PM backs quotas as last resort

JULIA GILLARD has not ruled out regulating to ensure company boards contain a quota of women, but says it is the last option under consideration and that businesses should act by themselves.

Celebrating International Women's Day in Washington yesterday, the Prime Minister said the Governor-General, Quentin Bryce, who called for quotas in an interview this week, was entitled to express her view and to continue doing so.

''The Governor-General has devoted her life to arguing about women's equal opportunity and she was certainly at the forefront of those arguments when our nation was having to work its way through making sure women had an equal say and an equal role,'' Ms Gillard said.

''I believe it's appropriate for [her] to continue to advocate what's been her lifetime passion.''

Ms Gillard was speaking after sharing the stage at the US State Department with the first lady, Michelle Obama, the Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, and a group of women activists from around the world who had won International Women of Courage Awards.

When Ms Gillard addressed the forum, she pointed out she was wearing a scarf given to her by Mrs Bryce, ''a courageous woman herself who has fought for women's equality in our nation''.

Ms Gillard told reporters afterwards that the government was working towards its target of having 40 per cent of government boards comprised of women and she urged the private sector to follow suit.

''I believe men and women are born with equal capacities and so if you see an area of life like boards in corporate Australia where we disproportionately see men and not a sufficient representation of women, that is not a merits-based decision,'' she said.

She implied the government would be reluctant to impose quotas on private companies but said it remained an option.

The Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, opposes the concept of female quotas but they are supported by his shadow treasurer, Joe Hockey.

Ms Gillard, Australia's first female Prime Minister, received a standing ovation at the International Women's Day function at the State Department.

In her speech, she identified education as a universal right that should be extended to all women and girls.

Ms Gillard praised Mrs Clinton as a trailblazer in female leadership.

''You've made female leadership an image around the world. I don't think we can say female leadership is unremarkable yet, but you have made the journey so much easier for others,'' she said.

Ms Gillard also paid tribute to the many women who would never be recognised for what they had achieved, including her own mother.

''We honour every brave mother who ever raised a strong daughter and helped us get here,'' she said.

In a related development, the federal government has taken ''women'' out of the decade-old law designed to address the gender pay gap.

It will rename the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Act as the Workplace Gender Equality Act, the Minister for the Status of Women, Kate Ellis, said yesterday.

It will also become illegal for the federal government to award a contract, grant or industry assistance program to a company that is ignoring the new gender equality law.

With the name change will come a new focus on the family caring responsibilities of both women and men.

The agency responsible for implementing the new act will be renamed the Workplace Gender Equity Agency, headed by the former Caltex executive Helen Conway, and its funding will be doubled.