As an Australian woman living in the United States, and working with women globally to advance their human rights, it was a momentous week. In the US, President Obama signed a memorandum designed to accelerate, extend and strengthen government actions across multiple sectors to better promote gender equality and empower women and girls.
The President signed this memorandum into law in the presence of Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton. In doing so, he said
“promoting gender equality and advancing the status of all women and girls around the world remains one of the greatest unmet challenges of our time, and one that is vital to achieving our overall foreign policy objectives.”
This Presidential directive includes the following:
- Establishment of an interagency working group on international gender issues chaired by the National Security Advisor
- Designation of an Ambassador-at-Large reporting directly to the Secretary to head the office of Global Women’s Issues
- Formal recognition of the importance of women’s voices and actions to development
- Commitment to a Senior Coordinator for Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to play a prominent role in advising the USAID Administrator on key priorities for US development assistance.
Let’s hope that these priorities include ratifying The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). How can the US expect to be taken seriously in holding other countries to account, in improving their track record on women’s human rights without ratifying CEDAW? Ditto US Congress ensuring passage of the Violence Against Women Act which stalled in Congress last year and which will be debated this year.
Despite some opposition, Australia signed CEDAW at a special signing ceremony at the UN World Conference for the Decade of Women on 17 July 1980. Australia was one of the 23 countries that helped prepare the ceremony and sent a strong delegation of experts. In Australia’s signing of CEDAW, under the Fraser Liberal government, it showed Australia’s commitment, in principle, to the rights it enshrines. The same would be true of the US if it ratified CEDAW.
Last week, Australian Prime Minister Gillard announced a national election this year on September 14th. The outcome of this election will determine the priorities and policies for Australia and its engagement in the world for at least the next three years.
Yesterday I was asked to write a few sentences for a publication about the issues I’d like to see at the center of this year’s elections in Australia; and if my views had changed since living abroad. I made the following points:
- I’d hope that jobs, pay equity, issues of work-family balance and income security would be the focus.
- Also access to health services and to a health workforce that is reflective of community need – there’s an urgent need for mental health service reforms including more early intervention and responsive measures.
- Violence against women remains endemic and I’d hope for an increased commitment to ending violence against women both within Australia, and within the Asia Pacific region through Australia’s aid budget.
- Environmental sustainability is vital and so I’d hope for a commitment to accelerate investment in Australia’s clean renewable energy sector and to Australia helping shape a strong international agreement to limit greenhouse emissions.
- In all of this, of course, positive leadership is critical, including circuit-breaker initiatives and solutions. This includes a commitment to the change necessary for women and men to lead fully integrated professional and personal lives.
If anything, living in the United States has affirmed these views rather than changed them. Women’s votes determined the outcome of the 2012 US Presidential Election – which demonstrated the power of women to shape the direction of a country.
We know from the US election that extreme remarks about women and women’s reproductive rights changed the debate as an indicator of values and how this would shape policy – not just nationally but internationally, including protecting women’s right to choose as a central tenet of the government’s aid program.
Since the US election, mental health has become a key priority for the President as we’ve seen the consequences of not investing in mental health services.
With record numbers of women in both the House and the Senate, policies important to women are now likely to be at the top of the policy agenda. Secretary Clinton’s leadership on gender issues, coupled with that of Melanne Verveer as Ambassador-at-large for Global Women’s Issues and the constant, heroic work of so many NGOs, made possible President Obama’s signing the memorandum on 30 January 2013. Of course we all hope that the memorandum will accelerate progress on gender equality in this country, and by extension and example, in other countries.
Just what’s at stake globally for women and girls, and what can be achieved if government policies and programs align with the advocacy of women, girls and women’s rights organizations is captured in this short video. It was created by the Association of Women in Development (AWID) and it features significant 2012 moments for women’s rights. http://vimeo.com/57669274
Of course domestic issues loom large in elections and yet whatever women in Australia and the US are experiencing is amplified dramatically in so many developing countries, whether it’s political representation at a local or national level or participation or representation on corporate or government boards.
My friend Sue just sent me news of a new project launched by AusAID called ‘The Pacific Women’s Parliamentary Partnerships Forum’ to help get more women elected in the 16 Pacific Island countries given that their current representation is just 4%.The forum will look at how Australian MPs can work with those in the Pacific to increase female representation and to support them once they gain office.
