Alumni News

Penny Wong inspires Boldness for Change on International Women’s Day

Senator Penny Wong
Senator Penny Wong

The World Economic Forum predicts the gender gap won't close entirely for another 170 years. This is too long to wait. 2016 UniSA Alumni Award winner, Senator Penny Wong, speaks about how International Women’s Day reminds us why we should all #BeBoldForChange to reduce the gender gap and create a more inclusive society.

Senator Penny Wong hosted the 2017 United Nations Women Council IWD Breakfast in Adelaide - the largest International Women’s Day Breakfast in Australia. Some 2000 people turned out to hear guest speaker, former Prime Minister of Australia, Julia Gillard.

Senator Wong tells us about the importance of finding your own voice and using it to stand up for the rights of others.

This year IWD used #BeBoldForChange to draw attention to the gender gap. Why do you think this initiative is important?

International Women’s Day allows us to honour the women who have gone before and given us so much, but also recognise how far we still have to go to achieve equality.

As the United Nations Development report found, “the disadvantages facing women and girls are a major source of inequality. All too often, women and girls are discriminated against in health, education, political representation, labour market, etc.” Women bear the brunt of poverty, especially single women raising children.

Women in most countries earn on average only 60 to 75 per cent of men's wages. And around a third of women across the world are subjected to physical, sexual, psychological and economic violence which causes long-term physical, mental and emotional health problems.

I’ve lived a very privileged life in this country, but even here, the gender gap issue is pervasive and structural.

Women, supporting women, in their workplace, their community and across the world are a powerful force for change.

But, this issue will not be resolved without men taking responsibility for it too. Men must accept that their wives, their partners, their daughters, and their sisters will never enjoy true equality unless they join with women to end the gender gap.

What do you see as the primary challenges and lessons that can be learnt from forums like UN Women National Committee IWD Breakfast?

Overcoming entrenched discrimination that denies women their equal place in parliament and in their workplace, and too often, even in their own homes are some of the primary challenges that women are faced with around the world.

Australians can support women’s rights on a global scale by leading through example here, and by standing up in international forums against discrimination and violence against women and advocating for equality.

We need to teach the next generation that the opportunities they have today have been hard won, and should never be taken for granted. To respect those who came before, and honour their struggle by continuing to fight for women’s rights everywhere.

Who has inspired your dedication and passion to seek equality for underrepresented groups?

Nelson Mandela, not only for his political achievements, but also the generosity of spirit he showed personally, and the reconciliation he was able to inspire in a nation.

Joan Kirner, for her unswerving commitment to supporting women in politics, and helping to make our parliament, at least on the Labor side, more equal and more representative of the community.

And also Paul Keating. Over the years we have seen our community come together and start to engender a national identity that was truly inclusive. Critical to this was the articulation of our place in the Asia-Pacific region by Paul Keating.

Who have been the most influential women or role-models in your life?

My Mum and my dad’s mother, or “Poh Poh” as she is known.

My mum is one of five strong, caring, and independent sisters, and such an extraordinary woman for her time. Mum is a farmer’s daughter and a descendent of the first European settlers in South Australia who married a Chinese man in the 1960s, just as the White Australia policy was being dismantled.

Mum’s keen sense of justice, her intrinsic belief in fairness and willingness to stand up for her values, notwithstanding the consequences, has taught me a great deal.

“Poh Poh” was a diminutive woman with an indomitable spirit. Most of the family died during the Second World War and she was left alone to care for my father and his siblings in unspeakable circumstances, which she did through extraordinary determination and a will to survive.

She was barely literate; she was humble and compassionate but the strongest person I have ever known. Above all she taught me perspective. “It can never be as bad as the war” she would tell me, and she was right.

You are a role model to many young University of South Australia alumni and students. What advice could you offer them as they move through their careers and face challenges like the gender gap?

Do what you enjoy and above all, find your own voice. I originally intended to become a doctor, but found that was not for me.

You have achieved what you have because of your ability. You have every right to be where you are, and as much right as your colleagues to seek to advance your career. Speak up.

In light of Kate Ellis’ announcement shortly before IWD, how do you think parliament could better support parents juggling family responsibilities?

All families in Australia are confronted with balancing work and family responsibilities. For most families this juggle is much harder than it is for politicians.

The hardest thing for me is the emotional toll of being away from my family so often.

On a lighter note, you are known for your love of living in South Australia. What are your five favourite places or personal treasures of living in Adelaide?

I love the great food, and the vibrancy and multiculturalism of the Adelaide Central Markets. Also, the fantastic sense of community at the Goodwood Farmers Market.

Clare Valley Riesling (and the Clare valley, and Barossa reds of course).

My kids running barefoot through the Botanic Gardens during WOMADelaide.

Fish and chips with the family at Henley Beach.

Carrickalinga on the Fleurieu Peninsula. Just walking on the beaches and the rocks. It’s a chance to get away from everything for a few days in a beautiful spot.

Your favourite books to read to your children at bedtime?

I’ve loved reading Mem Fox’s “Where is the Green Sheep?” to both of my girls. "Hairy Maclary" is also a favourite and now Alexandra is getting older, we’ve enjoyed the Pippi Longstocking stories.

Your favourite holiday destination (when you have a spare moment)?

My dream experience right now would be getting away (with Sophie) for a few days of fine wine and fine food in the Barossa, Clare or any of our great wine regions.

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