Targets are cracking Australia’s glass ceiling, says minister

By on 08/03/2018 | Updated on 25/09/2020
Australia's foreign affairs minister Julie Bishop with participants at the Women in Leadership event (Image courtesy: Institute of Public Administration Australia).

Women now make up 42% of all public board members appointed by the Australian government, foreign affairs minister Julie Bishop has said, putting the high proportion down to the introduction of a targets system.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) has already hit the Turnbull government’s target that 50% of board and council appointees should be women, said Bishop, in the keynote speech at a Women in Leadership event held in Canberra last week by the Institute of Public Administration Australia.

“It’s a target because we don’t want to impose a quota, so that any woman appointed to such a position believes that she is only there because we had to fill a quota,” Bishop told hundreds of public servants in the Great Hall of Parliament House at the event celebrating International Women’s Day.

“A target means that people think consciously about who they’re appointing or the group of people they’re interviewing for a particular position, and it’s addressing that unconscious bias,” she said.

Targets not quotas

Unconscious bias is very difficult to challenge but, if ministers are informed that they have a target to reach and have to provide an explanation should they be unable to reach it, that “can have a pretty dramatic impact”, Bishop said.

“It’s a question of just looking further, asking more questions, asking others to come up with names,” she said. “There are women who are more than capable of fulfilling these positions; please find them and put them forward.”

Out of 18 federal government departments in Australia, eight now have female heads and eight have female departmental secretaries, while 35% of DFAT’s heads of mission in the foreign service are women, she said.

Hundreds of public servants listened to Julie Bishop’s keynote speech over breakfast at the Great Hall in Parliament House (Image courtesy: Institute of Public Administration Australia).

Flying the flag

Bishop said she had a “little sense of pride” as she stood in front of the Australian flag with Senator Marise Payne, Australia’s first female defence minister, at “two-plus-two” meetings with the male foreign ministers and defence ministers of other countries.

DFAT has also made the empowerment of women a key pillar in Australia’s foreign policy and in particular its aid programme in the Pacific, through measures such as a requirement that 80% of aid programmes must take their impact on women into account, she said.

Other recent initiatives include a mentoring programme that matches Australian women leaders with female overseas students who win Australia Awards scholarships, and the appointment of an ambassador for women and girls.

About Liz Heron

Liz Heron is a journalist based in London. She worked on daily newspapers for more than 16 years as an education correspondent, section editor and general news reporter. She was Education Editor of the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong and has contributed to a wide range of British media including The Independent, The Guardian and the BBC.

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