Tuesday, 08 March 2022

Business SA International Women’s Day event

It is my great pleasure to join you today for the Business SA International Women’s Day long lunch.

Having joined the Commonwealth public service in 1985, just as the long lunch – then close to four hours – was beginning its inevitable decline, I am delighted to see it resurrected in a more efficient three-hour format for a purpose which is of keen interest to business, to women and, I will argue, to the ability of South Australia to fully achieve its potential.

Since returning home to Adelaide and assuming my role as Governor in October 2021, I have greatly enjoyed becoming reacquainted with the local community, including the business community.

I have also been listening to ideas about how I may best support South Australia in the vice-regal role.

While our state has challenges to overcome, there are tremendous opportunities and a great deal of talent here.

I sense real optimism about South Australia’s future at what I can only describe as a consequential time

One of my focus areas is gender equality and I am committed to fostering and strengthening diversity in our state, especially at the leadership level.

In my diplomatic career, I learned that a diverse workforce is a strong workforce.

A room of decision makers of diverse backgrounds makes for better decisions.

One impediment to fostering true diversity is, of course, bias.

I’m pleased to see the IWD theme for this year, ‘breaking the bias’, addressing this important topic.

Principally through my leadership of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, I became more aware of how unconscious bias can play in a role in thinking, and therefore decision making.

As a passionate advocate of women’s advancement, I thought I was free of unconscious bias when it came to gender equality.

I was shocked to learn that wasn’t true!

Six years ago I completed the Harvard Implicit Association Tests, which are used to detect underlying bias on various topics, such as gender and race.

I expect you are familiar with the tests – which are freely available online. Photographs are flashed up in quick succession and the user is asked to select which are the images of leaders.

For reasons you can well understand, I was incredulous to discover my results indicated a strong male bias for leadership.

I relate this story because I believe it goes to show just how deeply biased thinking runs in our society.

Various forms of prejudice – about gender, race, age – are learned and internalised at a very young age.

To address them, we need firstly to be aware of their existence, and in all of us.

Once we accept this, we can bring our conscious awareness to making sure they don’t flow through into our words and actions.

In other words, we can pause and correct our bias before we decide.

Given the strong business case for equality, understood by many, but not all, in the business community, addressing unconscious bias, as well as issues such as the gender pay gap, everyday sexism and a lack of respect, becomes not just nice to have, but essential.

These issues affect the bottom line – for individual companies and for South Australia. In so many areas – politics, business, academia, as well as sport, obviously, we need to field our strongest team drawing on our whole population, not just subsets of it.

While IWD reminds us year after year of what still needs to be done, there is also a personal dimension.

To my mind, International Women’s Day is about women coming together in solidarity – to share stories and experiences, to learn from one another, and to lift each other up – just as we are doing today.

8 March provides us with an excellent and necessary focal point each year, but I believe strongly that we need to support each other every day.

I can still remember, years later, the small gestures of support and encouragement offered to me by senior women colleagues as my diplomatic career progressed.

I was fortunate in the opportunities afforded me, opportunities which had not always been open to the generation of women before me.

Yet I still sat – and not so long ago - in rooms predominantly of men and struggled to be heard.

And there in those rooms and around those tables, I felt the positive impact of women backing up other women. At times it was transformative!

In my career, as a woman, I have needed to take a long view.

It’s easy to feel a bit stranded or marooned at times, that things are not moving along as you would wish, or your career is not progressing in the way you would like. I remember feeling for a short period as if I had no prospects whatsoever.

Many of us have experienced the rewards, but also the challenges of combining motherhood with a career.

Rod and I have four adult children, but I certainly remember – and I am sure he does too - the times when I questioned whether I could manage the juggling, whether in an exhausted state I could carry on working in demanding roles.

Just as Rod and some of my colleagues, male and female, encouraged me, so I encourage you to be persistent and resilient, to keep your hand in, maintain your skills, and pursue new ideas, to hang in there.

I encourage you to always take the opportunity to connect with other women – it can be a source of great encouragement and sustenance.

As can practical support from the male champions of change in the room today.

Thank you to Business SA for organising today’s luncheon.

I look forward to hearing from our panellists this afternoon and I wish you all a great event.

Coming events