A focused investment in women and girls is seeing progress in developing countries but must receive ongoing support, Westpac CEO Gail Kelly said at an International Women’s Day breakfast with aid and development organisation CARE on Thursday.
“I think it’s ok to stretch International Women’s Day out a few days. Or maybe a week, even a year,” said Kelly. “These events are a chance to pause and reflect on the progress we’re making on the gender agenda. And to reflect on the issues that affect women in other parts of the world. In many ways, this can feel like a parallel world.”
Locally, Kelly described the lack of women in business leadership, alongside workplace inflexibility and difficulty accessing mentoring, as serious issues for women. She particularly highlighted the ongoing issue of bias in the workplace: “We hear a lot about hidden or unconscious bias, although I think there is a lot of overt bias out there too.”
But the focus on Thursday morning was on issues facing women in the developing world, and the CARE projects targeting education equality and access. “If we can tap into the power of girls, that will and drive, just think of the difference we could make,” said Kelly. “It’s an exciting, uplifting concept, these girls who won’t take no for an answer.”
CARE CEO Julia Newton-Howes introduced female empowerment as a complex issue worth addressing. “Clearly there is a moral dimension to supporting gender equality but we see the very real business and community benefits of not ignoring half the world’s talent,” she said.
She also spoke directly to the resistance about focusing on women that her team experiences occasionally. “For some people there is a sense of discomfort that this focus might be discriminating against men and boys,” said Newton-Howes. “But women disproportionately make up the people living in poverty. It’s not because of ability, or lack of it. It’s because of social expectations that constrain the choices women and girls can make.”
Newton-Howes is confident this discomfort or reservation about focusing on women in development is changing. “I don’t know if it’s a tipping point, but we have gained a lot of momentum. We’ve been pushing on a closed door, and it’s just maybe starting to open.”
CARE runs a range of development programs in over 80 developing countries. Kelly has been CARE’s Women Empowerment Ambassador since early 2011. She will be joining the CARE team on a trip to visit Timor Leste projects later this year.