Foreign Affairs
Women, Thorn Birds and the Economy
Last Updated: 2014-06-03 10:51 | CE.cn
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- An exclusive interview with Australia's Ambassador for Women and Girls

By Yang Xiao 

 

Natasha Jessica Stott Despoja, Australia's Ambassador for Women and Girls, gave an exclusive interview to China Economic Net (CE.cn) during her visit to Beijing recently. [Photo by China Economic Net]

"There is a legend about a bird which sings just once in her life, more sweetly than any other creature on the face of the earth." In 1977, Australian writer Collean McCullough created in her best-selling "The Thorn Birds" an unsubmissive woman who strived hard for true love and gender equality. Today you can find a large herd of thorn-bird-like women living an independent life on this land, and the most prominent one of them is Natasha Jessica Stott Despoja, Australia's Ambassador for Women and Girls.

It's hard to imagine with a total of three billion women around the world, there are only two ambassadors for women and girls: One is Catherine M. Russell, United States Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues, the other is this Natasha from Australia. The latter was visiting Beijing for the "2014 APEC Women and the Economy Forum" in May, and found time for an exclusive interview with China Economic Net (CE).

Gender equality: an economic nut hard to crack

There is no better word than "charming" to describe the first impression Natasha made on this reporter: from appearance to character, from manners to minds. "Gender equality is not simply a social issue, but an economic issue as well", she said. According to a global report The Third Billion Index, women in Australia are more financially independent than their counterparts from any other country. "This is mainly thanks to a set of laws our country has enacted for women concerning employment and domestic violence; in Australia's federal system, each state has its own legislation to ensure women's rights as well. Due to the efforts of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, there is an increasing number of Australian women entering into a wide range of industries."

"Legislation does matter, yet attitude changes, inspiration and supporting services also have their weight", Natasha added. Speaking of education and employment, women in her country (especially in the southern part) are still in unfavorable conditions: Being poorly paid and lowly positioned is a hard nut to crack. As she further explains, only 58 percent of women in Australia are in the labor force, and those remain under-represented at senior levels: Three percent is the proportion of female CEOs in Australia's top 500 companies.

Meanwhile there're pay differentials between male and female employees: A woman earns 82 cents for every dollar a man earns in Australia, while globally, women earn only half compared to men. Australia has introduced "women-based salary incentive mechanism" to ensure their financial benefits. "Still, it's not enough to rely purely on the government; the whole society should have concerns for the matter and get more economic participation and opportunities for women", the Ambassador explained during the interview.

Mrs. Hulk and "green growth"

When asked about the feeling for "APEC Women and the Economy Forum", Natasha told CE her most impressive discussion was "women and smart technology". She said women entrepreneurs should identify and make full use of the commercial value of smart technologies. For instance, promote products through e-commerce. "Ladies, your iPhones and iPads are not just for online shopping!" Natasha called for her government to organize more training sessions and demonstration lessons for women, especially those working for SMEs. "Women should grasp this opportunity and stand abreast with men at technological forefront, sending the message of 'yes, women can do this.'"

Another topic that fancied Natasha is "women and green growth", a sub-theme of the forum. "Green innovation is predicted to be the fuel of future productivity. Where does the chance lie for women?" She answered, with an emphasis on the role women would play in Asian-Pacific economies. "Innovation economy and green growth require mass participation by the women." She considers women, with their unique creativity, imagination and environmental awareness, to be generally experienced in saving energy and reducing emissions, knowing the alpha and omega of efficient use and low-cost reuse of resources.

Beyond that, women are more far-sighted in dealing with deposits, investments and allocation of funds, which would help "stabilize the financial market and even bring more yields and profits during an economic crisis".

In this respect, women could be dubbed as "Mrs. Hulk", managing the household while knowing much about "green growth".

Reporter from China Economic Net presenting the "10th Anniversary Souvenir Stamp Sheet" to the ambassador in Beijing recently. [Photo by China Economic Net]

"Be a single wattle, not a whole bouquet."

Natasha Stott Despoja is former leader of the Australian Democrats party. Having being appointed to the Australian Senate at the age of 26, she became, at the time, the youngest woman ever to enter the Australian Federal Parliament, and afterwards, the longest-serving Democrat Senator in the party's history. In 2013, the ex-senator became Australia's new Ambassador for Women and Girls, a role that would see her travelling around the region to promote gender equality and women's rights on an international scale.

To many, if not most women and girls, Natasha herself is a living guidebook, possibly entitled "100 Tips to Become a Successful Woman" or "A Better You at 26". She made a humorous comment on her success: "Maybe someday an ambitious young girl stands out and says 'no big deal! I can get that position at 25 or even earlier! Then I'll be very happy for having set an example for my sister'." Natasha prefers such a word to describe her fellow women. During the forum in Beijing, she exchanged opinions and reached new agreements on women's economic empowerment with her "band of sisters", consisting of more than 200 women from political, economic and academic sectors in the APEC countries. The meeting looked like a family get-together.

Despite of the harmonious scene, Natasha agreed with Polish-born stage performer Anna Held's "a woman should be like a single flower, not a whole bouquet", for each woman has her own scent and color. Then what flower will she pick to describe women in Australia? Pointing at her favorite bright yellow suit, she smiled: "I'll choose Australia's floral emblem - Golden Wattle." Wattle is an "economic plant" with multiple values: used in gardening, ornamentation, perfume, cosmetics, dyes, medicine, and so on. The species is moderately frost tolerant and grows well in a wide range of soils. All these traits remind her of the Australian women, charming from appearance and strong inside.

From thorn crown to laurel wreath

How to characterize "women"? It is an unasked question during the interview. German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer presented his understanding in "On Woman": "Women are immature big children all their lives, something intermediate between the child and the man".

Women's image has changed over hundreds of years, illustrated by art and literature. During the Renaissance, Sandro Botticelli's painting "Decameron" is a representation of violence against women from top to toe. It depicts horrific scenes of a woman being torn into pieces by dogs, her newly-married husband behaving like a spectator. Such a motif lasted for centuries until 1830, when French artist Eugene Delacroix created a fresh female icon in "Liberty Leading the People", a robust woman personifying Liberty leads the people forward over the bodies of the fallen.

In late 1960s, a new term "hertory" was coined to indicate the coming of a brand-new women-oriented age, in contrast to "history". Today it's still unclear if women would actually lead in business, even though there is a general direction and an intrinsic motivation for women to strive for the goal, as "The Thorn Birds" said in the very last sentences:

"The bird with the thorn in its breast, is driven by it knows not what to impale itself, and die singing. But we, when we put the thorns in our breasts, we know. We understand. And still we do it. Still we do it."

It's a love story, yet it also gives inspiration to women to pursue their dreams, in which the crown of thorns shall one day blossom into a laurel-wreath, just as what Natasha Stott Despoja did, is doing and will always do.

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