Any woman who has tried to combine work with the responsibilities of children and family and community knows and feels the struggle far more lucidly than she can put into words. Australian women leadership speech.

Dame Quentin Bryce.


The case no longer has to be presented for more Australian women in leadership, we know it’s an issue to our economic and social development, yet we’re still have a lot of work to do.

The Hon. Dame Quentin Bryce gave this fascinating speech to the Economic Development of Australia as part of a series with our most impactful female leaders.

She was still Governor-General of this country and the speech launched the 2010 Women in Leadership series.

Discover more from CEDA here.


I am thrilled to join you here in Sydney today for the launch of the 2010 CEDA Women in Leadership series.

Last week, I was only a bend in the bay away at the Powerhouse – I always get a buzz going there – talking to this year’s Stellar Scholars, 12 young women in New South Wales public schools, excelling in their secondary science studies, and keen to challenge the old stereotype that our new Nobel Laureate, Professor Elizabeth Blackburn, talks about: that nice girls don’t do science.

I told them that the world needs them; that, with women filling more than 50 per cent of science lecture halls at our universities, Australians can feel reassured at the prospect of having men and women, together, tackling the myriad scientific challenges ahead.

It seems serendipitous that, a week later, I’m around the corner talking about how we can make sure that happens not only in science but across all disciplines and sectors in Australian society.

I sincerely thank CEDA for your outstanding contribution and leadership in debates like these over the last 50 years:

  • The rigour, expertise and independence you bring to your research and analysis;
  • Your prominent role in the discussion and generation of ideas;
  • Your influence in the development of public policy and best practice; and
  • Your capacity to keep questioning and reinvigorating the task according to our changing economic and social demands.This year’s Women in Leadership series is timely. I think we’ve reached a point where women – and certainly many men too – are asking: “what progress have we actually made towards ensuring women’s equal participation in society, particularly in leadership and key decision-making roles, in parliament, government, the judiciary, corporations, the professions, and the business and community sectors?”There is a sense out there – or perhaps, a hopeful sense – that women are at last beginning to enter the senior ranks in steadier streams.

Rightly so, the women who do occupy senior roles attract media attention.
It’s not always fair and balanced. I’m sure we’d all like to hear and see less about outfits, and more about outcomes.

The coverage nevertheless gets us all talking, which is a very good thing. Though the risk is that spotlighting a few with the intensity and saturation that the modern media makes sure of can
leave us assuming that there are a lot more women in these roles than figures
can verify.

 Australian women leadership speech Dame Quentin Bryce.
Thanks to our Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency (EOWA), our Australian Human Rights Commission and the Australian Bureau of Statistics, those figures are solid and comprehensive, and an important tool for measuring and monitoring women’s progress.

What the figures tell us is that our perceptions may not be entirely aligned with the facts. For instance, in your (Women in Leadership) series brochure, you quote that in 2008 only 10.7 per cent of executive management roles in ASX 200 companies were held by women, signalling a downward trend of 1.3 per cent from two years earlier.

Further, EOWA data revealed that women represent:

  • Eight per cent of listed company board seats;
  • Seven per cent of key management personnel; and
  • Twenty-nine per cent of line and middle managers.Yet 50.9 per cent of professionals, 70 per cent of the part-time workforce, 35 per cent of the full-time workforce and 45.7 per cent of Australia’s total work- force are women. They sit at the narrow edge of the gender pay gap, which is anything from 17 to nearly 35 per cent of total average weekly earnings. And the issue of statute-based maternity leave remains unresolved.There are of course volumes of statistics for every aspect of women’s participation and remuneration. Some are more encouraging than others. But the overall message is that we have a considerable way to go before we achieve genuine equality of access and opportunity for women and men in leading and influential roles in private and public Australia. So, I see a frustration among people at the contradiction between what is portrayed and what in fact is. This frustration is heightened by evidence here and throughout the developed and developing world that:


Women – once in leadership roles – are highly effective; They perform at least on a par with their male counterparts; and the diversity they bring tangibly adds to productivity and success.The White House Project is the United States’ (US) non-partisan not-for-profit organisation that works on advancing women’s leadership in all communities and sectors. Their report, launched in November last year, benchmarking women’s leadership, contains consistent parallels to the things I’ve mentioned and counters others, and it has some instructive insights too.

