Australian Office

Remarks for International Women’s Day Breakfast

Remarks for International Women’s Day Breakfast

Catherine Raper

Representative, Australian Office, Taipei

8 March 2017


Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen,

My sincere thanks to you all for joining us at this morning to celebrate International Women’s Day!

I must say I am rather humbled to be addressing a room of such distinguished women.  There is an amazing amount of accumulated talent, experience and expertise in this room.  Therefore I am hoping that I won’t be the only one speaking today.  At the end of this presentation, in addition to the usual Q&A, I’d also like to invite you to share your experiences and advice with us all.  Please don’t be shy – I think it will make for a fascinating discussion.

At the outset let me note that this breakfast forms one of many activities to be held on and around the 8th of March, in Australia, Taiwan and across the world to celebrate the economic, political and social achievements of women. It is a time to reflect on progress made in the past year and to recommit to addressing the persistent barriers to the realisation of full gender equality and women’s empowerment.

The origins of International Women’s Day are found in a march for women’s rights in New York in 1908, with the date of 8 March fixed for its commemoration during the following decade.  We have given each of you a ribbon with the International Women’s Day colours of white, purple and green, which you might like to wear through the day to continue to mark the day.

The Australian Office in Taipei has had a tradition of holding International Women’s Day events to mark this important occasion.  My team has told me about very successful previous events held by my two female predecessors, Frances Adamson (now Secretary of the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade) and Alice Cawte (now head of the Department’s Pacific Regional Branch).  Perhaps some of you were there?  If so, we would love to hear about that too.


Women’s Economic Empowerment

This year for International Women’s Day, the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has chosen a focus on women’s economic empowerment through aid, trade and economic diplomacy to mark the day.

Women’s economic empowerment is one of the three priorities of my Department’s Strategy on Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment.  The other priorities are also important: enhancing women’s voice in decision-making, leadership and peace-building, and ending violence against women and girls.

But we have chosen this year to focus on women’s economic empowerment because it is a significant driver of economic growth and prosperity.  It is also one of the best ways to achieve peace and security.

Australia’s Minister for Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop has ensured that promoting women’s economic empowerment is a core priority for us, integrating it across Australia’s foreign policy advocacy, trade negotiations, economic diplomacy and aid investments.

This theme of economic empowerment is also in line with the priority theme at the 61st session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW61), which focuses on Women’s Economic Empowerment in the Changing World of Work.

Australia has for some years had a formally appointed Ambassador for Women and Girls, whose role includes advocacy on women’s economic empowerment to demonstrate to our partners the significant impact that empowering women and girls has on individuals, communities and nations.  I am pleased to note that our current Ambassador for Women and Girls, Dr Sharman Stone, visited Taiwan as a member of an Australian Federal Parliamentary delegation in 2015,  She also met with Minister John Deng at a Parliamentary Dinner in Canberra during his visit there that same year as Minister for Economic Affairs.  So there is a nice Taiwan connection.

Studies show an increase in female labour force participation—or a reduction in the gap between women’s and men’s labour force participation—results in faster economic growth, as well as a more equitable distribution of the benefits of that growth.  Faster economic growth brings important quality of life improvements.

So it’s not a question of whether we can afford to break down the barriers that prevent women from entering the formal economy. We can’t afford not to.  There is a significant cost to not removing the barriers that prevent women’s full and equal participation in the economy.

Critical enablers for women to participate in the formal economy include:

  • access to sexual and reproductive health and rights
  • quality childcare for women with young children
  • decent, safe and secure work environment for women
  • safe infrastructure and transport that support women to freely  participate in the economy
  • social protection policies that reduce discrimination and gender inequality in the workplace; and
  • a manageable distribution of domestic duties, which in many cultures include care for elderly parents-in-law.

A further important enabler is for women to have better access to formal financial institutions and saving mechanisms.  Globally, only 47 per cent of women have access to a bank or a similar formal financial institution.  

Moreover, women’s economic equality is good for business. Companies greatly benefit from increasing leadership opportunities for women, which increases organizational effectiveness.  Studies reveal that companies with three or more women in senior management score higher in all dimensions of organizational effectiveness. 

