Sponsored by the ANU Gender Institute and AusAid, former Chilean President and current Executive Director of UN Women, Michelle Bachelet spoke to a packed auditorium last week on the topic, Gender Equality: A lived reality?
I loved hearing her unequivocal, unapologetic position on the imperative for gender equality: building an inclusive society and advancing women’s participation in economics and politics is fundamental to justice, peace and democracy.
She reminded the audience that gender equality is not only the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do – and then shared with us how easy it was to actually make happen.
Mme Bachelet trained as a doctor, and entered politics as a single mother with three children. As Minister for Health she started the day preparing breakfast for her kids before taking them to school. Before she went to work she had already undertaken three hours’ work. She used to laugh about this with her male colleagues who arrived fresh to work mostly due to the efforts of their wives.
She moved from the Health portfolio to head up the Defence Ministry and she told us that she could never have been president had she not been Minister of Defence – Minister of Health was not a credible portfolio for a leader. She was the first woman to ever serve as Minister of Defence in Chile (and who can imagine the Defence portfolio ever being given to a woman in Australia?)
When she was elected President, she appointed an equal number of women and men to Cabinet positions. That is, as a leader, she made a decision that gender equality was critical to the success of her government, and indeed, economic prosperity and peace in Chile, then just did it. It was that easy.
Governments, she said, must lead by example and affirmative action is necessary to create a level playing field. Women are unlikely to make it to the top without direct action, and the argument around ‘merit’ is only ever applied to the proposed appointment of women. No one, she said, ever talks about ‘merit’ when men are continually appointed into leadership positions.
When one woman is in politics, Mme Bachelet, said, she changes. When there are many women in politics, society and politics change. The same, I am sure, can be said about women in executive positions and on boards.
She told the audience that we cannot afford to leave women out of the equation, especially during the global economic crisis. More women leaders are critical to society’s ability to respond to the challenges and complexities we face.
In short: we need to increase women’s participation in leadership to accelerate peace and economic prosperity. It’s not going to happen by itself. Women must be appointed into these roles, positively and affirmatively – otherwise gender equality is unlikely to occur.
The lesson for Australian leaders? Just do it. Appoint more women.