Proud to call myself a feminist: Kelly O’Dwyer

Minister for Women Kelly O’Dwyer has used a speech ahead of International Women’s Day at the National Press Club to declare herself a feminist — something her predecessor Michaelia Cash refused to do.

“I am lucky to have been raised by parents who instilled in me a strong belief that men and women are equal in opportunity and achievement,” said O’Dwyer, who is also Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Public Service.

“It is this belief in equality that makes me proud to call myself a feminist.”

In her first major address as Minister for Women, O’Dwyer described a recent discussion with her daughter:

“When I returned home to Melbourne last Thursday after a week of Parliament I had a late-night conversation with my daughter Livvy, who is nearly three.

“We hadn’t seen each other for many days and she was full of questions, including about my flight from Canberra.

“She knowingly told me that if I was on a plane then there must have been a pilot.  And then she said, ‘What was her name?’

“I was literally lost for words — not at the thought of a woman pilot — but that my daughter had assumed that my pilot must have been a woman.  The first name that popped into my head was Beth.

“I don’t know if there is a Qantas or Virgin pilot out there called Beth, good luck to her if there is, but my daughter’s assumption that the pilot must be a woman struck me that there is a new way of viewing the world.

“As a nation, we must demand a life for women where they don’t just survive, but they thrive.

“Every woman should have the opportunity to fulfil her potential and to make meaningful choices about her life.

“To put it simply — there should be no limit on what she can aspire to, and no limit on what she can achieve.”

Progress in the APS

It was not that long ago sex segregation in the workforce was the norm, women were banished from the Commonwealth Public Service when they got married, and female executives and department heads “were either tokenistic or an oddity”, said the minister.

And while there’s still plenty of work to be done, the Australian Public Service is making good progress:

“When my daughter gets older, and stops assuming and starts seeing, what I want her to see are equal numbers of women in leadership roles across the spectrum of our society.

“We need this in the private and public sectors; in politics, science, sport and the arts. And, of course, we need men to mentor and promote women, too — to be male champions of change.

“The Australian Public Service — another one of my ministerial responsibilities — is tracking in the right direction. Today, eight of the 18 departmental secretaries are women, as are 43% of the senior executive service.

“And I am happy to say that as of 31 December 2017 the number of women on government boards is 44.5%. This is an increase of 1.8 percentage points since June 2017, and the highest overall result since public reporting began in 2010-11.

“And women now hold 33.7% of chair and deputy chair positions on government boards. This is an increase of 1.9 percentage points since 30 June 2017 — another record high.

“Our target is for women to hold half of all Australian government board positions. And in order to maintain our focus we will publish our overall progress on our 50% target every six months in addition to reporting in detail in the Gender Balance of Australian Boards report.

“By contrast, women currently make up a mere 26% of ASX 200 directorships and last year comprised 35% of new appointments to ASX 200 boards. We need them to continue climbing.

“Given the current levels of representation on ASX 200 boards is 18.5 percentage points less than the government sector, the private sector can, and must, do better. They need to double down on their efforts by ensuring that have the right policies and settings to ensure women can build their careers and the pipeline remains full.

“We need to strive for a future where, to paraphrase Sheryl Sandberg, there will be no female leaders, there will only be leaders.”

‘An artificial barrier’

O’Dwyer also highlighted the subtle ways in which systems can disadvantage women:

“Not long after I was elected to parliament, I met with a female scientist who told me that she wasn’t able to apply for a NHMRC research grant because she was working part-time.

“She had a young family, and the failure to get this grant was going to be catastrophic for her medical research and for her continued career.

“She also told me that she could apply for the grant if she was working full time, and then go part time, but could not apply whilst already working part time.

“Perverse indeed — it seemed like such an artificial barrier.

“I took up her cause with the minister at the time, but despite my best efforts, he would not engage with the issue.

“So what I did instead was call up new Labor MP Amanda Rishworth and we joined together to form the Parliamentary Friends of Women in Science, Maths and Engineering.

“By shining a strong light on this issue, by asking questions, we began to get real results achieving more flexible grant applications and more support for women at that critical cliff where career intersects with family life. The NHMRC changed their research fellowships to allow part-time applications.

“We later discovered that our group had attracted attention as the first gendered parliamentary group in Australia and one of only a few gendered parliamentary groups in the world.

“Women are not, and never have been, a singular group. We have our own histories and have made our own journeys. We have individual aspirations, hopes and needs — for ourselves; for our families.

“I see this as a portfolio for all women — women in the home; in the board room; in factories or remote towns; our young women and our older women; and critically our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women; women who are comfortable, and women who are doing it tough.”

About the author

The essential resource for effective public sector leaders

Check out the Latest