ABC The Drum

His words were hardly grand and his ideas definitely not new, but Barack Obama has thrown the weight of the White House behind the push for gender equality, writes

Who would dispute that it is "wrong" and "an embarrassment" that in 2014, women, anywhere on earth, earn just 77 US cents for every dollar a man earns? The fact that we still have such inequality in the US, Australia and to a lesser or greater extent globally is ridiculous and everyone knows it.

But when the president of the world's largest economy uses these words to take a swipe at pay inequality for women in his State of the Union speech — the most important scheduled address on the US political calendar and one watched around the world — it has the potential to prompt many more to sit up, take notice and look for more change.

"A woman deserves equal pay for equal work. She deserves to have a baby without sacrificing her job. A mother deserves a day off to care for a sick child or sick parent without running into hardship," Barack Obama told Congress and the millions watching and listening remotely during last week's State of the Union.

"I firmly believe when women succeed, America succeeds," he told the cheering room.

They were hardly grand words and definitely not new ideas, but this was the president of the United States making a stand for women and supporting his stance with both moral and economic arguments. Inequality is wrong, he declared, and greater equality will be better for the economy.

In making such a big deal about pay inequality in a speech that also included acknowledgement of the first female CEO of a global automotive company, GM's Mary Barra, Obama shows the serious momentum behind efforts to address the deficit in women's incomes and women's presence across the American workforce. By issuing these declarations, the president becomes a key player in this historic shift.

The timing is perfect. In addition to the obvious political benefit of keeping female voters engaged (according to CNN exit polls from the 2012 election, 55 per cent of women voted for Obama), by speaking out on equality, Obama is publicly backing the increasing numbers of high-achieving American women who are making world firsts.

Their achievements are the outcome of decades of public activism, together with corporate and government lobbying led by organisations such as Catalyst. Today these women, such as Mary Barra, are inspiring others to achieve while receiving global recognition and superstar profiles in the process.

Among them are women spearheading change in traditionally male-dominated fields — from the automotive industry to economics and the military. Alongside Barra at the head of GM, there is Janet Yellen, the incoming head of the world's most powerful central bank, the US Federal Reserve. Yellen's appointment in January is a feat so unusual and extraordinary that stories about her being the first woman still outweigh serious discussion about the challenges of such a position, either male or female.

Late last year Christine Fox became the first female to hold the number two position in the Pentagon as acting deputy secretary of Defense. She's working alongside a growing number of senior women in the US defence sphere, including Deborah Lee James, the new Air Force secretary and Christine Wormuth, the deputy undersecretary for Defense.

And, of course, at the top of the list of change-leaders, is a woman within reach of a first that may or may not even play out. Hillary Rodham Clinton became the first woman to win a presidential primary contest in 2008. America and the world are wondering whether 2016 may see her become the first female president of the United States of America.

But as former prime minister Julia Gillard told us, it is hard going first. It is also hard to follow. We know that just because there's one woman in leadership, it doesn't mean that a truck-load more will come. And it isn't Barra, Yellen, Fox, Clinton or Gillard's job to make it easier for the rest. They each have important jobs to do and they need to do them exceptionally well. We don't want Barra, Yellen, Fox and, one day, Clinton to come out at the other end and have to tell us about how difficult it was to be a woman at the top. We don't want to buy tickets to that show.

So how do we make the most of these achievements? How do we ensure that firsts don't become onlys? For instance, here in Australia, we have gone from having our first female prime minister to now having only one female cabinet minister.

Perhaps we do what Obama is doing. He's using interest in an issue, momentum through profile, and appetite for change to drive an agenda and make a difference. He's maximising the enormous profile of these firsts to help ensure they become the first of many.

We can all do this.

This article was originally published at ABC The Drum