Julie Bishop: women in leadership


Minister for Foreign Affairs and Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party Julie Bishop kicked off International Women’s Day celebrations early this year with an address to public servants. Bishop tackled:

  • why targets are better than quotas;
  • the female foreign ministers she looks up to; and
  • how empowering women has become a key part of Australia’s policy goals.

Watch the video of the address, produced by contentgroup, published on the Institute of Public Administration Australia, ACT division’s video feed, or read the transcript below.

See also: Julie Bishop’s days of allowing men to take credit for women’s ideas are over


What a joy it is to be here today to celebrate International women’s Day, albeit a week in advance. This is a global celebration of women. We honour those women who have been trailblazers. We demonstrate our support for women who face challenges, and we seek to find ways to inspire future generations of women and girls to fulfil their potential. I particularly want to thank Frances Adamson as the President of the Institute of Public Administration here in Australia. She exemplifies the twin pillars of excellence and professionalism that this Institute seeks to embed in Australia’s public service. Frances had a distinguished career as a diplomat, she was our ambassador in Beijing, one of the most demanding posts in our foreign service. She was international adviser to the Prime Minister, and then quite naturally in my eyes, she took on the role of the first female Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in Australia’s history, and it just so happens that her time of service coincides with my time as Australia’s first female foreign minister. We work exceedingly well together and I’m very proud of the way we have been able to institute change in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade that will impact across the Australian government public service.

As a foreign minister, I travel constantly representing Australia’s interests on the world stage, and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade invariably puts together an exceedingly busy schedule for me wherever I am. I demand it and they deliver. But they are also aware that I want to have in my itinerary wherever I am in the world, an opportunity to meet with the women leaders in that city or that country that I’m visiting. Over the years I have met some of the most extraordinary women at lunches and dinners and briefings, where our posts, our embassies and high commissions have brought together a cross‐section of women from that country or city. What I learned from those meetings, all the briefings, all the ministerial meetings can never make up for hearing first‐hand from women what life is like in that country.

While the stories and experiences are so diverse and vary so dramatically from country to country, continent to continent, there is an underlying theme. And that is whatever the gender equality statistics may or may not be for that country, there is still an overwhelming desire to see more women in leadership roles. Whether I’m in Samoa or the United Kingdom or Afghanistan or China, there is a desire to see more women take leadership roles in their families, in their villages, in their communities, in business, in commerce, in government at all levels. That’s because women can make a significant difference to the betterment of society. After all, a nation that doesn’t harness and utilise the talents and skills and perspectives and insights and intelligence of around 50% of its population will never reach its full potential.

I’ve also been very delighted to be part of a movement amongst the female foreign ministers of the world. Of the 193 members of the United Nations, 32 countries have female foreign ministers, and there’s now an annual event on the side of the United Nations General Assembly Leaders Week, and for those of you who have attended UNGA Leaders Week, it is like speed dating on steroids. You meet minister after minister back to back day after day, but the female foreign ministers have found time in this extraordinarily busy schedule to meet. A number of female foreign ministers are from significant nations and economies, the female foreign minister of India, Indonesia, Canada, Australia. We meet to discuss the issues of the day, but from our perspective as female foreign ministers.

We often say, “I wonder what Madeline Albright would have done in these circumstances,” or Condoleezza Rice or Hillary Clinton, because without doubt the United States has produced some of the most outstanding Foreign Secretaries, Secretaries of State, in recent memory. But it’s important for me to gain perspectives of other women in counterpart positions. It informs my thinking, it reinforces the views I have, and it drives me to ensure that Australia is embracing every tool available to us for gender equality, gender equity, and the empowerment of women in Australia and in the countries where we have influence. As Frances said, last year we released a Foreign Policy White Paper, and I take this opportunity to again publicly pay tribute to Frances and the team at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade for producing a quite extraordinary document, the first in 14 years but without doubt the most comprehensive Foreign Policy White Paper in Australia’s history.

This is a framework to guide our international engagement, our international activities, for the next decade and beyond. It is a detailed and thorough piece of work that should be read by foreign ministers around the world, and may I assure you it is being read by governments across the globe. Australia is an open liberal democracy, we embrace freedoms, the rule of law, democratic institutions. We’re an open, export‐oriented market economy. We depend for our standard of living, our economic growth, on our ability to sell our goods and services into markets around the world. Australia is entering its 27th consecutive year of economic growth, uninterrupted economic growth. That is a record unparalleled in the world. No other country, no other comparable economy, has ever achieved that. But it doesn’t happen by accident and we want to ensure that Australia can continue to grow, continue to be a beacon of democratic values and an embrace of open and liberal trade and investment. Not to impose our model on others, but to be an example for those to follow who may see in Australia a case study for their country.

