Dame Elizabeth Couchman 2015 Scholarship Award Address

Thank you for inviting me to speak today and for the honour of presenting the 2015 Dame Elizabeth Couchman Scholarship.

I am absolutely delighted to be with you today amongst such an inspirational group of women, to celebrate the great tradition of political participation and contribution of Liberal women, particularly those from Victoria. This scholarship is a great credit to the Liberal Women’s Council of Victoria. It provides assistance for women to develop leadership opportunities and to undertake research and study toward the benefit of the Liberal Party and women more generally.

And in doing so, it celebrates and honours one of the Liberal Party’s founders Dame Elizabeth Couchman, one of the most significant women in Australian political history. Her skills of oratory, persuasion and leadership were such that she would have excelled at any point of Australian history.

If politics is the battlefield of ideas, the Dame Elizabeth was a general, a strategist without peer. When she died in 1982 at the age of 106 she left a unique and enduring legacy as a matriarch of our Party. It is wonderful to see her legacies remembered through this important scholarship. She would have been very proud. She led the way for women, as an outspoken and passionate activist for gender equality as President of the Australian National Womens’ League and then as a Party founder and senior leader in the Liberal Party, she was an outstanding role model, then and today.

Dame Elizabeth demonstrated to both men and women, it was possible to be a woman and a successful leader, and despite repeated knock-backs, she never retreated, the white flag of defeat for herself and other women was never raised. Her concerns were not for the battle-some female who talks of sex war, but for women who put public good before personal ambition.

Dame Elizabeth insisted on the equal representation of men and women in the Liberal Party here in Victoria and was a tireless mentor encouraging and supporting women participating in the political process.

She was Sir Robert Menzies long time adviser and confidant. He once said of her that she would have been the best Cabinet minister I could have wished for and that she was the greatest statesmen of them all.

Despite her extraordinary abilities and achievements, Dame Elizabeth never realised her long held goal of election to the federal parliament and heartbreakingly, failed in her last attempt at Senate preselection in 1940 by a single vote.

While women have made some headway within our Party, I have no doubt Dame Elizabeth would be saddened by our sluggish progress in recent years. She would also be terribly disappointed the Victorian Division no longer has a woman representing the state in the Senate. She would also be dismayed at the low socio-economic circumstances of many women and their children today in Australia.

Today, I share with you a little of my own story, and my journey on gender within Army, as I see strong parallels from which we can draw from their experience and apply to our own Party.

The bottom line is that no modern institution, including our own, can expect to meet the future needs of those they represent, if it does not full realise and equally utilise the talents of both men and women. The fact is that women continue to drift away from our Party and see us as less relevant, as a Party of entitled middle-aged men in suits and ties. As Dame Elizabeth herself was fond of observing not all wisdom resides under hats of men.

I am under no illusions as to the challenges we face, least of all from within our own Party, but these challenges are far from unique in history or in society. Experience shows there is a pathway forward to improve opportunities for women in our Party, but it will not come from a business as usual approach.

In politics, women make great campaigners, candidates, community activists and leaders. They genuinely listen, empathise, collaborate and are effective local representatives who get things done.

But like any complex policy problem, once you start discussing the issue and attempting to identify and effectively address the root causes, it is inevitably a long and challenging journey, one that has defeated many organisations and their leaders. I know through my experience in Army that gender change is possible without quotas, but it will not just happen.

I am sure, like me, you have heard the confident assertion that our Party is gender blind and we are a meritocracy many times, that we all have an equal opportunity to succeed and therefore quotas are not necessary. In my experience, this simple but powerful narrative has effectively shut down any substantive discussion on gender both in Army and Liberal Party.

Somewhere along the line though in our Party, equality of opportunity has become synonymous with quotas, a dangerous and misleading conflation that has underpinned our prevailing narrative on gender. I heard – and believed this narrative for many years – in Army and our Party.

For the first 20 years of my careers in Army and the Liberal Party I believed that by simply working hard and achieving success, my female colleagues and I would have an equal opportunity to succeed.

But over time, I became increasingly uncomfortable with the dissonance I experienced between this narrative and the evidence of my own experiences and that of other women I worked with, who were clearly of great merit but were not progressing at the same rate as our male colleagues.

If our Party and Army were true meritocracies, why were women remaining significantly underrepresented in lay party leadership positions and parliamentary positions? It is clearly not a lack of talented women of merit. It seemed nobody could satisfactorily explain to me the reason for the disparities, but there was no way of questioning or discussing it without without being ridiculed, so consequently for many years I did not.

In my own home state of WA, women represent approximately 45 per cent of our members, 25 per cent are members of State Council and 5 per cent are members of the Executive. Those percentages have barely moved for decades, and exactly mirror the statistic for women in other professions, as you can see in the table I have handed out.

Today, I am the 91st Senator and 16th female Senator from Western Australia but only the fourth female Liberal Senator. Clearly I am not only the fourth Liberal woman worthy of serving as a Senator! In Army, I was the first ever Female Brigadier in the Army Reserves – again I was certainly not the first women of merit for promotion to 1 star rank.

