By Grace Angwin

I met with Sheila Byard, who has great expertise working on gender equality issues and in international relations. Sheila serves as a Sub-Committee Representative on the Board of the UN Association of Australia. She is a member of the UN Status of Women Network, is a well know author and academic, is the President of the National Council of Women in Victoria, and has also contributed to the Encyclopaedia of Women and Leadership in Australia (read her contribution here), among many other things.

Sheila’s passion and interest in international relations began at an early age, growing up at a time where Australia was experiencing a lot of migration. She described her earlier years which brought these issues to the forefront of her consciousness:

‘One of the things I recall when I was young, being born in 1944, is that during my school days there were people from many different countries, in the post-war refugee intake. I lived with one of my grandmothers in Windsor (in Melbourne), where there was a considerable ethnic diversity up and around Chapel street. We then moved out the rural-urban fringe out at East Oakleigh. I can remember the first children coming from the Netherlands, from Italy, and they were non-English speakers. By the time I got to secondary school it was the Olympic Games in Melbourne. At that time there was a little set of flags that could be bought and that included the UN flag, and we learnt about the UN at school. I knew from my family about where people had come from in Australia and we learnt about that at school, although it was still very British Empire oriented, but we were still asking ‘what were the causes of war?’. There’s nothing like having someone teaching you German in secondary school who had come from Hungary. I had a bit of a sharp focus on those things.’

When discussing her own female influences, and the influences on young people in Australia today, Sheila recalled passionately her time in school:

‘I was influenced by my time at St Hilda’s College. A quite remarkable woman had been appointed the first principal there, Marjorie Smart. She was one of the first women to pass the consular test for Canada in about 1947 when it was open to women for the first time, and she became the Canadian representative at the UN. Then, through various circumstances, she came to Australia and became the principal of College. So she had created an opportunity for us to meet people and understand a bit more about the how the world worked. That was very beneficial for me.’

Sheila sees female leadership present in Australia across all spheres of politics and business:

‘There have always been women who’ve exercised a great deal of leadership in Australia and internationally.’

‘I have a great deal of admiration for someone like Julie Bishop, who has stepped up. There’s a role there where she’s able to have the ‘media moment’. That must have some impact on young people where they look at her and go ‘it doesn’t have to be a guy wearing a blue tie’.

‘There are significant women across all sectors. In terms of being there and being present in the media, it must say to young people: ‘it could be a man or it could be a woman’.’

Sheila seemed very passionate about education of young people. She discussed the importance of reversing the disenchantments of young people in political participation, and the need for civics education: ‘Men and women, but women especially, need to know that they have the right to vote in Australia and they should exercise it.’

We discussed how international institutions play a role in both obtaining gender equality and implementing law and frameworks. Sheila highlighted Australia’s role in the human rights arena, which she sees as crucial.

‘You have a sentiment in Australia where people broadly believe we have certain rights. Long before there was ever a UN or a League of Nations, there have been understandings of certain rights. Australia has had an important role in the creation of the UN, and the aspirational document, the Universal Declaration, does include gender equality. It’s by reference to that that people might be pitching their conversations about why we should have gender equality.’

However, the implementation process of some of these conventions and agreements can be arduous. Furthermore, there is a tension between Australia’s commitment to international obligations and some current policies.

‘Where you get a convention, then you need to get entrenched in Australian law, which is quite a tricky thing to do. It involves law reforms at state and federal level, and a great deal of lobbying and lot of submitting to parliamentary commissions.’ 

‘UN Special Rapporteurs at the moment are listing Australia along with other nations like Cuba, as in very bad odour over the treatment of people who are attempting to acquire refugee status.’

Finally, Sheila’s comments about her own self-educative process show her to be quite a modest individual.

‘I’m a believer in life long learning.’

A big thanks to Sheila for taking the time to sit down with me.