As a Government, we want to work with the private sector to make this happen.  The private sector has a key role to play in promoting women’s economic empowerment:

  • in recognising the contribution of women to business performance
  • as employers, in value chains
  • in promoting and financing women-led businesses; and
  • in promoting financial services for women.


The importance of role models

Moving to the second part of my presentation today, I also wanted to talk about the importance of role models.  I have a firm belief in the value of role models.  Why?  Because it is difficult to perceive that something – a job, a position, an educational achievement – is possible if you haven’t seen someone already perform the role. 

This is not specific to gender.  The first Australian indigenous Minister (West Australian Aboriginal MP Ken Wyatt), the first openly LGBTI head of a government in Australia (Andrew Barr, ACT), the first African-American President (Barack Obama), are all important, are all people to celebrate.

But given women represent at least 50% of the population, it is astonishing just how recent some of our female firsts are.

Only this year Australia’s first female Chief Justice of the High Court was appointed, the Honourable Justice Susan Kiefel AC.

The same month, Taiwan first female combat helicopter pilot, First Lieutenant Chen Pin-fen, started in this role.

In both cases, when I saw this news, I thought: really? How did it take this long?

For others seeing these announcements, the reaction might have been: can women really perform these roles?  Some of those thinking this grew up in a time of rigid gender roles.

Challenging such out-dated perceptions is important.  But I consider it even more important that young women or girls would see these announcements and think: yes, this proves women can perform these roles, and if I work hard enough and am talented enough, I can do so too.

Creating these examples provides an important pathway and goal for younger women as they look ahead to their lives and careers and as they make their educational and employment choices.

These examples of female firsts also help change the perceptions of those around them – of parents, teachers, peers and society in general.  It means it is no longer possible to say: this can’t be done.

For me, I was lucky that no one blinked an eye when I was appointed Head of the Australian Office in Taipei in 2014, as I am the third woman to fill this position.  I sincerely look forward to the day when a woman taking any position is no longer an issue for comment, because there are so many it’s no longer something unusual and worthy of remark.  I look forward to being part of the furniture, so to speak (although I’ll be easy to spot as I’ll probably be wearing a red jacket!).

This is not the case for all of my peers.  Even in today’s modern world only around a quarter of my fellow Australian heads of mission or post are women.  Several of them are the first women in that role.  Many of our most senior overseas positions have never been filled by women.  Surely that has to change?  I am confident it will change.  However, I am less confident it can change without an explicit examination of why this is the case and a conscious effort to change it.

It is important for women at all levels to have female figures they can look up to and mentors to help guide their way.  I was particularly fortunate that my two female predecessors were working in this region during my first year in this job and were available to me for occasional help and advice as I forged my own path.

As a female leader, I try to mentor all my staff.  I aim to take an inclusive leadership style and a proactive approach which sets an example for all my staff.

But I know the example I set is particularly important for other women and I’m keen to help others follow in my footsteps.

As former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has said: “There is a special place in hell for women who don't help other women.”

As a woman working in government and in foreign and trade policy, I am fortunate to have role models I can take inspiration from.

One of the Ministers I work to is Australia’s first female Minister of Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop.  A stronger, more confident Foreign Minister you’d struggle to find anywhere (you might not know that in Australia she is known for her so-called “death stare”) – and she happens to be a woman.

Minister Bishop has spoken about mentorship in the context of women’s empowerment, saying last year on International Women’s Day:

“Empowering women is not just the purview of government, business or organisations. We should not underestimate the importance of individuals taking steps each and every day to support and empower the women and girls around us, be they family, friends or colleagues. I strongly encourage women to play a mentoring role if they are in a position to do so.”

Closer to here, Taiwan can be rightly proud to have its first female President in Dr Tsai Ing-wen.  Dr Tsai’s election to this position is a reflection of her high-level skills, hard work and years of public service.  It was particularly noteworthy that Dr Tsai’s gender was not an overwhelming focus during the campaign period.  And she is in good company in Taiwan’s vibrant political scene, with a host of accomplished female legislators, city mayors and senior officials across the island.