Gender inequality is not unique to politics. The statistics are clear and unambiguous. The statistics clearly demonstrate that our Party mirrors gender inequality in the broader society, both here and overseas. While there have been significant gains in women’s rights in the form of workforce participation and remuneration equality, the fact remains that women continue to lag behind their male counterparts when it comes to workplace equality and pay.

Today, in Australia, although women enter the workforce at similar levels to men and account for almost half the workforce, many are still paid less than their male colleagues, for the same work, and are far are less likely to be promoted, especially to leadership positions. Women now account for 47 per cent of the workforce in Australia and female participation has continued to grow over time reaching approximately 65.3 per cent up from 60.3 per cent in 2009.

While women comprise 60 per cent of university graduates, only 52 per cent graduate into professional positions this reduces to 10 per cent reaching executive management and 3.5 per cent becoming CEO’s. 15 per cent now occupy director positions, up from 8 per cent a decade ago. At present the current pay gap in Australia sits at an astounding 18 per cent. Initially, it was hard for me to fathom how a pay gap so substantial could exist in this day and age. But on closer examination the reasons became very clear.

The process starts when women graduate from secondary or tertiary education at lower starting salaries than men, a gap that widens throughout their working life, exacerbated if they take time out for family, with consequential flow on effects to their superannuation.

Men in ASX 500 companies still have a nine times greater chance of making it to senior executive ranks. Internationally women in senior positions averages 15 – 16 percent, a figure that has barely moved since 2002. In Australia women continue to be significantly under-represented in parliament and executive Government, with women accounting for less than one-third of all parliamentarians and one-fifth of all ministers.

For the Liberal Party, female Parliamentary representation is going backwards and is now only 22 per cent. We are also going backwards in pre-selection, even in un-winnable seats.

Globally, evidence shows that women still face significant barriers when it comes to female workplace participation, earnings and representation in executive roles. Barriers include persistent unconscious bias or backlash; insufficient career development and promotion pathways, a lack of role models and mentoring opportunities; and affordable childcare, just to name just a few.

Last year I was shocked to hear that in a recent survey of high school girls some were already consciously making study and career choices that they believed would not force them to choose between work and children.

We all have our own stories and I now share a bit of my story with you, and how I came to be here today as a Liberal Senator talking about Gender.

I am a Perth girl, born, bred and educated, with a large and close extended family. Having graduated from High School unsure about what I wanted to do with my life. At 18, rather aimlessly, I deferred from university and went to technical college.

My life changed when I signed up for 18 months of Army Reserve Officer Cadet training. I had found my first life long passion. The Army of 30 years ago is not the Army of today and attitudes to women and reservists were a complete and unexpected shock. I had two options, stick it out or quit. I stuck with it and am eternally grateful I did.

While it was tough, I discovered I was tougher, and, in my own quiet way, that I could lead, organize and most importantly, that I was resilient. As an Army logistician I also learned how to methodically plan to deliver an outcome, a skill that has also stood me in good stead in politics.

My professional life took a few more years to evolve. When I joined the Liberal Party as a volunteer in 1987, like many of us, somewhere between the letter folding and door-knocking, I had found my second great passion, and cause in life. Since then I have worked on innumerable State and Federal campaigns, and have been fortunate to have worked with some of our most respected campaign identities. During this time learnt that change lies at the heart of our profession.

In the early 90’s I worked for Fred Chaney and Judi Moylan in their electorate offices and they taught me that politics was about people, compassion and respect.

A decade later I worked for Chris Ellison as his Chief of Staff when he was the Minister for Justice and Customs, it was undoubtedly one of the most turbulent and challenging times in Government. Through September 11, the Bali bombing and the Tampa, I also learnt that politics also requires you to be tough. The trick is getting the balance right.

My last political position, was as the Deputy Federal Director of the Liberal Party nationally, another rewarding appointment, but also a challenging one, particularly the 2007 Federal election. Again I was the first woman, and to date, only woman is this position. It was a tough gig, on the very blokey Staff Planning Committee – during a very turbulent time in our Party’s history.

For the five years prior to my retirement from Army in 2013 to contest the election (twice as it turned out), I worked at Army Headquarters on three large change projects, the last one directly for the Chief of Army, as the Adjutant General of Army – a fancy way of saying Auditor General.

Somewhat ironically, initially, I was the only woman on the Army’s Executive Council for Gender Diversity.
Of all experiences, the closest to my heart is the mentoring and training work I have been doing over the past few years with candidates and party officials in emerging and often conflict-born democracies all over the world. The development work I have done with women in particular has been eye-opening and inspirational.

So how did my journey on gender start? While for over 10 years, I had become increasingly dissatisfied by what I was seeing and experiencing, it was not until four years ago, as a member of the Chief of Army’s Advisory Committee on Gender Diversity, that I really undertook the journey of re-evaluation, and soul searching. It was often a highly personal and uncomfortable journey, but ultimately a rewarding and liberating one.

