'Front and centre is the only woman, Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop.'

When ANU's Dr Katerina Teaiwa explained her heritage to the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) women's economic empowerment conference, held in Kuala Lumpur last month, she personified the region:

I was born and raised in the Pacific, with roots that cross many oceans. My mother's family is a mix of Native American, African and European heritage, extending back from North America, across the Caribbean and Atlantic to Africa via the slave trade. My father's people are the product of an Austronesian diaspora that began in East Asia, extended down to Southeast Asia and went across to Madagascar in the Indian Ocean and east via Melanesia, as far as Hawaii, Easter Island and New Zealand. Our family is the meeting place of many oceanic crossings...

IORA is similarly diverse. It consists of 20 member countries with more than 2 billion people (that's 30% of the world's population) of varying cultures and religions. Member countries range from Indonesia to Yemen and from Madagascar to India. Australia is the current chair of IORA.

Last year's group photo of the IORA foreign ministers (above) is telling: front and centre is the chair and only woman, Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop. At the next IORA ministerial meeting in Perth in October 2014 we hope for more female foreign ministers.

Australia has put gender on the agenda. The IORA conference I hosted on behalf of Minister Bishop in Kuala Lumpur was the flagship event to further Australia's aspiration on the economic empowerment of women. The event had a focus on textiles and tourism, two areas in which women are active in every member country. Textiles involve women as artisans, workers, designers, entrepreneurs and traders. Tourism is anticipated to account for one in every ten jobs on the planet by 2022.

Among women in the Indian Ocean countries there is growing entrepreneurialism, labour force participation and leadership aspirations. Yet discrimination in institutions and social norms is widespread. While barriers differ across countries in the region, there are common features of women's participation in economies. These include low labour force participation, discriminatory laws, gaps in pay and gaps in education. High rates of violence against women also underpin most societies' challenges for women.

Women and men shared their stories at the IORA conference. A female entrepreneur told of being inspired by her single mum, who wanted more for her daughter. Some women were just starting out in business. Others had built theirs to a stage where they could invest in other women through social enterprises. There were women in international business, women active in civil society, women in academia. They were all pushing for change in the social norms that hold them back or see them working the double-shift of a professional woman and a mother and wife. Many participants had inspiring stories.

And while inspiration is terrific, policy makers need only look at the dry facts. The evidence is in: empowering women is smart economics. As The Economist observed in 2006, 'Forget China, India and the internet: economic growth is driven by women.' When women are able to develop their full labour market potential we can expect economic gains in the order of a 25-30% in the region. And women invest more in health and education, reducing poverty.

So what can be done? The workshop participants came up with six messages, and tangible actions under each. They concluded that governments and businesses need to invest in vocational education and make it more relevant to women and women entrepreneurs. They agreed the creative economy had great potential. They thought we need better data to measure progress for women across the region. They agreed that policy settings like trade negotiations need to take account of gender. They wanted to see IORA countries place a priority on responsible tourism. They wanted to register that change won't occur until gender stereotypes are acknowledged and leaders recognise the potential role of women in their societies. The Australian Foreign Minister will take these messages to the IORA ministerial meeting in October.

We are realistic. We know that it takes time to change mind-sets and time to formulate plans and projects. But we do expect change, because the case is so strong and women's voices are starting to resonate.