Australia has had one female Prime Minister to date, the Hon. Julia Gillard AC.  One of the perks of my job, as a senior DFAT official, is that you often come in direct contact with important people, with world leaders, as they perform their work.  I was lucky enough to see former Prime Minister Gillard in action on her official visit to Washington DC and at the APEC Leaders’ Meeting in Honolulu in 2011.  And I can tell you she was impressive – completely across her brief, warm and engaging.

Those of you who study Australian politics will know her time in office as Prime Minister was relatively short, just three years.  The political context that was her undoing is too complicated to explain here, and she was not entirely without blame herself.  However, for the purposes of our topic today, I was struck by her reflection in her resignation speech on the role that gender played in her experience as a leader and on the example she has set for those women who follow.  I quote Julia Gillard:

I want to just say a few remarks about being the first woman to serve in this position. There's been a lot of analysis about the so-called gender wars. Me playing the so-called gender card because heavens knows no-one noticed I was a woman until I raised it, but against that background, I do want to say about all of these issues, the reaction to being the first female Prime Minister does not explain everything about my prime ministership, nor does it explain nothing about my prime ministership.

I've been a little bit bemused by those colleagues in the newspapers who have admitted that I have suffered more pressure as a result of my gender than other prime ministers in the past but then concluded that it had zero effect on my political position or the political position of the Labor Party. It doesn't explain everything, it doesn't explain nothing, it explains some things. And it is for the nation to think in a sophisticated way about those shades of grey.

What I am absolutely confident of is it will be easier for the next woman and the woman after that and the woman after that. And I'm proud of that.

Returning to my own Department, Frances Adamson was appointed last year as the first female DFAT Secretary – I quite like one description I saw of this as “a ceiling-breaking appointment”.  In Frances Adamson, we have a true role model for change.  A former senior DFAT official Joanna Hewitt recently described her as “bringing not just that analytical and policy depth to her role but personal qualities that will engender a sense of trust and purpose in those with whom she works”.

As Secretary, Frances Adamson has expressed her commitment to work hard to tackle the remaining barriers that are keeping women from leadership positions and to actively encourage, in everything we do, women to reach their full potential, including by making all opportunities available to women as well as men.

The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is pursuing these outcomes through an internal Women in Leadership Strategy.  This strategy contains a range of actions intended to support women's career advancement and build a more inclusive workplace culture. The strategy’s goal is a workplace which maximises performance and capability by enabling all women and men to thrive equally.  The aim is an environment and workplace culture where all staff, regardless of gender, can participate and progress commensurate with their talent and aspirations, and feel valued and inspired to do their best.

One of the first actions undertaken under the strategy was to rename some of the department’s meeting rooms.  Until late last year the meeting rooms in our headquarters in Canberra were named after prominent men who had made a significant contribution to Australia’s foreign affairs and trade policy – and native Australian flowers.  No women.  That has now changed, with eight meeting rooms (five of them formerly flower themed and three just numbers – no men were dethroned in the fulfilment of this initiative) now named after pioneering and inspirational women in Australia’s foreign, trade and aid policy history, including Australia’s first clerical officer posted overseas, our first female trade commissioner and our first female head of mission.

This is more than symbolic – this recognition promotes female role models and contributes to cultural change in our workplace.

And cultural change is important. Every day things matter, they affect our perceptions.

Another very practical change under the strategy has been official endorsement of more flexible working policies, such as access to part-time work, job-sharing and remote working arrangements.  These benefit both men and women.

For example, I have noticed that women’s qualifications are often omitted in references to them.  I have often seen the same article or conference programme refer to a male Dr X, but to a female Ms Y – when I know the latter also has a PhD.

Another everyday example is all-male events – speakers’ panels, VIP photos, awardees.  I think the most boring photograph in the newspaper has to be that of a row of middle-aged men in suits!

This has to change.  I can’t believe there aren’t enough talented women out there for this not to happen.  But the reason it happens is because decision-makers unconsciously gravitate toward people like themselves, so this is usually men choosing or nominating other men.  This will take a conscious effort to change.

