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Five Minutes with Natasha Stott Despoja

Jessica Schumann

With many inspirational, strong and empowering women achieving and campaigning women’s equality throughout the world, I had the great pleasure of getting an insight into the mind of Australia’s recently appointed Global Ambassador for Women & Girls, Natasha Stott Despoja, at UN Women Australia’s International Women’s Day Lunch. 

Responsible for high-level advocacy and promoting Australian government policies regarding gender equality, the former Democrats leader reminds us that although International Women’s Day allows us to celebrate the achievements of women before us, there is still a long journey yet to be travelled in order to achieve true equality among men and women, boys and girls.

Q. Why do you think it’s important that we keep promoting women’s participation and keep fighting for equality?

NSD: I think we need to be ever vigilant because women do not enjoy equality of opportunity. They do not enjoy equal rights and equal power in our society in Australia, let alone around the world. So while that is the case, gender equality and gender equity have to be key parts of any government policy and I’m very proud that this government includes that in our foreign policy. But we have still a long, long way to go.

Q. What do you think the three keys things are that women have achieved, besides the obvious and quite pivotal ones i.e. the right to vote?

NSD: I think you reflect on the fact that we’ve had the right to vote, federally, since 1902. Indeed I come from the state, South Australia, that was the first in the world in 1894 not only to give women the right to vote but to run for parliament. But that’s still quite relevant because more than 100 years later our Federal Parliament only comprises of 31% women and that’s woeful. I think we have a long way to go in terms of representation of women in powerful institutions generally but also specifically in our parliament. So I don’t think that’s finished business at all; in fact I think it should be key on the agenda. Women cannot pursue economic, social and other opportunities until they are free from violence and the statistics in Australia are chilling.

We know that one third of women experience physical violence; a fifth over the age of 15 have experienced some form of sexual violence; and we know that one woman in this nation is killed by an intimate partner nearly every week. I say those statistics not to shock but as a wake up call. While this is going on how can women begin to experience or how can we say that women are anywhere near achieving equality while they’re experiencing violence or the fear and threat of violence? So I’d say that’s a pretty big issue.

I think economic empowerment is critical and there are a number of ways in achieving that. Whether it’s our sisters around the globe, particularly women that I’m dealing with in our region who benefit so greatly from access to microfinance so that they can run a stall in the outskirts of Jakarta and then put their kids through school and university or whether we’re talking in Australia where we still have relatively low levels of work force participation by women.

Why is that? Well lots of reasons but I would say, until recently, lack of paid parental leave, lack of access to quality, affordable and accessible childcare and also a lack of flexibility in our workplaces that still don’t value the diversity and productivity that women bring. So there is three issues right there, but I could go on with a very long list because I think we also need to acknowledge there are some special issues that affect women in different organisations and communities. You’ve got the list of issues affecting indigenous women, migrant women, poorer women, women with mental health issues, with disabilities; all of these issues are still absolutely critical.

Q. So we’re really only just beginning to scratch the surface?

NSD: I don’t mean to sound like the challenges outweigh our achievements because I think our progress has been great. Sometimes slower than I like, say in the political arena where I think the gender pay gap of 17.5% in the 21st century is disgusting not appropriate. We have a long way to go on many issues but the beauty of International Women’s Day, of course, is that we get to celebrate and commemorate the achievements we’ve made. And that’s thanks to mothers and sisters who worked incredibly hard to achieve those things such as the right to vote.

We still need to keep our eye on the ball and work hard and campaign. Not just for ourselves; not just our generation, but for my daughter’s generation and beyond and not just for girls and women in Australia. That’s one the best thing about my job, I get to campaign globally on the issues.

Q. With social media now helping us connect those bridges, nationally and internationally, so we can communicate and share our message with other women across the world, what do you think the first step would be to start that conversation and get more women aware, and even men, of just what the situation is with women’s equality and its issues?

That’s a good question. The democratisation of media, so access to social media, has wonderful opportunities to help us better understand each other’s challenges and stories, and to bring about change. We’ve seen that in a very political, and indeed a parliamentary, sense in countries around the world. I’m a big one for talking honestly and I think when we talk honestly about the bad issues like violence, that we reduce or remove stigma, and as a result it ensures that governments and other institutions act.

I’m also a big fan of women not judging each other’s choices, and I think that’s something we’ve all experienced. Blokes don’t do it; they’re really good at getting on with doing what they want to do, and that’s usually running the company, being the best at what they can do, or attaining power. I think often as women there’s an internal dynamic there. We should be doing exactly what the guys do in terms of happily being ambitious, about attaining power and using it for good reasons.

But I also think there are opportunities for women in acknowledging that sometimes we’re not always going to agree with each other. There’s a wonderful diversity and difference among us, and that’s what great about being women. So let’s celebrate our diversity and also recognise that what works for you may not always work for your sister.

Q. At the risk of giving the male gender a bit of an inflated ego, do you think we have something to learn from them whether it’s in business or just getting the job done?

NSD: I’m not sure that it’s learning from men as such, and I’m not suggesting we always emulate some behavioural traits because there some that aren’t so good. I must admit that when we talk about getting more women into parliament, it’s not because I’m naïve and I think women are going to have some kind of ameliorating effect on politics. But I also want women to sometimes use different strategies from what I’ve seen our male counterparts use. I don’t want it to be about “Who’s the toughest?”. People talk about not wanting a wimp in a certain portfolio, or ‘you’ve got to play the man not the ball’—all those kind of stereotypes about toughness. I’d like to change those dynamics for men and for women.

I think the answer to equality is men and women working together. It’s really that simple. It’s men on Boards looking around at the seat to next them and saying, “You know what? We’re really not a diverse bunch. Why don’t we go find some really talented and impressive women? In fact we probably know them, so why aren’t they on our board?”. Or asking women, what it is—what work place practices–will encourage them to be a part of that particular workplace community. Or little things like picking up the vacuum occasionally in terms of unpaid work.

I’m not suggesting that it’s all simple but it certainly involves us discussing these issues openly and honestly, and working together on them. I’m pretty confident that men could learn a lot from women as well. Women have this tenacity and ability to survive, sometimes under the most extraordinarily adverse circumstances, and when you think of that figure, one in three women having experienced some form of physical abuse in Australia, there are women who have done it incredibly tough, and are coping and surviving— and boy, that could teach people a thing or two.

Q. What makes you proud to be a woman?

NSD: I’m proud to be a woman and a feminist. I’m proud of the fact that we, as women, work together and that we can achieve tremendous things. I’m proud of the fact that I’m able to support my sisters in a very real national global sense. But I’m also excited at the prospect of watching my daughter hopefully do similar things for her community and family.

I think the diversity and difference of women is something I celebrate all the time and I think we’ve got many characteristics and traits that we can be proud of. I also think that women lack, in a general sense, the same degree of power as men, yet I’m proud of the fact women achieve great things regardless of that. But I would like to see things change.

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Jessica Schumann

A 'rambling ranga' at heart, Jessica Schumann is a bubbly, creative social thinker who thrives on words, social media and an innate knack for sharing stories. When she finds the time to write, Jessica seeks out the beauty in change and the essence of human condition. Varied and diverse in nature, her writing delves into the enviable world of people, travel, food and culture. When you can't find her in a nook writing, just follow your nose and you’ll soon find Jessica indulging in her other passion – cooking – or curled up on the couch with a good book in hand. You can find her over at ramblingranga.com.au. More about the Author