Published by the Faculty of Business, Government and Law, University of Canberra


Research and Stories through a Gendered Lens

What Sam Mostyn’s appointment as Governor General means

Apr 3, 2024 | Business, Body, Reproductive Rights, Politics, Commentary, Leadership, Equality, Gender, Career, Feature

This morning we woke to the news that Sam Mostyn will be the next Governor General of Australia. Since the announcement, I’ve been wading through emails and social media posts celebrating the appointment. I agree with all of them, but I’ve been struggling to articulate the ‘why’.  It obviously goes beyond ‘yay, a second women in the role – Quentin wasn’t just a blip’, but why else is it important that Sam Mostyn has been appointed? Then I remembered a photo.

I first saw the image in October 2011. It showed Canberra’s Chief Minister, Katy Gallagher, standing next to the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, and the Governor General, Quentin Bryce, as they greeted Queen Elizabeth II on her arrival in Canberra. I remember being stunned by the image of those four women exchanging pleasantries as though they were just doing their jobs, rather than changing our world. In that moment I believed that gender equality was a forgone conclusion – it would just be a matter of time.

Twelve years later, I have just returned from the Commission on the Status of Women in New York.  CSW is the UN’s only forum for discussing gender equality. I have been participating in CSW for 11 years – almost the entire time since that photo of four women was taken at Fairbairn airport. In that decade we have seen the promise of 2011 stumble badly.

This year, I spent my time at CSW defending women’s right to choose what happens to their own bodies, their right to say no to sex, their right to live lives free from violence and gendered poverty. There is a global push back against women’s human rights, and I can confidently say it’s growing in strength.  It turns out gender equality is not inevitable.

Women's bodies. By Antonio Rodriguez

Helen Dalley-Fisher says she has spent her time at the UN defending women’s right to choose what happens to their own bodies. Picture: Adobe/Antonio Rodriguez

On the other hand, at CSW I had the opportunity to work alongside a group of Australian business leaders who are members of the Champions of Change Coalition. These men and women have embraced the idea that gender equality requires both commitment and action. They have taken creative and sometimes counterintuitive steps to reduce gender wage gaps and build women’s leadership in their organisations.

They have put real resources behind these efforts and have provided leadership to others. It’s unusual to see business represented at CSW, and it was instructive to watch the surprised reactions of leaders and advocates from other countries as they listened to the Champions of Change describe their successes.

Sam Mostyn is the former President of Chief Executive Women. In that role she worked collaboratively and effectively to promote exactly the approach taken by the Champions of Change. She demonstrated that she understands that words will only get us so far and action to achieve gender equality is not something which can be left to politicians and activists.

In her position as Women’s Economic Equality Taskforce (WEET) chair, Sam painted a picture of a world where women were not routinely sidelined in the economy. She said: “We talk about a world in which care is shared by men and women, where flexible work is available to all, where governments put a gender lens on every single policy outcome, every Budget measure.”

Putting forward a report full of ambitious recommendations, she further suggested Australia could be transformed: “We’d have a place where women were a powerhouse within that economy. We’d be respected, we’d be equal and we would be celebrated as part of an economy, not seen as outside it.”

We’ve all heard the line ‘if you can’t see it, you can’t be it’. It’s a true statement, but it doesn’t quite tell the whole story. It’s not just a matter of having occasional women providing inspiration to individuals.

Ultimately, appointing women to positions of leadership matters both because of the inspiration they provide, but also because we are what we do.

Australians may have all the best intentions in the world to achieve gender equality, but until we are doing gender equality, intentions don’t mean a thing. In a way it’s not the first or second woman in a role that matters. It’s the nineth or maybe the 20th. The appointment which really matters is the one we don’t think to comment on, because it’s become normal. That’s what Sam Mostyn and the Champions of Change understand: gender equality needs to be business as usual for everyone.

Sam Mostyn, Chair of ANROWS - NPC Address, Wed 02 September 2020

Sam Mostyn, Chair of ANROWS – NPC Address, Wed 02 September 2020. Picture: National Press Club

Sam Mostyn is a clever and subtle operator; a highly intelligent woman with energy to burn who understands the importance of gender equality and is ambitious in the scope of her thinking and actions. Sam is an excellent appointment because of who she is. She’s an excellent appointment because she will do the job well. But most of all, she’s an excellent appointment because the act of appointing her is a sign that we are walking the talk.

Unbelievably, I can’t find that photo. It doesn’t seem to be archived anywhere online, despite being a monumental moment in Australian history. That alone tells me it’s important for us to keep pushing to normalise gender equality, and to celebrate and cherish those who do the same. Congratulations, Sam and thanks.

Helen Dalley-Fisher

Helen Dalley-Fisher is the Convenor of the Equality Rights Alliance based in Canberra. ERA is Australia’s largest network of organisations advocating for women’s equality and leadership. Before ERA, Helen trained in law and worked in the community legal sector, where she specialised disability discrimination.

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