Former Australian Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick has said: “The reality is that if we do not actively and intentionally include women, the system will unintentionally exclude them.”

Sydney-based Jenny Morris CEO of Orijen offers a complementary perspective: “it’s about critical mass. If we have equal numbers of women on executive teams we will change the culture to one that is more inclusive and equitable.”


My story

We promised in the invitation that I would offer a few of my personal experiences on female leadership and participation.  This was the hardest piece of my speech to write.

I have never consciously set out to be a trail-blazer.  My aim has always been to do my best and to fulfil my full potential.

I am, however, proud to describe myself as a feminist.

I feel that I have got to where I am through a combination of luck and hard work, inspired and assisted by role models and mentors along the way.

I was lucky to be born in a generation and in a country where all of the formal barriers to women’s participation in education and work had been removed by the time I entered the workforce.

I was lucky to be born to a family that, while working class, valued and put an emphasis on education.  I had the role model of a mother who, during my teenage years, went back to university to turn her Diploma of Education into first a Bachelors and then a Masters – and a father who cooked the evening meals so she could study.  I had the encouragement of a maternal grandmother who was unable to fulfil her early educational promise due to lack of money and opportunity – she would always say to me “you go girl”.

The early opportunities I had I worked hard to take advantage of – I was dux of my selective girls high school and finished in the top ten at Sydney University’s Law School.

Only the Sydney legal fraternity (and I use that term deliberately) spurned me, although to be fair it was probably my lack of connections and naivety that led to that, not just my gender.

Fortunately, the Australian Government was interested in my First Class Honours degree and my potential, and I haven’t looked back.  23 years later I am still happy with my career choice.  That career has given me the most amazing opportunities and experiences:

  • being part of the Australian legal team before the International Court of Justice in The Hague;
  • advising a Minister at all night climate change negotiations for the Kyoto Protocol in Bonn;
  • setting legal strategy on WTO dispute settlement in Geneva;
  • reading the entire Australia-Chile FTA out loud;
  • leading the Australian negotiating team at the first TPP negotiating round in Melbourne;
  • steering Australia-US trade policy in Washington DC (another highlight of my time in DC was hearing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speak in the Benjamin Franklin room at the US State Department on the important topic of clean cook-stoves);
  • being the current steward of the Australia-Taiwan partnership in Taipei.


One of my smart choices was specialising in trade policy and law.  The detailed, problem-solving focused nature of the work suited me, but I also found this work helped me balance my work and family responsibilities.  This might sound odd for an area has historically been very male-dominated at senior levels.  However, my experience has been that while trade negotiations definitely have their crises and crunch-points, the timing of these are generally fairly predictable – certainly compared to working on a country desk or consular area experiencing sudden political coups or consular crises.

I have never encountered formal discrimination nor been told I couldn’t do something because I was a women.  To be honest, I never gave anyone the chance, I just ploughed on.  It helped that I learnt early on “to think like a boy” in my promotion applications.

I do, however, recall being struck during my early years at DFAT that there were few female role models – few senior female officials in Canberra and less than ten heads of mission.

That has changed, if not fast enough, with DFAT’s Women in Leadership Strategy set to accelerate that change.

Looking ahead, I should also note my firm belief that our children – in Australia, in Taiwan and in many of the countries represented here today – will be luckier still.  My 14 year old daughter could not envisage a world in which she is barred from fulfilling her full potential.  And I am just as proud I am raising a son who sees it the same way.

I note this is not the case in all countries. This is why, as mentioned at the outset, promoting women’s economic empowerment is at the core of Australia’s foreign policy advocacy, trade negotiations, economic diplomacy and aid investments.

I want to finish in a local, positive note.  I am proud to say we are leading the way with role models and women’s economic empowerment at the Australian Office in Taipei.  All of our senior manager roles, both Australian and locally-based, are currently filled by women.  We are planning to take a photograph today to record this all-female management team for posterity.

I’ll finish here and take questions and, more importantly, encourage those in the room to share with us all their experiences and perspectives on any of the themes explored today.

Thank you.