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Edith Cowan Memorial Lecture - Women Leading Change

Mrs Anne Banks-McAllister, CEO of the Shire of Peppermint Grove

Thursday, 8 March 2012
ECU Mount Lawley Campus


The Shire of Peppermint Grove Chief Executive Officer, Anne Banks-McAllister, delivered the fifth annual Edith Cowan Memorial Lecture at the Mount Lawley Campus.


I would like to start by acknowledging and paying my respects to the traditional owners of the land on which we are meeting today. And, thank you Colleen for that beautiful Welcome.

I would like to say how honoured I am to have been asked by Professor Kerry Cox to present the 2012 Edith Cowan Memorial Lecture on this very special day - International Women’s Day. I would like to recognise his strong leadership in fostering university values that reflect the character and work of Edith Cowan - and his support of this annual event.

Edith would be proud to know that today now nearly 62% of the University’s students are young women, and that the ECU works hard to advance equity for all its staff and students.

And thank you Professor Omari for your very kind welcome and introduction. It is certainly humbling to be delivering a lecture in memory of a woman who is one of WA’s most significant leaders and role models. As someone passionate about women’s participation in decision-making, Edith Cowan has always been one of my heroines.

When I was asked to provide my topic, like Dr Penny Flett before me, I reflected on the contribution of Edith Cowan and also decided to talk about leadership. Penny recognised the courage of the many women who have gone before us - who fought for the rights and opportunities that we now enjoy. She also encouraged all of us to ‘pick up the baton’ and continue the fight for women’s equality.

The history of International Women’s Day is a story of women around the world, working together, to fight for change. Today I want to talk about the women who have, and continue to lead change - and why the struggle for gender equality is far from over. I would also like to share some of my own story along the way.

But first, let us remember our history.

International Women’s Day first emerged from the activities of the labour movements at the turn of the twentieth century in North America and across Europe. The first National Women’s Day was observed in the United States in February 1909 in honour of the 1908 garment worker’s strike in New York, where women protested against poor working conditions.

In 1910 at a socialist conference in Copenhagen, a Women’s Day was established to recognise the growing international movement for women’s rights, and to build universal support for women’s suffrage. This received unanimous support from over 100 women from 17 countries attending the conference.

As a result of the Copenhagen initiative, International Women’s Day was celebrated in March 1911 in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland, where more than one million men and women rallied for women’s right to vote and hold public office, to demand women’s right to work and vocational training, and to end discrimination on the job.

International Women’s Day also became symbolic during the First World War when Russian women used this day in 1913 to protest for peace. This was followed by other rallies in March 1914 when women across Europe protested against the war and expressed their solidarity with other women activists.

In 1917, women in Russia again protested for ‘Bread and Peace’ on the last Sunday in February. This day actually fell on the 8th of March on the Gregorian calendar. Four days later, the Czar abdicated and the provisional Government granted women the right to vote.

In 1945 the Charter of the United Nations was the first international agreement to affirm the principle of equality between women and men. Since then the UN has worked to develop standards, strategies, programs and goals to advance the status of women worldwide. Importantly, it has promoted the participation of women as equal partners with men in achieving sustainable development, peace, security, and human rights.

In 1975, during International Women’s Year, the United Nations began celebrating the 8th March as International Women’s Day and two years later, the General Assembly adopted a resolution proclaiming a United Nations Day for Women’s Rights and International Peace.

Since then, International Women’s Day has been observed around the world on the 8th March and is traditionally marked with a message from the Secretary-General.

The General Assembly gave two reasons for establishing an International Women’s Day:

  1. To recognise the fact that securing peace and social progress, and the full enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms, requires the active participation, equality and development of women; and
  2. To acknowledge the contribution of women to international peace and security.

In 2011, the United Nations established UN Women, the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women.

Today, International Women’s Day has grown into a strong symbol of UN Women and has become an occasion for celebrating women’s past struggles and accomplishments - to show us just how far we have come.

However, and perhaps more importantly, it is still a rally cry for on-going change and an opportunity, like today, for people to focus on the still pressing need for gender equality.

Let me share with you some statistics that shows just how much change is still urgently needed.