In terms of gender equality in Australia, at least in relation to the workplace, the figures speak for themselves. The gender pay gap in Australia is currently 17.5%, and in the US women make only 78 percent of what men make – an improvement of less than half a penny a year since 1963 when The Equal Pay Act was signed.
Recent Census in Australia found that women hold less than 10% of all executive positions and board directorships at companies listed on the Australian Securities Exchange (ASX) 500, while women currently hold 2.8 percent of Fortune 500 CEO roles and 3.3 percent of Fortune 1000 CEO roles.
Among the Fortune 1000, there are 139 boards that have no women directors; and women comprise fewer than fifteen percent of all directors. Close to half of public companies have zero women on their boards. The number of women in senior technology positions at U.S. companies is down for the second year in a row. 9% of U.S. chief information officers (CIOs) are female, down from 11% last year and 12% in 2010.
When corporations do invest in women being at the table the evidence is that everyone benefits The Women Moving Millions website includes a lot of evidence to support this:
- Profits at Fortune 500 firms that most aggressively promoted women have been shown to be 34% higher than industry medians. 
- A recent report called Women Matter 2010 found that companies with a higher proportion of women in their executive committees are also the companies that have the best performance. 
- Firms with women investment partners are 70 percent more likely, to lead an investment in a woman entrepreneur, as compared to those with only male partners. 
- Despite often being capital-constrained, women-owned businesses are more likely to survive the transition from raw start-up to established company than the average company. 
- Companies with sustained high representation of women board directors, defined as those with three or more women board directors in at least four of five years, significantly outperformed those with sustained low representation by 84 percent on return on sales by 60 percent on return on invested capital, and by 46 percent on return on equity. 
In 2003, Norway adopted a law requiring 40% of all board members of state-owned corporations and publicly listed companies to be women. France, Belgium, Iceland, Italy, the Netherlands and Spain followed suit and are adopting similar quotas. Germany has pledged to raise the amount of female participation by 30% or greater by 2013. Women now account for 21.7% of directors serving on the boards of the largest banks in Europe.
This is compared to financial institutions in the Americas averaging 16.7% and those in Asia-Pacific at only 10.9%. Across Europe, the proportion of women on the boards of the top 300 companies grew to 12 percent in 2010 from 8 percent in 2004, an October 2010 report by the European Professional Women’s Network shows. At this rate, gender parity would be reached in 16 years, the report said
The recent landmark legislation passed by the Australian Parliament in relation to the newly named Workplace Gender Equality Agency is a step in the right direction. The Act recognizes that the struggle to balance family and work commitments is a family and a societal issue rather than a women’s issue.
Beginning in 2014, organizations with 100 or more employees will have to report on several new “gender equality indicators,” including the following:
- the gender composition of workplaces and their governing bodies
- equal remuneration between women and men
- the availability and use of flexible working arrangements for both women and men with family or caring responsibilities.
While the agency does not have enforceable regulatory powers, it does have the power to ‘name and shame’ those organizations which fail to comply. Those organizations that don’t comply may also be ineligible to compete for certain government contracts, grants, and other forms of financial assistance.
With the new memorandum signed by President Obama, the US has the opportunity to introduce similar initiatives and hopefully ones that do have regulatory power. In 2012 U.S. academic and State department appointee Anne Marie Slaughter published an article in The Atlantic about the impossibility of “having it all’’ in a system was stacked against them. She went on to say that the women who had managed to be both mothers and top professionals were superhuman, rich, or self-employed. And then she outlined the policies that had to change in order to deliver women gender equality.
It seems there is now the momentum for change, both in the US and Australia, and the question is whether the policies and actions will go deep enough and quickly enough to ensure that women benefit. Secretary Clinton captured the language and momentum needed in her farewell speech at the Council on Foreign Relations where she said,
“We need a new architecture for this new world, more Frank Gehry than formal Greek,”
Clinton described the system dominated by the United Nations, NATO and several other large organizations as the equivalent of the Classical Parthenon in Athens. This is in contrast to Gehry’s modern architecture. That level of reform needs to permeate within the UN too. Human rights activist, Charlotte Bunch said,
“What is being called the UN ‘gender architecture’ is more like a shack. Women need a bigger global house if equality is ever to become a reality.”
UN Women needs to be given a budget that does justice to its mandate and role and every UN agency needs to be accountable for a gender budgeting and gender inclusive approach. This needs to happen through these indicators and budgetary approach being embedded in their reporting and operational practices.