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Changemaker  |  Leadership

Tackling the Complex Barriers to Gender Equality in Asia-Pacific


Monday, 20th November 2017 at 8:25 am
Luke Michael
Joanna Hayter is stepping down as CEO of the International Women’s Development Agency (IWDA) this week, after seven years in the role. She is this week’s Changemaker.


Monday, 20th November 2017
at 8:25 am
Luke Michael


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Tackling the Complex Barriers to Gender Equality in Asia-Pacific
Monday, 20th November 2017 at 8:25 am

Joanna Hayter is stepping down as CEO of the International Women’s Development Agency (IWDA) this week, after seven years in the role. She is this week’s Changemaker.

Hayter has had a distinguished career in the international development, human rights and social justice sector for more than 30 years, working across four continents and 25 countries including Myanmar, Vietnam, Japan, and nearly a decade across African nations.

Since joining IWDA – the leading Australian agency entirely focused on women’s rights and gender equality in the Asia-Pacific region – in 2010, she has led the organisation through a period of significant growth.

During her tenure, the number of staff have ballooned from 15 to 72 and the budget has grown from $2 million to $20 million.  

She is also currently a member of the Australian Council for International Development board and is a founding member of the Australian NGO, Coalition on Women, Peace and Security.

In this week’s Changemaker, Hayter talks about how she came to be involved with IWDA, the current state of gender equality in the region, and her extreme passion for gardening.       

What is your history working in the international development sector before you came to the IWDA?  

It’s been 30 years that I’ve worked in international development. And I came to that sector from about five years working in the peace movement and the anti-nuclear sector, because I found as a nurse that I had this just incredibly compelling sense of injustice and inequality in the world. And so I moved from being sort of anti-nuclear to being pro human development. And I spent the next 30 years working across every continent in the world.

And in that time I have been a regional director for an NGO responsible for 13 countries in Africa and I did that work for nearly 10 years. I lived in Vietnam as a country director for Save the Children UK for four years. I lived in Burma as a country director for the Burnet Institute for two years and I worked in Japan for a year as well, on a fellowship looking at non-violent social change, working with women’s movements and environment movements and so on.

And I did a bit of consulting work here and there for the UN for some years, and then I found myself back in Australia in 2007 after a great four years in Burma. So I set myself up as an adviser in my own small business. And that went well for a couple of years because we wanted to live in the country. But unfortunately that part of the country got burned to ash in the Black Saturday bushfires. So that kind of changed my ability to work independently. And the job at International Women’s Development Agency came up and I thought maybe it’s time to be a CEO. So I got it… and seven years later here I am.

How has the IWDA grown since you became CEO?

We have grown quite a lot. It’s interesting because I look at what that journey has been, and in the time that I’ve been CEO I’ve worked with four prime ministers, three foreign ministers, and had four chairs. We’ve been in two different offices. The staff has grown from 15 to 72. The budget has grown from $2 million to $20 million. I counted my emails the other day and my meetings. It was really funny. I counted that I had written 68,000 emails and I’ve been in 5,040 meetings. Isn’t that just outrageous? I reckon I need to leave the desk. My next job cannot be on a chair. That’s all I know.

So why have you decided to leave the organisation now?

Because I think seven years is a pretty long run. I’m certainly the longest serving CEO at IWDA. So I’m proud of that. And I could just feel, in terms of the sort of cycle of our strategic plans, that actually it was a good point to hand over.

Now I’ve got the organisation to a new chapter and a new scope and a new size. And that’s terrific. But I can feel that some of the cycles repeat. And I think there’s only so many times a CEO should repeat cycles before you need somebody fresh to look at it. So I’m mindful of that. And I think we’ve got to bring in younger leadership as well. Holding the job for seven years is a lot. My successor is 17 years younger than me which is brilliant, and she comes from within the organisation. I mentored her and I remember saying to her about three years ago in her performance review, “you’re bloody brilliant and you should think about being a CEO one day” and lo and behold she’s now taking my job.

And as you leave how do you see the current state of women’s rights and gender equality in the Asia-Pacific region?