Today –

  • Around the globe, 70% of the worlds’ poor are women, women earn less than 10% of the world’s wages - but do more than two thirds of the world’s work
  • In Australia, the pay gap between men and women has remained constant between 15-17%, with WA having the highest gap of 24%
  • On average, women reinvest 90% of their income into their families, while men invest only 30-40%
  • 67% of the world’s illiterate, are women
  • Every minute of every day a woman dies in childbirth, a statistic that hasn’t improved in 2 decades
  • Only 9% of the developing world’s HIV positive pregnant women have access to treatment that blocks HIV transmission to her baby
  • Women hold only 18.2% of the world’s parliamentary seats
  • In 141 countries martial rape remains a legal activity
  • At least 1 in every 3 woman has been beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused in her lifetime
  • An estimated 2.5 million people are in forced labour at any given time as a result of human trafficking. 43% are used for forced sexual exploitation, of which 98% are women and girls. And 32% are used for forced economic exploitation, of whom 56% are women and girls

And while we might think that gender equality is mainly an issue for women in developing countries, we only need to read the report from the Sydney Women’s Fund released this week to know that there are very real issues for women in Australia.

Spokeswoman Lucy Brogden paints a bleak picture saying that there are growing issues for women around homelessness, access to good care, domestic violence, and with a growing divide between rich and poor women.

Among other things, the report predicts that single older women will become the new face of homelessness in New South Wales because older women have lower retirement savings and incomes, often as a result of domestic break up.

The report also found that indigenous women in Sydney have a shorter life expectancy than non-indigenous women, survive on lower incomes and are up to eight times more likely to be a victim of family violence.

The task of addressing gender equality globally is the challenge for UN Women and it has five priority areas: 

  • Increasing women’s voice and participation in leadership and decision-making (my passion) 
  • Ending violence against women 
  • Increasing the role of women in peace and security
  • Enhancing women’s economic security
  • Making gender equality central to national and local planning and budgeting

Leading UN Women and the UN’s reform agenda for women’s equality is a remarkable woman, Michelle Bachelet, former President of Chile.

Having been imprisoned and tortured under the Pinochet regime before being exiled to Australia for a short time, she eventually returned to Chile where she was a courier for the underground socialist party fighting for the re-establishment of democracy. During her time as president, she fought hard to make important changes for women. She tripled the number of free early child-care centres for low income families, introduced pay equity legislation, and in the middle of the global financial crisis, managed to fund pension reform and social protection programs for women and children.

I would now like to turn to my own journey which started 30 years ago when I first started working in local government and which in many ways became a parallel journey with UN Women. Local government is an industry I am passionate about. It is the level of government closest to the community and has the capacity to facilitate positive, immediate and tangible change. However, my experience of it over the years it has caused me to question its commitment to equity of opportunity for women, and has made me think more broadly about gender equality, both nationally and internationally.

My first job in local government was in 1982 when at the age of 24 I was appointed Deputy City Librarian at the City of Subiaco. At the time I was the most senior woman in the organisation – and believe me, that wasn’t very senior!

By the time I was appointed the City of Nedlands’ first female director in 1997; I had 15 years of community development experience behind me and had become convinced that it was women who were working most effectively (and mostly voluntarily) for the future of their communities.

At that time not only was I the most qualified woman in my organisation, but I was also the only female executive among 30 metropolitan local government authorities. And remember that was only 15 years ago!

When I took up the position of Director of Community Development at the City of Melville in 2005, I was again their first female Executive Director, although thankfully by then there were a couple of other women working as Directors across Perth. Of course we were all working in what we now called ‘gendered roles’ – invariably coming from community development or family services backgrounds - or the ‘warm and fuzzy’ roles as they were frustratingly referred to by our male colleagues.

There was nothing we could do to convince our male colleagues, executives or councillors that the complexity of working with the community built resilience, leadership and relationship skills (not to mention the ability to manage the tightest budgets) that were absolutely transferrable to the Board table.

Around this time I was becoming increasingly frustrated with my professional association – the Local Government Managers Association (or LGMA) – which was also known as the ‘old boys club’. I was convinced that we needed more women in executive roles in the industry and thought that the Association needed to do more to encourage female members, and then to support them into executive positions.