 I’d like to share with you some of the author’s observations under the heading, Why the time is now:

Diversity in our leaders not only promotes fairness, but delivers a strong financial advantage;

Research has shown that when women are present in significant numbers the bottom line improves, from financial profits to quality and the scope of decision-making. They quote a study by Catalyst3, another top US organisation, almost as long- running as CEDA, founded to help women into the workforce:

Fortune 500 companies with high percentages of women CEOS experienced on average a 35 per cent higher return on equity and a 34 per cent higher total return to shareholders than did those with low percentages of women corporate officers.

They also point to a growing body of research demonstrating that women’s risk-smart leadership is perfectly suited to what their nation needs to get on to the right track; and

Between 70 and 90 per cent of Americans are comfortable with women as leaders in all sectors from academia and business, to media and the military. These are powerful tools for bringing about positive change for women and for our communities, economies and democracies. It is crucial we ensure that the work you and other organisations do quantifying, assessing and bench- marking women’s participation and progress remains at the centre of debate and policy. Not only does it keep the issues alive, it keeps us honest.

We have a good handle on the facts and rationale for change. We know we should and can do better. There are reform models we can draw on from across the globe. But I think we lack honesty in our own words and behaviours – what we say and do every day about women’s participation in society. It is what we each do in our own lives and families and workplaces that ultimately determines the critical mass that moves us towards or away from change.

Throughout my life, and now perhaps more than ever because of the role I’m in, women of all ages, mothers, daughters, grandmothers, ask me: “How did you do it?” It’s a sort of question in code.

No one needs to say: “Do what?”

Any woman who has tried to combine work with the responsibilities of children and family and community knows and feels the struggle far more lucidly than she can put into words.

 Women ask me, they ask one another, they avidly read and listen to other women’s stories hoping to hear that tiny pearl they thought they’d missed – the pearl that will make the difference between chaos and calm, failure and success.

I offer many snippets from less-than-perfect mothering:

  • How important grandparents are in our lives and our children’s lives;
  • The deep bonds of friendship and support formed during child-rearing years that go on for a lifetime;
  • The understanding, the encouragement of friends and professional colleagues;
  • How we must look after ourselves because if we’re okay, our families will be too;
  • How we can’t have it all at once;
  • How awful the tag and the life of a superwoman is; and
  • How much I have always gained from watching other women do it, including young women now in a new world.

These aren’t pearls, just survival strategies learnt the hard way. They’ve worked for me enough of the time and so I’ve held onto them. But inherent and unspoken in my exchanges with women is the presumption that the responsibility for doing what has to be done to combine women’s paid work with raising children and nurturing families still rests largely with women. Women still feel that they must make all of these things happen. And if they can’t, they have failed.The EOWA reports that:

More than half of women say their partner does less of the unpaid domestic and caring work at home;

Nearly a third say that if their partners did more, they would be more likely to work more hours in paid employment; and

About half of women feel that part-time work, and flexible start and  times, should be made more accessible to women and men in their workplace.

Australian women leadership speech Dame Quentin Bryce.

I’ve always been convinced of the potency of role models in women’s lives. My own life is rich with them and richer for them.

Today, there are examples everywhere of women who have broken the mould and the ceiling, each with a story we can carry into our own lives. Indeed, this room is abounding with them. Role models are in a position to gather and lead out the critical mass. Different times call for different leaders.

Now, I believe we need to bring about a shift: a shift in the burden of the responsibility I spoke of earlier, from women, to women and men, shared equally and respectfully, in the home, in the workplace, in the boardroom, in our companies and parliaments, and communities, at every level.

And we need role models – women and men – who can model the success of doing it differently and better:

  • Men and women sharing family responsibilities;
  • Workplaces that are genuinely committed to flexibility;
  • Employees who embrace flexible work practices because they actually work for them, and they feel supported at every step along the way;
  • Corporations that are prepared to mine and reveal hard data that demonstrates the link between improved market position and gender equality.


The question should no longer be: How did you do it, but how did you do it differently and better? This is, I suggest, the new conversation starter.

Many thanks for inviting me here today. I wish you the very best in your Women In Leadership series. And I can assure you that advancing women serves us all.