The Foreign Policy White Paper sets out our values, our priorities, our interests. Without doubt Australia’s interests are very much global, but our priorities are very much regional. For the first time in a foreign policy document, we have embraced the term ‘Indo‐Pacific’ to describe our part of the world, the Indian Ocean, Asia‐Pacific, and this term, not just a term of art but a term that reflects the geostrategic and economic reality, is now being picked up by other major nations around the world. In fact in the United States’ recent national security statement, they referred to the US presence in the Indo‐Pacific. So this is our part of the world, and the Foreign Policy White Paper sets out the threats, the opportunities, the challenges, the risks, for Australia’s international engagement.

In focusing on the Indo‐Pacific, let me bring it down to the issue of gender equality. In the Pacific today, 7% of the members of parliament are female. In a major Pacific nation, Papua New Guinea, of some eight million people with one hundred members in their national parliament, there are no women. This does not compare well with the global average of about 23%, 25% of national parliaments being made up of female members. We have embraced the empowerment of women as a key pillar in our foreign policy and in particular, our aid programme in the Pacific.

We do that under three headings. Support for more leadership, and we have practical initiatives and programmes to assist women in the Pacific become leaders in their communities, in their villages, in their parliaments. We have embraced the empowerment of women in economic terms, the economic empowerment of women, so that women can take their place in the formal labour markets of these countries. That they can make a contribution, that they can run businesses, that they can be involved in commerce and investment and trade, in activities. That of course means ensuring that health and education initiatives are equally supported. Our third pillar is to deal with the scourge of domestic violence, and the Pacific are not alone in this regard, although the incidence and prevalence is very high. All nations struggle with the issue of domestic violence, but the Indo‐Pacific, the Pacific in particular, is our part of the world, is our neighbourhood. We must do what we can to ensure that women and girls are safe in their communities.

We have numerous programmes that focus on the empowerment of women, but you have to do things that have a practical outcome. I mandated that 80% of our aid programmes had to take into account the impact on women, to ensure that women got equal opportunities to take part in programmes, all these programmes would have an impact on women. Just a small example, we had a road‐building project in Timor‐Leste, and as part of the infrastructure programme we were training Timorese workers to drive bulldozers and tractors and be part of the construction work, gain skills that would be useful for them. The education component was made up entirely of men. We mandated, as I said, that 80% of their aid programme had to take into account the impact on women. So the programme was required to see if there were women who could fulfil these educational places. Now 30% of the road team on that project are women. They’re learning how to drive vehicles, they’re learning how to build roads, they’re learning engineering techniques, they’re developing skills.

So often it’s just asking people to focus on the obvious. Recently in New York I launched a new initiative, women in leadership initiative in the Pacific, and I relaunched it back here in Canberra recently. This is based on the power of mentoring. What this programme does is through our Australia Awards programme … many of you will know that the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has for a long time run an Australia Awards programme whereby we provide scholarships to postgraduate students in countries in the region that come to Australia. They complete their qualifications, they go back home with an Australian qualification but a connection with Australia that will last a lifetime. So from that cohort of Australia Awards recipients, we’ve identified young women from the Pacific who have leadership potential, and we have connected them with an Australian female leader who is prepared to act as their mentor.

In this way, these young women who have gained an Australian qualification, have gone back home, will have a connection with Australia, a person who is prepared to share their knowledge and experience, and support them externally, but somebody that they can rely on and call when they’re looking for some advice or some support. One great example is Nirose Silas, she’s an Australia Award recipient from Vanuatu. She studied here in Australia and her ambition is to be the Auditor General of Vanuatu. I thought, “Isn’t that wonderful? You wake up one morning in Vanuatu and say, ‘I want to be the Auditor General’.” We have connected her with the Chief Government Whip, Nola Marino, the Member for Forrest here in Parliament House. So Nirose and Nola are now mentor‐mentee, and I have so many examples, and if there are any women in the room who would like to be part of this brilliant programme, Frances will certainly take your names and details.