I felt that the culture of the industry was not going to change until we had greater diversity in influence and decision-making. And intuitively one would think that better community outcomes could not be achieved until decision-makers (at both officer and elected levels) were more reflective of their communities. With women comprising over 50% of local government employees, and 51% of the general population being women, it simply makes sense.

I therefore nominated for the Board of the WA Branch of the LGMA and was totally mortified to receive the lowest votes, despite being one of the most qualified and experienced candidates. Apart from being embarrassed, I was demoralised that my own profession appeared determined to keep the door closed to women.

This ‘failure’ led me to a small group of like-minded women, mostly elected councillors, who were similarly frustrated at the lack of opportunity for women and were arguing for the industry’s culture to change. We established the WA Branch of the Local Government Women’s Association (or ALGWA) which was a unique collaboration of officers and elected councillors (effectively bureaucrats and politicians) working together for a common goal.

On reflection there was nothing unique about women choosing to work together to effect important change.

While our main focus was to encourage more women into the industry and to provide support and mentoring – we were just as determined to gently ‘shake up the industry’ and change an entrenched male culture.

And we weren’t the only people aware that the industry needed more women.

In 2003 and again in 2007, on behalf of ALGWA, I was successful in obtaining State Government funding to run pre-election workshops around the State to encourage more women to nominate. Together with the formidable Marion Blair, then the Deputy Mayor of Belmont and now a councillor at the City of Mandurah, we ran 26 workshops around WA including Christmas and Cocos Islands. Along the way we met with women already involved in the industry and heard their stories of lack of opportunity, lack of training and in many cases, bullying and harassment.

On Cocos Island we heard the frustration of Muslim women unable to nominate due to cultural and family pressure – despite their passion for their communities and their huge voluntary work. We were saddened to learn about one bright young Cocos Malay girl who had obtained her degree in Perth, only to return to Cocos and be prevented from working by her husband.

In Kalgoorlie we met with a group of women from a community east of Laverton who desperately wanted local government to provide a swimming pool that would divert their children from petrol sniffing. We were humbled by their efforts to make a positive change in their dysfunctional community, but so frustrated at the inability of our industry to respond adequately to their very special circumstances.

Both years saw a slight increase in the number of women nominating for local government elections and today about 30% of councillors are women, including six female Mayors in the metropolitan area including women like Paddi Creevey (Mandurah), Lisa Scaffidi (Perth) and Alanah McTiernan (Vincent). Nevertheless there is still much more to be done to address the severe disadvantage that women in remote and rural communities experience and to increase their influence over local decision-making.

The story for women working in executive positions in local government, while improving, has not been quite so successful.

In 2003 the then Minister for Local Government Tom Stephens established a Ministerial Advisory Committee on Women in Local Government, specifically to address the lack of executive women. I have been a member of the Committee since that time and like other members, have been frustrated at the glacial rate of change.

I believe that our approach around what I describe as a ‘deficit model’ – where strategies are aimed at increasing the skills of women as if they are the problem – has hampered effective change. Our focus on getting more women into the industry, providing female role models, and developing mentoring programs, has done little to change entrenched industry attitudes and culture.

As Sex Discrimination Commissioner Liz Broderick says “stop asking what’s wrong with women that they’re not making it to the top, and start asking what’s wrong with companies if they can’t retain and promote the majority of educated Australians.”

In 2011, under the auspices of the Ministerial Advisory Committee, a research project was undertaken by Professor Beth Walker (also a member of the Advisory Committee) and Michelle Anderson-Marks from Edith Cowan University’s Small & Medium Enterprise Research Center , and Dr Jacquie Hutchinson from the University of WA’s Consortium for Diversity at Work. The purpose was to really understand the opportunities and barriers for women in the industry as a basis for change.

The researchers interviewed the 21 female directors currently working in metropolitan local government and provided a snapshot of their perceptions and challenges. Interestingly, the report is titled – “Women in Local Government 2011 – Still a Boy’s Club –Still a Men’s Shed.”

Statistics in the report are sobering.

