Women in Leadership Conference
Supported by Austcham Lao and the Australia-ASEAN Council
30 November 2016, Vientiane
Opening remarks by John Williams, Australian Ambassador to the Lao DPR
H.E. Rena Bitter, Ambassador of the United States to the Lao PDR;
Mme Valy Vesaphong, Member of the Lao National Assembly and Vice President of the Lao National Chamber of Commerce and Industry;
Distinguished guests, friends and colleagues – supporters all of women’s economic empowerment and leadership.
Thank you for the opportunity to join you this morning to open this women in leadership conference. And to Austcham Lao and the Australia-ASEAN Council for making it happen.
As Australia’s Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, told the first meeting of the Women in Leadership Working Group in Vientiane back in July, women’s empowerment is at the heart of Australia’s global aid program, and remains fundamental to the success of Australia’s development work.
This includes Australia’s aid programs here in Laos, in education and human resource development, in trade and business climate reform, in rural development and micro finance.
Ensuring women have the same opportunities as men to reach their full potential in life is – for every country – vital for national development, for prosperity.
And not just for the developing world. We have laws against discrimination in Australia, but have still plenty of work to do on issues like equal pay, yet alone women’s leadership.
The role of men as champions of change
I wanted to talk to you this morning about the pivotal role of men in driving genuine change on gender equality.
This initiative, and the proposed declaration on Women in Leadership you will discuss today, would not have happened without the drive and passion of smart, able women. (In fact, I am confident there are not any women in the audience who don’t fit that description.)
Progress, however, in realising the vision set out in the declaration and achieving real change in attitudes, and in policy, will of course require the support of Lao men.
Men with vision, and a genuine commitment to this country’s equitable socio-economic development.
Australia’s longest-serving Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Elizabeth Broderick, who held the role from 2007 to 2015, established in 2010 a small group of male business executives to help advance gender equality in my country - the Male Champions of Change.
Male leaders advocating for, and acting to, advance gender equality.
After all, why should women alone have to lead the way as advocates for women’s leadership and economic empowerment, when it is an issue so central to national cohesion and prosperity, and when so many men hold the power and influence to help advance this work?
As one of the Male Champions of Change said: “Let’s not pretend there aren’t already established norms that advantage men. Men invented the system. Men largely run the system. Men need to change the system.”
The group’s membership increased steadily, as many male leaders from the public and private sector (including my former boss), recognised the importance of this work and wanted to contribute – seeing the benefits of change within their own organisations.
In 2011, the Male Champions of Change released their first report - a letter to business leaders titled ‘Our experience in elevating the representation of women in leadership’ - at a 300-person business forum.
This was followed in 2013 by 12-point plan – ideas to achieve significant and sustainable change in the representation of women in leadership in their organisations and across society.
It was announced by the champions to their own employees on International Women’s Day. And it included a number of practical ideas to ensure organisations were able to better develop and promote talented women.
A renewed focus on inclusive leadership, for example, to create and embed a culture of gender equity.
A CEO commitment to personally sponsor and mentor talented women, and to demand their other senior executives do the same.
Active internal reporting of progress on gender equality, and a requirement to include women across leadership teams.
Actively and publicly favouring commercial suppliers who demonstrate a commitment to gender equality. (The multiplier effect to generate change outside their own organisations.)
Flexible work arrangements to allow women, and men, with family responsibilities to balance home and work commitments.
Accessible child care and private breastfeeding-friendly spaces in the work place. (We have one in the Australian Embassy in Vientiane, I am happy to say. I like to go in there occasionally to meditate.) And a policy to actively encourage and support the return of new mothers back to work.
The Male Champions of Change are not just change makers, but advocates beyond their own organisations.
Since its inception, the MCCs have spoken at more than 350 events, both in Australia and overseas, focused on women’s representation in leadership as an economic and societal priority.
Australia’s experience on gender equality might not hold all the answers for Laos. It might not, in fact, be the right model for Laos.
And the Male Champions of Change process has had its critics in Australia too. For example, those who claim it is largely symbolic and benefits only a small number of economically privileged women and not those who fare worst – low-skilled, casual and underpaid workers.
But it has, nevertheless, been important in my organisation and many others.
And it is, I believe, instructive on the important role men can play to change institutional and cultural norms and bad practices that discriminate against women.
Thanks again to all of you for your participation today and, more importantly, for your commitment and energy going forward in support of gender equity here in Laos.
Thank you, in particular, for those speakers who have travelled from overseas to participate today.
Including Jacqueline from Prophet based in Singapore (welcome back to Vientiane, Jacqueline), and Christine Holgate, wearing two hats today as the Chair of the Board of the Australia-ASEAN Council, and as the Chief Executive Officer of Blackmores which, under Christine’s leadership, has become such a successful export story for Australian health products in Asia in recent years. (Including here in Laos.)
Thanks to you all for your passion and support for women’s leadership here in Laos.
I look forward to working with you to engage the support of Lao men with the vision and commitment to stand up and join us as champions of change.