This is an example of Australia sharing experiences in a practical and principled way, supporting people. I must say I believe absolutely in the power of mentoring, whether it’s formal programmes … When I was the Minister for Education, we observed a case study on mentoring in a South Australian university. They did a controlled experiment. A group of female academics were in a formal mentoring programme, a group of female academics were not in a formal mentoring programme. Over five years they tracked the progress of the two groups of women, and it was overwhelmingly in favour of the women who were in the mentoring programme in terms of promotions, in terms of grants, in terms of job satisfaction, the evidence was in. So I believe very much in the power of mentoring.

We have also recognised that we need to promote our policies and our agenda, supporting women around the world. I have had the honour of appointing two female Ambassadors for Women and Girls. The first was former Senator Natasha Stott Despoja, who after she left Parliament, continued in her advocacy against domestic violence with an impeccable international reputation. Natasha Stott Despoja was our Ambassador for Women and Girls for two years, and in that role she represented Australia around the world, particularly focusing on our region. Today I just got a text from her, she’s in London where the Commonwealth have asked her to be on an electoral observer mission, such is her standing in the world today.

Our current Ambassador for Women and Girls is Doctor Sharman Stone, who was the member for Murray here in the Parliament, a very distinguished career as a parliamentarian and absolutely committed to the betterment of the lives of women in our Pacific, and she’s doing a magnificent job. Hopefully there’ll come a time when we won’t need an office for women, we won’t need an Ambassador for Women and Girls, but that time is not now, and we continue to promote and support activities to give women their voice, to give women the right to be heard, and to support them when they need that boost to their confidence, to their ability to fulfil their potential. Now, Frances mentioned the New Colombo Plan. This is my baby, the New Colombo Plan is a student programme that is run through the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, where we provide support to undergraduates in Australia’s universities to live and study and undertake a work experience or practicum, an internship in one of 40 countries in our region.

We commenced the programme in 2014 and by the end of this year, 30,000 Australian undergraduates will have been through our New Colombo Plan, 30,000. These are young people who will be our ambassadors, who are our ambassadors in our region. Not only are they having an extraordinary educational experience, of studying at a university in our region, but they’re having an extraordinary cultural experience, living, working, with people in another country. But the benefit to Australia is profound. It’s being run through the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade because it is a foreign policy initiative. The next generation of young Australians will have a unique understanding of our part of the world. They will have connections and networks and friendships that can only benefit Australia as we engage in this part of the world.

And it’s interesting to note that of the recipients of the scholarships, and that is 12‐month scholarships, 54% of the recipients have been female. Of the mobility grants, which are shorter periods, a semester and sometimes it can be a matter of weeks, but they’re shorter periods working in health clinics or in schools, or working in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in another country, 64% of the recipients are women. They will be such an attribute to us in years to come. I’m thinking of our New Colombo Plan scholar from the University of South Australia, Michelle Howie. She studied engineering, she got a place at the South Korean Institute of Technology, a highly prestigious institute. She studied engineering, she then worked for Telstra in Hong Kong, and she’s now employed as an engineer in Telstra, all through the New Colombo Plan.

Women contributing to innovation

Frances also mentioned the Innovation Exchange, another initiative that we have introduced within the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and I believe it is a case study for other departments across the Australian government. We have an ideas hub within the department, it’s over the road from the R.G. Casey Building, so it’s physically removed from … how shall I put this … the framework of the Department. We brought in some of their best and brightest thinkers from DFAT, from other departments, from the private sector, from overseas, from the World Bank, from Google, from USA. Frances, I offered a position to … I thought I’d tell you this … I offered a position to a bright young officer from DFID, from the UK aid department, to come to Australia. We’ll work out the details later. This innovation exchange throws out the rule book, turns thinking on its head when it comes to overseas development assistance, starts with a blank sheet of paper and a problem, how would we solve this? Throwing out the old stereotypical thinking, what would we do to solve what is a seemingly intractable problem?

They come up with ideas, they hold hackathons, ideas challenges. We’re now part of global challenges, coming up with an issue that needs to be resolved, how do we do it? The Australian government’s prepared to put up seed funding for the best ideas from around the world, to implement development assistance programmes that actually make a difference on the ground. We were driven to do this because Australia has a significant aid budget. We invest heavily in our region, yet after billions and billions of dollars of investment, some nations in our region are still going backwards in their economic and social development indicators. Backwards from the sustainable development goals, backwards from the previous millennium development goals. We had to do something differently, and we’ve shaken it up, we’ve got this ideas hub, and if the secretaries of other departments haven’t visited it, I urge you to do so. Just challenges thinking, and the female leadership, Sarah Pearson, who is about to become the new director, has really made a difference.