Nationally only 20% of CEOs and Directors are women, with only 5% of Chief Executive Officers being women.

In Western Australia, of 140 local governments, we have only eleven female Chief Executive Officers, of which only 3 are located in the metropolitan area. Nevertheless, it is fabulous to see a pipeline developing with 21 female directors across a range of disciplines just waiting for an opportunity and the number of male Chief Executive Officers actively promoting and developing these women.

While the report acknowledges the level of concern in the industry and identifies several initiatives aimed at increasing the number of women in executive roles, it is clear that cultural issues are still preventing women progressing. As one women said, “The CEO’s job was coming up. I knew the Mayor had spoken to at least one of my male colleagues about applying so I went to him and asked him about my applying. His response was ‘but I didn’t think you would be interested.”

I am also aware of one metropolitan mayor who has been heard to say that he could never imagine employing a female Chief Executive Officer. It would appear that for many, the leadership paradigm for local government is still strongly male.

A key focus of the report is the concepts of leadership that continue to exist in local government.

Well known gender consultant Avivah Wittenberg-Cox refers to organisations’ inability to retain and develop women as ‘gender asbestos’. She says it is hidden in the walls, the culture and the mindset of many organisations and requires a plan for change with a compelling and attractive portrait of the result.

Consistent with the views of Wittenberg-Cox, the research proposes a business case-based Strategic Plan for the industry that focuses on:

  • A contemporary leadership framework that highlights the need for transformational leadership; and
  • Equity targets

With the State Government’s current reform agenda for local government aim to reduce the number of local governments, women are justifiably concerned that it will mean fewer opportunities. However it is my hope that reform will in fact identify new styles of leadership that value relationships and collaboration, and which may in fact open the door for women.

I‘m delighted to say that last year I was elected to the Board of the LGMA and that there are now three female Board members out of a total of 12 positions. The Board is experiencing generational change and is now actively seeking ways to address gender equality. Even better, a subcommittee has been established to respond to the research project’s findings.

In 2005 I was counting my lucky stars at having been appointed a Director at the City of Melville - a truly community focused and innovative local government. As part of their support for a program between the emerging democratic nation of East Timor and Australian local government, the City of Melville entered into a Friendship relationship with the district of Lete-Fo Ho. At the invitation of the community of Lete Fo Ho, our Mayor was invited to visit and sign a Friendship Agreement – and luckily I got to accompany her.

While the visit on one level was a truly amazing cultural experience, it in fact became a turning point in my life.

One day we were taken on a tour of community facilities including a secondary school. To us the school was absolutely third world. When I asked where all the girls were, I was discreetly told that when girls start menstruating, the lack of toilet facilities means they stopped attending school. I just couldn’t believe that something as fundamental as sanitary toilet facilities would prevent a girl receiving an education. We have all heard the African proverb that “if you educate a boy you educate an individual, but if you educate a girl you education a community.” If this is true, then the lack of educational opportunities for girls signalled very poor development outcomes for East Timor.

I can still remember the place I was standing in Lete Fo Ho when I decided that issues for women and girls are universal and felt compelled to apply my skills to making a difference for women in developing countries.

At that stage I hadn’t heard of UN Women (then UNIFEM), but after some research on organisations that work internationally for women, this one aligned best with my values. While many organisations do terrific ‘hands on’ work in communities, I felt that the most effective change occurs when governments’ legislation, culture and systems change. My commitment to asset-based community development meant that any organisation that also works to support ‘in country’ capacity building would, in my view, be the most effective – and UN Women absolutely fitted the bill.

In 2007 I nominated for the Board of UN Women Australia and was delighted to be elected – their first WA Board Member. My commitment as a new Board Member was to establish a Perth Chapter and together with my daughter and secretary we launched the Chapter at our first International Women’s Day Breakfast in March 2008. This breakfast hosted 250 people and we raised just $2,000 for a program to support women in community elections in East Timor.

Since that time the history of the Perth Chapter of UN Women Australia has been one of collaboration.

As with many things in Perth, you don’t need to look too far to find connections and friends. And so it was in the early days of UN Women.

