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The Game of Thrones effect: the interrelationship between role models and reality for women in international security


Speaker: Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Frances Adamson

Hyatt Hotel, Canberra

It is a great pleasure to be back for a second year participating in this conversation alongside a remarkable line-up of leaders over the two days of ANU's Women in National Security Conference.

I begin by acknowledging the Ngunnawal people as the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, by paying my respects to their Elders past and present – and this afternoon, by recognising, in particular, the contribution Ngunnawal women have made to our broader community.

I thank National Security College and, of course, Rory [Medcalf] – for hosting these events, and encouraging, I am certain, future waves of female leaders in international security and in foreign affairs.

Security and defence is still undoubtedly a male-dominated profession, but for those of you here today who are still students – perhaps about to embark on your own careers in the field – my great hope is that you will see that change over the course of your professional lives.

The Game of Thrones effect

So, now, to "the Game of Thrones effect."

As it happens, I am one of an increasingly small minority who have managed to resist total and complete obsession with the series.

For me, it was intriguing; a surprise when a pop culture obsession harboured by my 23-year-old son and, secretly, his younger sister started to appear in the kind of media publications that sit on my iPad rather than theirs – articles cropping up in The Economist, in Forbes, in Time Magazine.

It was enough to have tempted even me, not usually a big sampler of the sci-fi/fantasy genre, to learn a little more.

Though I remain at arm's length, an observer of the Game of Thrones phenomenon rather than an avid viewer, what has intrigued me most is that the series has become a most unlikely picture of modern-day feminism.

Over the many controversies of its seven seasons, Game of Thrones draws a long bow to illustrate a nuanced transition.

It starts with a highly sexist world where women can expect to be shamed, objectified, brutalised by individuals and institutions around them.

They are defined by their vulnerability – fathers marrying off daughters, wives expected to bear sons, women openly uncomfortable with the restraints placed on them through rigid, gender-based social expectation.

By the end of it, however, we arrive at a world where each of the many female leads – both good and bad – have chipped away at those barriers, and against the odds, proven that they are resilient, strong-willed individuals; rational and independent.

They have agency and are decision-makers in their own right.

And perhaps most relevant for our conversation here today, they challenge their systems and ascend to take the most powerful international security roles in their world.

  • in governance, we see the likes of Daenerys and Sansa
  • in diplomacy, Catelyn
  • in warfare, Arya, Brienne, Yara.

There are some – Margaery – who take advantage of traditional social constructs and use manipulation to exploit those who underestimate their intelligence.

There are others – disillusioned with the men around them, who transform to prize the power that they are deprived of above all else, and to reject morality as a perceived means of survival.

These characters are far from perfect - they are complex and multi-dimensional – but they have seized agency where that agency was once categorically denied to them.

Motivational influence of role models

Game of Thrones is a series watched by over 16 million people around the world.1

There is no data I could find on this, but I'd hazard a guess that the bulk of those viewers are among the millennial generation.

It leads me to think of these characters; the fact that they are so visible, each so distinct from the others, each so multifaceted in her history and motivations and priorities.

Women like that did not appear in the TV shows I used to watch when I was growing up, when I was at university, when I was just beginning my career.

But they are becoming increasingly visible and increasingly normalised in today's media – in Game of Thrones, in so many other fictions, as well as in real life today.

We do not all have dragons at our beck and call and neither are we all born into privileged nobility, as in the case of Game of Thrones.

But we do happen to live in a time where women can be Jedi Knights [in Star Wars], where they step on-screen as Dr Who, where they are centre stage in the fight against terrorism [in Homeland].

What is the influence of the visibility of these characters on girls and on young women; on how they see their own access to positions of strength, control, and leadership?

The term "role model" was coined just last century, by the sociologist Robert K. Merton2 to describe the fact that as human beings, we model what we see and admire in others.

Several studies have since found that women benefit from role models of their own gender much more than men do, particularly when those role models are associated with study or work.3

Visible role models have always been important.

There is little doubt in the research that they influence career aspirations:

  • as representations of the possible, that women can reach certain goals
  • and as representations of inspiration, that those goals are valuable.

Yet, in an age of the internet, of social media platforms, of news saturation, the influence of common social narratives and of what is visible to us in mass media and in popular culture is all the more important.

By the same token though, they are perhaps also all the more malleable.

In speaking to colleagues in preparing for this speech, I learned from the Principal Gender Specialist in my own Department [Amy Haddad] that she uses a TV series called "The 100" to teach her own children about gender roles in international security and in peacebuilding.