Targets are working in government

Speaking of female leadership, I am a great believer of statistics and evidence to prove that we are achieving our aims or making a difference. The Turnbull government resolved that of the board appointments for which government is responsible, we should have a target of 50% female. I remember the debate very well, “Let’s go for a target of 30%,” and the women in the room, “Really?” 50%, and I’m pleased to say that at last count we were at 42% of all of the board and council positions that the Australian government is responsible for making, are now female. We also have a bit of a competition amongst the ministers. Okay, a big competition amongst the ministers, as to who can meet that target within their portfolio. And Frances Adamson, DFAT, at 50%. Thank you, yup.

It’s a target because we don’t want to impose a quota, so that any woman appointed to such a position believes that she is only there because we had to fill a quota. A target means that people think consciously about who they’re appointing or the group of people they’re interviewing for a particular position, and its addressing that unconscious bias. You can address conscious bias, because you can see it, you can hear it, you can feel it, you can smell it. But in terms of unconscious bias, it’s very difficult to challenge, so if ministers are informed that they have a target to reach, and if they’re not reaching it, they have to explain why, then it can have a pretty dramatic impact. It’s a question of just looking further, asking more questions, asking others to come up with names. There are women who are more than capable of fulfilling these positions, please find them and put them forward. I’m delighted to also know that of the eighteen government departments, we have eight female heads, eight female departmental Secretaries. A number of them are here today, I welcome them. I’m also very pleased with a focus that Frances has brought to the appointments to our heads of mission, and today I believe about 32%, 35%, you heard it here, 35% of heads of mission … she’s getting there, 50% … of our heads of mission are women, and they are in some of the most challenging and difficult and demanding roles within our foreign service. Jan Adams, our Ambassador to Beijing; Harinder Sidhu, our High Commissioner in New Delhi; and Gillian Bird, our Ambassador to the United Nations; are just a few of the names that spring to mind.

Within the Cabinet, I am so pleased that my defence Cabinet colleague is Senator Marise Payne. She is the first female defence minister in Australia’s history. There is a piece of architecture for foreign and defence ministers, it’s called a two‐plus‐two, and with our important strategic partners around the world, we have annual two‐plus‐two meetings. That is, the foreign minister and defence minister of Australia meets with our counterpart Secretary of State, Secretary of Defence. When Marise and I turn up for Australia, invariably meet our male colleagues, it’s just this little sense of pride as Marise Payne and I stand in front of the Australian flag and our male colleagues stand in front of their flag. But you know, we’ve set a pattern. India now has a female foreign minister and a female defence minister, and we’re so looking forward to our first two‐plus‐two with India.

I’m also delighted to serve with Kelly O’Dwyer who amongst her portfolio of responsibilities as Minister for Revenue, is also the Minister for Women, and Kelly of course has the distinction of being the first female Cabinet minister to have a child while continuing to balance the challenging role of Cabinet Minister. And we’re joined by Bridget McKenzie, the deputy leader of the National Party; and Michaelia Cash, a Senator from Western Australia who has a very demanding portfolio role about job creation and innovation.

So ladies and gentlemen, women are making their mark in Australia. We are deliberately focused on ensuring that more women have the opportunity to drive change, to be a decision‐maker, to be a leader. It’s not something that always comes naturally, so it’s something that we must continue to push and promote and advocate. Some of the strongest advocates for female empowerment are the male champions, and men in this room, the Secretaries of our departments, those in the public sector who understand that in order for Australia to fulfil our potential, we must have women leaders at every level in the private and public sector.

I know there’s a way to go in the private sector. My last assessment was that about 11 of the top 200 ASX companies had female CEOs. There’s still over 40 top companies that don’t have any females on their board. I urge them to rethink that, because I believe that women in the private sector have an extraordinary contribution to make, and those companies will be more sustainable, more successful, more profitable, a better place to work, as a result of embracing more women at the top.

Happy International Women’s Day.

This article is based on Julie Bishop’s speech to the Institution for Public Administration at the Great Hall, Parliament House, Canberra on Wednesday February 28, 2018.

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