Before we knew it, we were gathering support from a range of women’s organisations that were keen to help us raise funds for UN Women’s international projects - our motto being that we put the “International” into International Women’s Day.

Our first ‘friends’ were the Australian Local Government Women’s Association and Soroptimist International; and today we have eight women’s organisations helping us organise our International Women’s Day Breakfast. These include Graduate Women, Business and Professional Women (BPW), Country Women’s Association, Zonta, National Council of Women, Perth Women’s and Family Services, and our Young UN Women Chapter.

This collaboration again demonstrates how women’s leadership can achieve great things. I continue to be amazed that this year’s UN Women’s Breakfast is being convened by a member of the Zonta Club of Perth with over 30 volunteers from across the Collaboration. Our event tomorrow has sold out at 1050 guests and we expect to raise over $40,000.

Across Australia more than 380 UN Women events, all organised by volunteer women, will raise an estimated $250,000 for a project to increase the economic empowerment of women in the Pacific.

To explain our passion for this work, I want to tell you about Renata, a woman in Fiji who has four children. Renata, like many women in Fiji, is responsible for earning her family’s sole source of income by selling her produce at the local markets. She cannot afford to send her children to school and there is no one at home to care for them while she is at the market. It takes Renata nearly a whole day to walk to the marketplace where she spends the entire weekend selling her produce and sleeping under her stall at night.

Renata and other women sleep huddled together in the unlit open air marketplace, often with their children.

She must pay fees to the local authorities, pay bribes, and has been sexually assaulted. She often returns home exhausted and without enough money to feed her family. Unfortunately, Renata is like millions of women around the world who continue to face gender inequaities in the labour market.

Through the Partners Improving Markets program, UN Women is working with women like Renata to ensure they are protected by legislation governing the rights of vendors in the marketplace.

This program aims to help women by providing them with education and training; establishing women vendors’ organisations; conducting gender-sensitive training for government leaders and employees; and creating a partnership between local government and women vendors to improve market conditions.

We know that economic empowerment gives women confidence and independence. It reduces their risk of violence and leads to better health and education outcomes for their children, families and communities – and ultimately their countries.

But back in Western Australia, even though we are not a third world country, there is still much to be done to achieve gender equality. However, we must not lose sight of the many women who have fought for our rights and have given us the platform for further change.

One of most significant things that occurred during the centenary was the formalisation of the IWD WA Collaboration. With the support of Lotterywest and the Department for Communities, the Collaboration which is convened by the Perth Chapter of UN Women, hosted the State’s Centenary celebrations and established the WA Women’s Hall of Fame.

The WA Women’s Hall of Fame aims to recognise the many women who have contributed to the development of Western Australia, often without recognition; and to inspire women in the future.

And of course one of the inaugural inductees was Edith Cowan – a woman who fought for the rights of women and children and opened the parliamentary door for women.

When she introduced the first equal opportunity bill in 1923 - the Women's Legal Status Bill - so that women lawyers could be admitted to the bar, she said:

"The women are very desirous, as also are many married men, of their being placed on absolutely equal terms with the men, leaving it to be a matter of the survival of the fittest. We ask no more or less than that."

And I am delighted that Edith Cowan University’s own Colleen Hayward now follows in those great footsteps by being inducted into the 2012 Hall of Fame this morning. Colleen is an example of the many women who provide leadership in the belief that the world can be a better place. Congratulations Colleen!

Penny Flett can be comforted that the baton is changing into reliable hands.

My own journey has now come to the Shire of Peppermint Grove where my role as a Chief Executive Officer and a board member of my professional association gives me a certain level of influence. I intend to continue working to achieve cultural change so that we can provide better leadership for our communities and restore the public image of local government.

My on-going vision for UN Women in Western Australia is to raise awareness about gender inequality; raise funds for UN Women’s programs that create long term systemic change both locally and overseas; and build on the collaborative strength of the women’s sector for achieving our shared goals. We still have a long way to go and as Madeleine Allbright said, “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.”

I will finish now by sharing with you a short video from last year’s Hall of Fame which I know you will find inspiring.

[DVD from 2011 WA Women’s Hall of Fame - 3 mins]

Thank you.

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