One of the many wonderful and courageous things the current Chief of Army, Lieutenant General David Morrison, did early in the gender change process, assisted by Elizabeth Broderick and others, was to make it ok for women to discuss their experiences and requirements as women – he not only listened, he acted.

Early in the process, one of the most profoundly sad things I heard that shocked me to the core, was a discussion at a focus group conducted by Elizabeth Broderick in this group, a number of senior Service women said they did not want to discuss gender issues or even to be seen or acknowledged as a woman.

Think about the implications of that for a moment.

These women believed they had fought too hard for too long to prove they were capable and successful – despite being a woman, not because they were a woman. They were horrified of being seen as a token, or somehow judged as less than worthy, for no other reason than the fact they are women. Imagine your daughters or granddaughters being socialised to the point that, to succeed in their chosen profession, they had to deny or at least suppress their sense of self and gender identity.

Interestingly, similar sentiments were subsequently expressed by cross sections of younger women at Army women’s forums that year. Many of these women acknowledged more flexible work place arrangements were required; however, they were concerned the men, and sometimes the women, they worked with would hold it against them and they would be harassed and their career impeded.

What they were saying came as a huge shock to many men in the Army – a common refrain was – why have I not heard all this before? My answer was that we had never been able to speak out before. Encouragingly, many younger women said they wanted to be publicly acknowledged as woman doing a great job in Army – successfully balancing their family life. They also wanted women outside of Army to see them as women, not women acting as men.

This comments caused me to start asking some hard questions about myself and I reflected on why after 27 years in the Army, I had not examined this before then. Was I in fact the same as my peers, had I compromised myself as a woman in the past – I came to the conclusion I had. Had I succeeded by adopting masculine behaviours in the workplace or was my gender irrelevant to my path?

Every day I put on the camouflage uniform that was designed and cut for men, accordingly they were damn uncomfortable – too much material where I did not need it and far too little where I did. For me, they came to symbolise a daily attempt to fit into to a man’s ill-fitting mantle. In fact many of us had permanent wedgies!

As a woman, earlier in my Army career, I did not recognise any female role models to aspire to as the leadership exemplars we were taught were all A type men. As I now reflect on this, I realise that I am, and have always been surrounded by wonderful examples of female leadership, but I did not always recognise it as such, either in myself or others.

It also came as a shock to realise that I may have been judging myself and other women by male leadership paradigms, but once I remove this unconscious filter, I realise that this leadership, while different, was powerful and effective. This led me to the question, are women we work with also judging themselves and others through the same masculine lens – and if so what were the consequences?

So what did I learn from participating in the Army’s gender journey?

Well the first lesson may shock you, it certainly did me. It was that Army was not a meritocracy and that sometimes the playing field needs to be adjusted unevenly – to ensure we all had equality of opportunity.

As someone who has never identified with the term Feminist or believed in quotas, and for the record I still don’t, realising that equality of opportunity sometimes requires an uneven playing field – was quite confronting.

At first, even to think it, felt like heresy and even a betrayal of what I had believed for so long, but it felt right, and as we progressed through the journey – I came to understand it was right. It was also very liberating for me to truly realise that, men and women are different, but different did not mean inferior, just different. We may do it differently, but still just as well, and in some cases, I would argue better.

At this point I also came to the conclusion that there was absolutely nothing wrong with us as women that needed fixing or changing to adapt to a ‘mans’ profession. But cultural and structural change was required to more fully utilise our talents.

Time does not permit a detailed examination of the journey Army continues to undertake. But I am happy to report that today, in Army, as a result of the changes being progressively undertaken, many more extraordinarily competent and women with diverse skills, experience and leadership styles, are being promoted in Army – all on merit. Women one or two years ago would have been overlooked. And there is not a quota in sight! I am proud to advise the Australian Army was recognised last year as one of the top 50 APEC companies for women.

So what does this mean for us? I know from personal experience that change is possible. The challenges facing our Party are certainly not unique and there are examples of success in Australia, not just in Army. So we do not have to reinvent the wheel. But real change never just happens.

In a time where Australians are increasingly disillusioned with both major parties and the ‘traditional’ way of doing politics, now is the perfect time for us together, to discuss and explore the real reasons for the systemic under-representation of women in leadership positions and Parliament and why progress has stalled.

We should articulate the clear benefits we bring to the Party. As Dame Elizabeth was fond of quoting, what women think today in politics, men will think tomorrow.

In conclusion, without specific focus and attention, womens socio-economic outcomes in Australia will continue to lag behind men and electorally more women will continue to drift away from our Party.

My fear is that if we continue to do nothing, we are condemning the next generation of women to experiences similar to our own and that women of merit will continue to be passed over.

I cannot help wonder if today Dame Elizabeth would have regretted merging the League into the Liberal Party? One thing I know for sure is that she would never ever have given up advocating and fighting for women everywhere.

In our 70th anniversary year, in it not only appropriate to have this debate, it is essential.

Thank you.

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