraduates, will have lived, and studied and undertaken a mentorship or work experience in one of forty countries across the Indian Ocean Asia Pacific.
Now I am delighted to say that Malaysia came on board as a partner in 2015, and that about twenty five of our forty two universities have partnerships with universities here to ensure that our students had the opportunity to partake in a whole range of disciplines and experiences here.
I know a number of our New Colombo Plan students are here. Perhaps they would like to stand. Four students are here this evening are among the eight hundred Australian undergraduates who are taking part in the New Colombo Plan here in Malaysia up until 2017 and of course that number will increase as our young Ambassadors go back home and relate the positive empowering experience that they have had here.
So the New Colombo Plan is yet another example of the power of mentorship.
I have also strongly believed that the empowerment of women should be a fundamental pillar of our foreign policy and in particular, in our development assistance, our foreign aid program.
Since becoming Foreign Minister, I have focussed our attention and our funding on our region. Resources are very scarce in development assistance and I was of the view that instead of spreading our development assistance too thinly around the world, we would take responsibility for our region, our neighbourhood, our part of the world, where we can make the biggest difference, and that of course includes the Pacific. I decided that we have to ensure that women were recognised in our development assistance efforts.
So I set a target that eighty percent of our aid programs, whatever their objective, must take into account the gender equality outcomes, the empowerment of women. And we have seen some dramatic results as a consequence of putting in place this eighty percent figure.
In relation to the empowerment of women, we focus on three issues. First, providing opportunities for women to take leadership roles. Whether in their family, in their village, in their town, their cities, in communities, in government, in business. Empowering women to be leaders.
We also focus on the economic empowerment of women. Giving women the opportunities, through our aid funding, to take part in the formal labour market. To be employable. To be educated.
And third, our third area of focus is to prevent violence against women. No country is immune, but there is a particular prevalence in our part of the world, in the Pacific specifically. So many of our programs focus on ensuring that women, their children, their families, are safe from violence.
We have seen some dramatic results, and I believe that it’s necessary for countries around the world to consider the impact of their aid programs, to consider the impact of their foreign policy, on women.
To that end, we have, as part of our diplomatic tools and resources, the position of Ambassador 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 Minister for Women. We also have an Ambassador for Women and Girls, who’s role is to promote and advocate gender equality and gender empowerment in all that we do in our international engagement. Not just at the United Nations and where we are part of the Commission on the Status of Women, but also more generally, in our bilateral, regional and multilateral engagement.
I urge other countries to observe what we’ve done, look at our experience, see what our Ambassador for Women and Girls can achieve. Our first was in fact, Penny Williams, who was the High Commissioner here in Malaysia, and many would remember her.
Then we had a former Senator, Natasha Stott Despoja, and she made a significant impact wherever she went, and our newest Ambassador for Women and Girls is Dr Sharman Stone, who was a longstanding Member of Parliament, and retired at the last election, and she is hoping to come to Malaysia to share her experiences and gain insights from you later this year.
In 2017, Australia will seek to be elected to the United Nations Human Rights Council. We have not been on this Council before, and there has not been a member before from the Pacific Region at any time on the Human Rights Council.
While we are lumped 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 on the Human Rights Council. Our campaign is based on the themes of good governance, strong human rights institutions, and capacity building, the rights of indigenous people, freedom of expression and gender equality.
As we campaign around the world, our five pillars resonate, but increasingly and particularly, our emphasis on gender equality, gender parity and the empowerment of women. I’m pleased to say that Malaysia is supporting our campaign to be on the Human Rights Council, so this wasn’t an advertisement, but in case you have friends in other countries, pass on the word!
So ladies and gentlemen I am very proud to be part of a government that is a powerful advocate for women both in our domestic agenda and in our foreign policy, whether it is through trade policy, our economic diplomacy initiatives, or our development assistance, we truly believe that women should be at the heart of government policy.
I know it is a view shared in Malaysia, and why I feel so comfortable with you all here this evening, discussing what can sometimes be sensitive issues in countries. We know, pragmatically, logically, emotionally, morally, that giving women a voice is the right thing, the smart thing to do. And that when women can hold up half the sky, we know we will have achieved great things for our nation.
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