“Be bold, be bold, be bold,” was the very clear message delivered by Dame Quentin Bryce to over 180 senior high school girls at a Young Women and Leadership Q&A on September 10.
The students, mostly from Melbourne’s West and including nearly 40 girls in hijabs, gave a rapturous welcome to Ms Bryce at Victoria University’s Sir Zelman Cowen Centre and proceeded to quiz her about her time as Governor-General and many other issues for over an hour.
Students qualified for the Young Women and Leadership Q&A by writing up to 150 words identifying the issues they would advocate if they were Governor-General for a week, as well as drafting a question to ask Ms Bryce. Student issues ranged from gender equality and other forms of inequality to refugees, domestic violence and sport.
Student issues ranged from gender equality and other forms of inequality to refugees, domestic violence and sport. The event was so over-subscribed that teachers and parents had to be seated in a second lecture theatre where proceedings were live-streamed.
In response to questions from Sitra Abdosh (Al-Taqwa College) and Marina Amanatiadis (The Grange P-12 College), Ms Bryce said that she’d had to grow a thick skin to deal with all the criticism she had attracted as a lifelong feminist and admitted there was particular pressure on women ‘firsts’.
“I wish that more women leaders at international level in various endeavours, but particularly in political life, would be more open about that. The Secretary of State in the United States, Madeleine Albright, in her wonderful autobiography … wrote was that she thought there was a special place in hell for women who didn’t support other women,” she said.
“Women must be everywhere and particularly in our parliaments. We’re lucky in Australia that we have as many women as we do, because our neighbourhood in the Pacific, there are many parliaments where there are no women at all.”
Pay equity remains a “key heartland issue”, Mr Bryce told students in response to a question from Hue Man Dang, Bayside P-12 College.
“Pay equity – you’re not kidding! 18 per cent gap in pay. I mentioned I was Perth last week, the pay gap in Western Australia is 26 per cent. . . I remember the phenomenal shock I discovered when I started work that the person sitting beside me earned a third more than I did,” she said.
One of the students, Madeleine Lorna McLeod from Ave Maria College, Aberfeldie, sought Ms Bryce’s advice as she was the only female in her cricket team and referred to as “as the girl and not the cricketer”.
Ms Bryce, who confessed being “mad about cricket” and was formerly the President of Women’s Cricket Australia, told Madeleine many of the top players such as Karen Rolton and Belinda Clark had honed their skills by playing with men.
“It gets me going, though, because I’ve just been catching up with my cricketing friends in Western Australia who told me that the media coverage of women’s sport has dropped from 10 per cent to 7 per cent and today we read about the Matildas not going on their tour. They haven’t been paid for two months. These issues of equality of opportunity in sport for women, they’re really key to our health and our enjoyment of life.
Ms Bryce said that combining career, family and community responsibilities required lots of organisation and hard work for women but could be done. She warned girls of the dangers of “busyness”.
“Please, please remember to leave some time in your lives for quietness, for refreshment and relaxation, for caring for your mind, body and spirit, some capacity to go inside yourself on the most important journey in life, understanding yourself and going to the centre of yourself. Time for poetry, for beautiful things, for being in art galleries, for literature, for lying on the grass looking at the sky, for reflection, for thinking deeply about things.”
Ms Bryce said that being Governor-General had presented her with opportunities she’d never dreamt of such as visiting Australian troops in Afghanistan or holding four Victoria Crosses in one hand.
“They were . . . ‘pinch me’ moments [like] driving through the gates of Buckingham Palace to call on Her Majesty, the Queen. . . [W]when you grow up in a town of 185 people, you don’t ever imagine you’re going to be doing that!”, she said.
Ms Bryce always made a point of hosting gatherings of women everywhere she went because that was how she found things out.
“Across language, across any what we might think are barriers, there are these deep bonds that are really founded in our mothering and grand mothering because we have, as our top priority, all of us, care for the future of our planet, our children, opportunities for them, their health, their employment, their education,” she said.
Indigenous women elders from remote communities would regularly stay with Ms Bryce at Yarralumla. People would ask her if they felt awkward around so much protocol and formality. “And I’d say, Indigenous people invented protocol, they love ceremony”.
To much laughter, she confessed to Angela Velasquez (Footscray City College) that the thing she’d hated most about being Governor-General was packing to go away. Her “truckloads” of clothes have since gone to good homes, she said.
Multiculturalism is the best thing Australia has going for it, Ms Bryce said. She welcomed the announcement about the intake of refugees from Syria.
In response to questions from Catherine DeLuca (Catholic Regional College Melton) and Evie McVicar (Westbourne Grammar School), she declared that as well as the need for an integrated response and changes to the legal and judicial systems, Australians needed to tackle the “deep-seated cultural and attitudinal changes”.
“I’ve been talking about the issue of denigration of women to a lot of nice young men that I meet . . . [T]hey say that to me what can they do and I say, when you’re with your mates at the pub or in your sport or in the workplace and . . . people lapse into poor conduct … just take a stand on it. . . All you have to do is say ‘steady on mate’ or ‘We don’t talk like that here’. It is about taking a stand,” Ms Bryce said.
The Q&A chaired by former Attorney-General, Nicola Roxon, now adjunct professor and Chair of the Sir Zelman Cowen Centre. Ms Roxon told the crowd how as the first female Federal Attorney-General, she’d had the privilege of being sworn in by Ms Bryce in the presence of Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Mary Gaudron, the first female Justice of the High Court of Australia. Had it not been for the 30% female quota in the ALP pre-selection, neither she nor Julia Gillard would have been selected for safe seats in Melbourne’s West.