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Speech at the launch of the Women Working For Australia Exhibition, New York, 3 March 2005.

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Launch of the Women Working For Australia Exhibition


Australian Consulate General New York


Distinguished guests Ladies and gentlemen

Thank you Ambassador Dauth (phonetic: Dowth) for your introduction.

I'm very pleased to be here this evening to launch the Women Working for Australia exhibition.

At the outset can I offer a particular welcome to the people at this event, who are also participating at this year's session of the Commission on the Status of Women.

As the Minister for Family and Community Services and the Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Women's Issues, I am honoured to be leading Australia's delegation to review the Beijing Platform for Action and to consider forward looking strategies for the advancement and empowerment of women and girls.

I believe that, despite some of the cultural, social and economic differences between the member countries, we have real threads of common interest, which we can learn about from each other and address together.

Among the areas we are looking at, for example, are valuing women's unpaid work, the gender wage gap, and under-representation of women and

girls in non-traditional fields of study.

Thankfully, these days in Australia we have a strong record on addressing these issues. But 50 years ago, things were different.

And as this exhibition shows, one of the big challenges for women was getting into the foreign service—traditionally a male domain.

As you will see from the display, it took women activists like Jessie Street to start turning things around. Largely due to her efforts, the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs appointed its first three female cadets in 1943.

However, there was a bit of a setback, because by 1947, all three had married and had to resign because married women were barred from working in Australia's Civil Service.

Other early female recruits, however, chose not to marry and went on to work their way up what was then, for women, a limited ladder of opportunity.

One of these pioneers was Ruth Dobson, who in 1943, joined the department as a Research Officer. After postings to New York, Wellington, Manila and Athens, Ruth became the first female career diplomat to be appointed to an ambassadorial position in Denmark, in 1974.

Today's civil service would be unrecognisable to these first female recruits.

Now recruitment and advancement on merit are the norm. Women are represented in all areas and at all levels.

There has been progress in Australia in the political field as well, with women now making up just under 30 per cent of federal and state parliamentarians.

Today we have the largest number of women in Cabinet since Australia's Federation in 1901, and the largest number of women in charge of Australian Government departments.

Some of you here today may have read works by acclaimed Australian author Frank Moorhouse. Among his works are two books, Grand Days and Dark Palace, both about the rise and fall of the League of Nations.

His central character is an Australian, Edith Campbell Berry, who works in the League's bureaucracy in the 1920s and 30s. Moorhouse said of Edith:

… she comes from a country which is not experienced and she is, of course, at first is intimidated but then realises … that her sort of freshness of

approach, her assertiveness, her lateral thinking, her ability to get things done - [is part of] the great Australian tradition of getting things done, cutting out the bull and cutting through to the real issues

While I would argue that we have the experience now, the women represented in this exhibition share Edith's legacy and her characteristics.

It gives me great pleasure now to officially launch the Women Working for Australia exhibition.

Congratulations to everyone involved.