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ET Women’s Forum: Julia Gillard bats for women power; says gender equality needs more female representation in govt, industry

The Economic Times Women’s Forum 2019 took forward the mission that it launched last year — to collaboratively and urgently build a sustainable culture of empowering India’s half a billion women — through a scintillating day of conversations and debates about encouraging greater participation and reducing gender inequality in every sphere of life, work, and play.

Moments after the 6 Pack Band raised the roof at the opening of the ET Women’s Forum, Julia Gillard brought the audience, largely comprising women achievers, gently back to earth in her keynote address that was littered with harsh statistics. “We’ve got no cause to open the champagne,” former Australian prime minister Gillard said in her trademark blunt-speak.

“The truth is, in no country in the world today do we have gender equality,” she told a select audience that represented half-a-billion of India’s population as they braced to hear the grim reality from a woman who had overcome male biases to take over Australia’s top political office.

As she spoke, the enormity of the challenge of bringing about gender equality sunk in. Gillard spoke of her own experiences, narrating her family’s difficult journey from the UK to Australia, with parents coming from disadvantaged backgrounds who never completed secondary school.

She cited numbers to bolster her argument.

“Globally, women make up just 24% of national parliamentarians, 26% of news media leaders, 27% of judges, 25% of senior managers, 15% of corporate board members and just 9% of senior IT leaders,” she said. “In the last decade, the number of senior female managers has increased by just 1% and the number of women holding ministerial office in government increased by just 2% around the world.”

Gender equality is still a long way away.

“The most recent report of the World Economic Forum estimates that it will take 202 years to close the economic gender gap and 170 years to close the political gender gap,” she said. “Now, I’m intending to live a long time, but I don’t think I’m gonna make my 250th birthday.”

In India, the numbers are even more stark — women’s labour force participation rate is less than 30% against 50% in a nation like Indonesia and over 70% in Kenya. Women in India continue to be heavily underrepresented among senior officials and managers, with the percentage falling from 13% in 2011 to 7% in 2015, she said.

Gillard’s point was simple. She could have given different statistics — of child marriage or violence against women or even educational attainment in India. But she chose these numbers because she believes that if women are disproportionately excluded from leadership and economic resources, then they can’t be in a gender-equal world. But she senses a change coming.

The history of gender equality and the feminist movement is marked by waves of change that reshaped thought about society and women’s place in it. This is such a moment, she said, fuelled by revulsion at the kidnapping of Nigerian schoolgirls by Boko Haram, frustration that a woman didn’t become US president and #MeToo among other things. “I think it’s being fuelled by our revulsion that the same technology that enables us to be connected is choked with sexist files and threats against women,” she said. “So we have to accelerate that pace of change.”