Award-winning young alumni works for women around the world

12 Dec 2013

Julie McKay admits the best part of her job is meeting incredible women, which is handy as she’s the executive director of UN Women.

McKay graduated from UQ with a Bachelor of Business Management and a Bachelor of Arts, Human Resources and International Relations in 2004 and in late 2013 was the guest speaker at the Business, Economics and Law Faculty Alumni Lecture Series (ALS).

While she was in Brisbane for the lecture, she also received a Distinguished Young Alumni Award from UQ, which recognises young alumni whose early accomplishments inspire and provide leadership to students and all alumni.

McKay’s work at the National Committee for UN Women has taken her around the world and during her speech at the ALS and in a later interview she speaks of her dismay that poverty and violence against women are topics that still remain at the top of the organisation’s agenda.

She knows it’s a tough sell advocating for the world’s most dispossessed and voiceless people but, since she started with UN Women seven years ago, it’s not one from which she has shied away.

On the contrary, McKay says she is inspired by the women she meets.

“The people I meet range from women coming into my organisation as board members, as staff and as volunteers right through to the women impacted by UN Women’s programs in Papua New Guinea, Bosnia, in all countries where UN Women operates around the world,’’ she says.

“When you meet women who have experienced systematic violence, who have been told they don’t have the right to work or earn an income, who are just desperately hanging on and trying to survive so they can look after their families, when you talk to them about their hopes for the future and they tell you they just want a life free from violence in a community where their children can thrive –, it’s pretty hard not to be inspired.”

While UN Women has implemented dozens, if not hundreds, of programs across the globe to improve the lives of women and children, there is still a lot more to do.

“The worst part of the role is knowing the huge global need of the world’s women and the significant gap in resources allocated to meeting the need,’’ she says.

“One in three of the world’s women experience violence, women are under-represented in nearly every parliament and every decision-making body in the world and UN Women has nothing like the funding that it needs to deliver the programs that it wants and needs to deliver.’’

Australia faces some major challenges with achieving gender equality – with high rates of violence, a persistent gender pay gap and a lack of women in leadership roles in business and in our public institutions. There is still a deeply entrenched culture and widespread belief that women don’t belong in the nation’s boardrooms or our parliament or represented at the highest levels in government.

 “People rarely say ‘we don’t think women should be here or we don’t think women should make it to the top’ – society has learned a whole lot of other language about how to talk about equality, but the attitudes which are barriers to gender equality remain.’’

Funding is always an issue and McKay says securing aid funding, especially from non-traditional and private-sector donors, is a growing part of her work.

“Figuring out how to do that is a journey for us,” she says.

“We work with some incredible companies in Australia, including the Commonwealth Bank and Aurizon, and they’ve given us phenomenal support.

“I guess it’s about telling the story to donors, talking to Australian men and women about the challenges we see in the countries where UN Women works and trying to explain the benefit for all of us if we can increase the economic empowerment of women worldwide.

“We are slowly building up our network of donors and, over time, I hope that all Australians think about making a small contribution to UN Women as part of the gifts that they give each year.’’

Gender equality was the basis of McKay’s ALS speech, during which she reflected on her own university education alongside other confident, motivated and intelligent women who were part of her student cohort.

There’s a note of incredulity in her voice as she tells the audience that women graduate from university, often with better marks than the guys, and they start graduate programs with young men of about the same educational level.

“But when they (women) go for their first, second, third promotions (here, McKay shakes her head and grimaces) they start to fall away and the stats tell us this, yet we continue to disbelieve it,’’ she says. “I came through university believing I was absolutely equal to the men I started with, believing … that equality was something that past generations had dealt with. Tick the box. Move on.

“Wow. Did that thinking hit the brakes the day I walked into my first job and realised how few women were in leadership roles in the industry where I worked.’’

McKay says the best, if not the only, way to address gender equality is to educate women and men, girls and boys to think about gender norms and gender stereotypes and to fundamentally place an equal value on every human being’s life.

“In the way in which our societies are constructed, we fundamentally place different values on the lives of girls and women than we do on men and boys,’’ she says.

“It’s about recalibrating and saying every person should be born equal and, regardless of where they are born, they should have access to the fundamental freedoms and rights that the Human Rights charter outlines.’’

By Bernadette Condren

UN Women NC Australia will be marking International Women's Day across Australia in March. To attend an event or get involved, visit

Julie McKay presented as part of the Business, Economics and Law Faculty Alumni Lecture Series.

View Julie McKay's presentation (Vimeo, 1h:2m)