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Dr Julia Newton-Howes on gender equality, ending poverty and growing up in Zimbabwe

by Guest on March 6, 2014
Career

Dr Julia Newton-Howes AM is the CEO of CARE Australia, one of Australia’s most recognised international humanitarian aid organisations. Dr Newton-Howes was recently named a Member of the General Division of the Order of Australia in recognition of her efforts to advocate for gender equality and for some of the world’s poorest communities. Leaders in Heels caught up with Julia as part of International Women’s Day and here she talks about how witnessing discrimination from a young age influenced her life.

1. What motivated you to focus on gender equality and women’s empowerment? Can you pinpoint it to an event or series of events?

I was born in India, grew up in Zimbabwe, which was then a country with a white minority government. People were discriminated against based simply on their race. And I saw that up close. Every day you meet people from all sorts of backgrounds who are truly phenomenal, but they’ve just not achieved their potential because of discrimination – whether because of their gender or the colour of their skin. You see how poverty, discrimination, and opportunity are just…well… luck – the lottery of your birth – plays such a big role in this.

Whether you are born a boy or a girl, should not impact on your chances of being poor, but it does

Whether you are born a boy or a girl, should not impact on your chances of being poor, but it does. To put in simple numbers: 70 per cent of the world’s poorest people are women. Women produce 90 per cent of the world’s food, but only own one per cent of the world’s land.

At CARE we focus on women and girls because we know that empowering women is the key to ending poverty. The stats tell the story: for every additional year a girl spends in school, she’ll raise her family’s income by 20 per cent. When women earn an income, they reinvest 90 per cent of that income into their family.

And the principle that is central to CARE’s work; that if you help one woman lift herself out of poverty, she’ll bring at least four others with her.

we focus on women and girls because we know that empowering women is the key to ending poverty

2. Tell us a little about what your daily role at CARE Australia is like – What is a typical day at the office?

I usually start my day with updates on our work. CARE Australia works with more than 2.5 million people in 24 countries throughout Asia, the Pacific, the Middle-East and across Africa, and so there’s a lot of information that is coming in all the time. While CARE’s managers generally deal with issues, I want to know about the strategic and high risk issues, and our big successes.

Emergencies are a big focus of CARE’s work. At the moment CARE is responding in the Philippines to Typhoon Haiyan, in South Sudan, Central African Republic and in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey as part of our response to the Syria Refugee Crisis. I am also involved in management meetings and decisions, and report to the CARE Australia Board regularly.

More broadly, a big part of my job is seeking to influence government and the private sector to get behind CARE’s programs, but also foreign aid generally. I’m currently the Vice-President of the Australian Council for International Development (ACFID) – the group that represents most of Australia’s international aid-focused charities. Presently, I’m working with Government to help set benchmarks for the Australian aid program. I’m also on the Board and Executive Committee of CARE International, our international confederation, frequently I’ve got a 6am or 11pm phone meeting with my colleagues across the globe.

3. In your opinion how important or not is the role of government policy in achieving gender equality?

It’s vital. Government policies affect every facet of our life – accessing healthcare, how accessible childcare is, how superannuation is regulated. Many Government policies affect women and men differently, but governments usually don’t think about these differences when they make policies. I would like to see explicit consideration of gender differences in all government policies and in the budget each year. But governments only set the framework; it is up to all of us to ensure our society values women and men equally and gives them equal access to opportunities.

4. Who was your role model when you were growing up?

My mother. As a young woman, she volunteered for the Auxiliary Territorial Services, serving in Europe and Asia. She had her children in her late thirties, far more unusual then than it is now. She was a wonderful cook and homemaker, but really she found the life she was expected to lead as a suburban mum desperately limited and boring.

Women produce 90 per cent of the world’s food, but only own one per cent of the world’s land

So as we went off to school, she trained herself in bookkeeping and went to work for a Government owned bank. However, as a woman, she could not be promoted. She seldom spoke about it at that time, but years later she told me how furious she’d been because she had trained most of the men who were then promoted above her, it was simply not heard of to promote a woman into management.

My mother set an example for me; she was hard-working, generous and straightforward. She wanted all her three children to study hard and be successful. She tackled every problem with determination and good humour.

5. You’ve lived and were born overseas, how has those experiences shaped you?

I’ve been lucky having lived in six countries (India, Zimbabwe, the UK, the US, Vietnam and Australia). I consider it an enormous privilege to live and understand different cultures and different societies. It means you can reflect on your own. People are diverse, and no one has a monopoly on being ‘right’ about what a good society is – and we can always learn and take elements of each other’s cultures to hopefully strengthen our own.

Growing up in Zimbabwe, in particular, had a profound affect on me. I saw discrimination and inequality in front of my eyes from an early age. It drove me to get involved in the aid/development sector – because the huge inequalities that exist around the world are bad for all of us. And it’s part of our common humanity that we should reach out and help other people. Because we can.

Julia Newton-Howes VSLA Malawi1

6. Do you have a favourite author? What type of books or media do you watch?

I’ve just finished The Idealist by Nina Munk – about the famous economist Jeffrey Sachs and his ‘Millennium Villages Project’, which was an ambitious attempt to tackle poverty. It shows how people can really miss the mark when it comes to trying to alleviate poverty; it’s not about us telling poor people what they need, it’s about us understanding what communities want. It’s a great read.

I’m also a big fan of podcasts – which I listen to in the car or when I’m out walking my dog. When I have to do some serious thinking, the RSA have some great talks from brilliant people. So too does the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs. For something a bit lighter, the BBC’s Woman’s Hour  covers anything and everything and is always a great listen.

7. How can young women get more active in achieving gender equality?

By actively considering it, and reflecting on what gender inequalities exist in their own personal and professional lives.

I’m particularly proud of our Walk In Her Shoes Challenge, which encourages Australians to get out there, and walk a similar distance each day that women and girls in some of the world’s poorest countries face daily to collect essentials like water, firewood and food. We’ve got thousands of women, men, girls and boys getting involved in the challenge. It’s a fantastic way to bring home the gender inequality message in a fun, engaging and positive way.

By getting involved in events and campaigns like Walk In Her Shoes, people are not only making a statement of solidarity for women’s equality, they’re also doing something that’s tangible for the world’s poorest and most marginalised women.

8. Do you think men also have a role to play in achieving a gender balance especially in the workplace?

I know they do. Gender equality is the responsibility of everyone, women cannot achieve this alone. Of course men fill most of the senior decision-making roles in Australia, so it is critical that men in leadership positions commit to gender equality. It is also clear that the choices we make in life are shaped by society’s expectations of us, and the views of those close to us, including fathers, brothers, husbands.

Whilst we want to see more women on Boards, more women in Parliament and more women CEOs, this is only half the story. It is also critical that more men have the opportunity to be the primary carers for their children and more men support their wives’ career moves. When that’s not unusual, when that’s just the ordinary, that’ll be fantastic.

9. What’s your best time saving tip?

Prioritise. You just have to use your time where it’s most critical.

About

Dr Julia Newton-Howes AM is the CEO of CARE Australia, one of Australia’s most recognised international humanitarian aid organisations. Dr Newton-Howes was recently named a Member of the General Division of the Order of Australia in recognition of her efforts to advocate for gender equality and for some of the world’s poorest communities.

She was also recently named Telstra’s ACT Business Woman of the Year 2013, and was the 2013 winner of the Global Category of the AFR-Westpac Top 100 Women of Influence Awards. Walk In Her Shoes (www.walkinhershoes.org.au), CARE Australia’s biggest fundraising event for women and girls in poverty, kicks off on 17 March. Follow Julia on Twitter @JNewtonHowes

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