I think the world has lifted its game in terms of accountability to some aspects of equality – certainly gender equality is something that is now up for discussion and is actually holding both individuals and organisations to account. And I think that across the world that’s a good thing. But what we see is one step forward here and two steps backward there.

So we’re still tackling, not insurmountable by any means, but deeply complex barriers to the systems and the structures of our countries and our cultures that prevent women from being able to stand equally with their male counterparts and you see that in representation in government, you see that in representation in leadership roles, and you see that in lack of equal pay and terms and conditions.

You see it in the kinds of work that men and women find themselves in and a lack of safety and security for women, with ever increasing levels of violence. And so the challenges remain; it doesn’t matter if it’s money, power, safety security, the systems or the structures. The world remains deeply sexist and powerfully controlled by the privileged few and most of those privileged few are men. So we’re not silly about this. We know that you can’t approach one issue without taking them all on.

You can’t resolve workplace employment salary and superannuation issues if you haven’t addressed the other end of the stream, which is will we be able to get girls into school in the first place. And you can’t expect that women can suddenly be members of parliament on a quota system – which we must have – but you can’t expect that to happen overnight. You need communities and cultures saying “yeah women can lead too”, so they can become the local chief, lead local schools, and be on boards. We’ve got to look at it very holistically and it is intersectional in the way that you have to address it in programs.

So can you take me through a typical day for you in the life of the CEO?

You work in lots of spaces. I think because our organisation is a really strong advocate of the global goals for sustainable development, my job sees me working in Australia, in the Asia-Pacific region and in the world.  

I have you know a range of discussions – anything from discussions with our Department of Foreign Affairs to do with international development or to do with aid policy or foreign policy or national security issues. And then I have a range of connections either around program cooperation or collaboration with partners like us, like women’s rights organisations, universities looking at participatory leadership or at economic analysis with some gender sensitivity to it, or research institutes that are looking at gender data. So that’s the kind of picture in Australia.

In the region, my peers are actually leaders of other women’s rights organisations in other countries. So we work with 32 partner organisations in the region and they are all addressing the same issues as us in their nations. And so I have a lot of that sort of strategic thinking and political planning and sort of leadership of that. And then in the world I spend lots of time writing speeches and preparing papers and briefings or going to various forums or platforms within some of the global think tanks or some of the UN architecture, to kind of bring the learning and evidence from all of our development programs to the attention of the decision makers. And so it’s anything from local to global really.

How do you find time for yourself amongst your busy schedule and what do you like to do in your spare time?

I love gardening. I just go out and garden… like I’m a really good gardener and I prefer to have gardens of five acres if I can get them. And one of the things I’m going to do when I leave, apart from having jolly serious jobs, is I also want to get a paid gardening gig, to prove to the world that I am a gardener. Everyone thinks it just means you plant tomatoes but it doesn’t, it’s a real skill. That’s truly what I love doing.

What will you look to do now you’re finishing up at the IWDA?

I think when you’ve worked in a particular role for a long period of time, your constituency knows you really well and people get to know you as that person and that issue. But my career has been quite long now, being in the workforce for 40 years. So I am more than just the job I’ve just held. So of course I will continue to be in advisory roles and some board roles which are all emerging now. I see myself as a company director. I see myself as an advisor to government and non-government and the UN in terms of equality issues, but I also want to get involved in peace and security work because that’s been a big part of my life and I’m deeply concerned about the lack of women’s involvement in peacebuilding or in conflict negotiations. So I want to get myself around some of those tables too.

And there’s a whole bunch of stuff I’m going to do, but I just don’t want to have that one job and one identity – for a year I just want to open up and meet some new people and just go places where people don’t know me so well. That would be fun. So I think I just want to branch out again and weave a few more of my skills back into my life. And I’m going to take piano lessons too. Because I’ve forgotten how to play piano.

Do you have any favourite sayings or a guiding philosophy that informs the work that you do?

We’ve got some favourite expressions here which we use a lot and are pretty close to my heart. One of them is that “well-behaved women rarely make history”. The second is from Emily’s List, which is that “when women support women, women win”, and the other one is that “feminism is not available for mainstreaming. It has to be bold and brave”.


Luke Michael  |   |  @luke_michael96

Luke Michael is a journalist at Pro Bono News covering the social sector.

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