Release type: Speech


Address to APEC Women and Economy Forum - St Petersburg

Thank you to Valentina Matvienko for her opening remarks and the Russian Federation for the opportunity to present at today’s High Level Policy Dialogue.

I would like also to acknowledge all heads of delegation and thank the many participants who have made the long journey to St Petersburg to share their experience and insight over the past few days. 

I trust together we can agree on a strong statement today to progress gender equality for women in our regions and to continue the momentum set in San Francisco last year.

For over fifteen years I have been a proud representative of the Australian people, and it gives me great pleasure to be here today to highlight Australia’s commitment to building a strong economy on the back of a fair and just society. 

Gender equality and advancing the status of women lie at the very heart of this commitment. 

Our successful efforts to weather the global financial crisis and build a new economy have been constructed around creating opportunity for growth, along with protecting our most vulnerable.

A strong economy benefits women – but we need more than that.  

A strong economy has to be underpinned by a robust legal framework; by investment in skills education and training for women and girls; by supporting women in employment and in business; and by providing infrastructure to enable women and girls to achieve their full potential.

One crucial approach has been ensuring a fair and strong workplace relations system.  

Our workplace relations legislation codifies rights for Australian workers as well as setting the scene for long-lasting and sustainable systemic and cultural change.

We have provided women and men with the right to request flexible working arrangements, extended unpaid parental leave for both parents, and provided carers with enhanced protections from discrimination.

We amended our sex discrimination laws so that it now applies equally to women and men, and extended protections from discrimination on the grounds of family responsibilities to all areas of employment.

We are also in the process of passing laws which will strengthen gender equality in Australian workplaces, through removing barriers to women’s full and equal participation in paid work.

The proposed legislation acknowledges pay equity and access to caring responsibilities of both women and men as central to achieving equality.

Gender equality is essential in raising productivity. 

We know that in Australia decreasing the workforce participation gap between women and men could lead to a Gross Domestic Product gain of up to 13 per cent. 

Modelling also indicates that eliminating the gender pay gap would raise Gross Domestic Product by 9 per cent.

While a strong legislative framework is essential to maximising our productive potential through improving the economic participation of women, laws need to be backed by innovative and well-targeted policies and programs.

One principle underpinning our workplace relations system is equal pay for work of equal value for women and men. 

In Australia the gender pay gap currently stands at 17.4 per cent.  This is comparatively quite good, but any gap is not acceptable and needs a persistent effort to eliminate.

The gender pay gap is a disincentive to women’s workforce participation and the Australian Government’s reforms have restored the momentum towards equal pay. 

Recently this enabled a historic test case to be brought forward for equal pay orders for workers in our community and services sector. 

This action has resulted in around 150,000 people working in some of our most difficult jobs, including 120,000 women, benefiting from a substantial pay rise of between 23 and 45 per cent.

Further, new workplace relations provisions will allow workers in low paid industries and from multiple work sites and employers to band together to increase their bargaining power. 

The provision has yet to be fully tested, but we have high hopes that – like the equal pay case – it will ultimately result in significantly improved outcomes for many working women. 

In Australia our commitment to promoting women into leadership positions comes from the highest level.

Recently the Prime Minister, the Honourable Julia Gillard, announced continued Government support for women aspiring to become private sector board members.

And in the Government sector we have set a target of 40 per cent women on our boards by 2015.

We know that one of the main barriers for women taking up leadership positions and participating in the economy is good quality and affordable childcare.

So we have invested a record amount – around $22 billion over four years - to make this a reality for Australian women and men.

Almost 800,000 families have benefited from this additional Government assistance.

And we are continuing the conversation about ways to make the child care assistance we provide work better for parents.

A further and very momentous achievement for the Australian Government is the introduction of Australia’s first paid parental leave scheme – more than 160,000 new and expectant parents have applied for this leave. 

The Australian Government is focussed on investing in skills, education and training. This is fundamental to ensuring that our economy prospers over coming generations.

Since 2007 we have created an extra 119,000 places at universities. 

Today, young women aged 25 to 29 are more likely to have completed a university education than men of the same age.

This is a tremendous achievement.  It demonstrates, very clearly, that we are equipping our young women to lead future generations for their individual benefit and for the benefit of our economy and our community more broadly.

The Government is also focussing on building women’s skills in traditionally male-dominated industries. 

For example, we are investing significant money to improve the participation of girls in the study of mathematics and science at school and university. 

As women in Australia are becoming better educated, they are increasingly likely to consider owning a business as a career.

Our aim is to encourage more women into business and to better support the 700,000 Australian women who are already in business. 

One way the Australian Government is supporting entrepreneurs is through the New Enterprise Incentive Scheme, which has provided accredited training, advice and mentoring to just under 6000 would-be business owners – almost half of whom were women. 

Similar programs will help to maximise the contribution of women business owners and female entrepreneurs to maximise their contribution to our economic growth.

But, of course, more needs to be done to truly deliver on the rewards of a highly-educated and diverse population and economic base. 

We need to better mainstream gender equality across our economic growth strategies.

In Australia we are very conscious of ensuring that the benefits of our mining boom are being shared equitably and with a view to our future. 

Our mining boom won’t last forever, and responsible investments in alternative industries are needed. 

We are leading the way in clean energy and information technology with our carbon pricing scheme and our National Broadband Network. 

These are all ground-breaking initiatives and women must continue to play a leading role in taking them forward into the new economy.

Today is an opportunity for us to focus –  not only on women’s current and valuable role in our economies –  but also on the possibilities – what we can achieve if we remove the formal and informal barriers to women’s economic potential and leverage their talent and leadership.

To maintain Australia’s reputation as a world-leader in gender equality, we also need to more fully embrace our international responsibilities.

As a prosperous nation, it is all the more important that we reach out to fully understand the circumstances of a variety of economies and cultures.

I had the very great privilege of recently going to Timor-Leste in support of the establishment of the Timor-Leste Working Women’s Centre.

While I was there, I visited some of the projects funded by the Australian Government – ILO Partnership Agreement, including our $11.3 million Youth Employment Promotion Program which is supporting 70,000 young women and men.

It is essential that governments work with the non-government and private sectors to advance equality between women and men.

Australia is committed to genuine engagement with civil society, both domestically and overseas.

I was extremely pleased to be part of our Government’s increased commitment to UN Women, meaning that Australia will become the second highest donor to UN Women by 2015.

While no economy is the same, with widely differing workplace practices and social norms, there are some stark similarities in the challenges we face, and in the people and the institutions that are at the heart of progressive policy.

Gender equality is not only a fundamental condition for the full enjoyment of human rights, it is also necessary for economies to grow and prosper.

All economies have much to learn and unique lessons to share, and we all benefit from engagement and shared goodwill.  Participation in forums such as this is vitally important.

The San Francisco Declaration set us a number of challenges.  Let us continue to build on that momentum and work towards concrete actions that will make a real difference for women in our economies.

Thank you again for inviting me to be here and enjoy your time at the APEC Women and Economy Forum.