I don't know the series well (to me "the hundred" says Pilates) , but Amy tells me it's set in a future, in a world where there are strong female leaders, making strong decisions on all sides of a multifaceted conflict.

I hear that her son, now 14 years old, points out scenes when major decisions are made in the show's narrative without women present in the room – for him, those scenes jar; he identifies them straight away as a sign that the decision will turn out to be less than ideal.

Normalising women in leadership roles is just as important for boys as it is for girls, particularly in their formative years.

The research is clear – whether fictional characters or non-fictional real-world leaders, the more women you see in these types of roles, then the more routine it is for women to take up these roles, and eventually, the less those roles are seen through the prism of gender.

We live at a time when our youngest generation is growing up, having seen strong women increasingly embedded in the global international security framework.

For an 18 year old, choosing to step into tertiary study at the National Security College – this may be some of you here today – names like Madeleine Albright, Margaret Thatcher, Indira Gandhi, Golda Meir and even Condoleeza Rice are practically ancient history.

Jacinda Ardern, now the third female Prime Minister of New Zealand, is no longer all that remarkable for her gender – the media is more heavily focused on her progressive policy platforms, possibly her young age, and of course, her baby Neve on a full charm offensive at the UN General Assembly.

Angela Merkel, Theresa May – they are not commonly "women leaders" anymore either.

They are just "leaders."

Here in Australia, Julia Gillard, our first female Prime Minister endured her fair share of gendered media commentary while in office – but in doing so, made it a little easier for whoever comes next.

Julie Bishop, our first female Foreign Minister and an excellent advocate for the Australian interest.

Marise Payne, our current and second female Foreign Minister, also our first female Defence Minister.

For that 18-year-old, this may not be all that remarkable at all – perhaps there's no real memory of the last time that we had a male Foreign Minister.

We are starting to piece together enough visible role models in our media outlets that gender becomes less and less of a defining factor – but of course, there is a long way to go.

Only when we have a critical mass of women coming through in these positions are we really going to be able to overcome the politics of gender.

Around the world today, we have only 20 female Heads of State or Government – amounting to a tiny 6 per cent overall.4

Only 24 per cent of Members of Parliaments around the world are women – the US trails at 19 per cent, Afghanistan is above the average at 28 per cent, Rwanda leads at 61 per cent.5

In Parliaments of Pacific island countries [excluding Australia, New Zealand and French territories], that number drops to just 7 per cent.6

Globally, women constitute only 4 per cent of UN military peacekeepers.7

Here in Australia, they are 36 per cent of staff across the Australian Federal Police; 16 per cent in the Australian Defence Forces.8

Women in the field of international security

The reality is that our impetus to bring more women into the fold of international security is so much more than just altruism.

Amy's 14-year-old knows that – diversity in a room of decision-makers leads to a better decision.

The question of intrinsic difference between women and men is a contentious one – a debate I will leave to the scientists.

However, what we know without any doubt is that we still socialise boys and girls differently, from a very young age.

Girls are still held up to silent markers – talk less, listen more, be more inclusive, be more empathetic.

Boys receive their own messages – be assertive, be strong, hide weakness.

These are stereotypes, but they do still run deep in our society.

It is hardly surprising, therefore, that men and women would show different traits and bring different qualities to international security roles.

One need only read the memoirs of Wendy Sherman,9 the first woman Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs, serving the Obama administration.

The woman who, among other achievements, led negotiations for the P5+1 Iran nuclear deal.

She speaks of a lifetime navigating Washington politics, overcoming familiar double-edged swords such as "tough," "assertive," "ambitious" or even "aggressive."

Compliments for the men in the room; red flags for the women.

She speaks of women around the table banding together, silently supporting each other:

  • through personal commitments, such as caring for children or for aging parents
  • through interruptions and oversights from male counterparts
  • through insecurities and lags in their own self-confidence.

She cites an internal study conducted by Hewlett-Packard in 2017 that showed that men will apply for a job when they have 60 per cent of the qualifications for the post.10

Women, on the other hand, will only apply when they can show that they have all of them.

I personally find it helpful when, beyond anecdote, I can point to data as evidence of systemic issues that I can recognise all too well – this is one of those cases.

Barriers do exist, and they must be acknowledged – but I have been one of the fortunate ones; privileged with a strong education, a supportive family and strong female role models on my maternal side.

For me, those barriers were not insurmountable.

My personal experience as the first female Head of Mission at our post in Beijing was that my gender was an enabling factor rather than a hindrance.

I often stood out in a room and Chinese leaders would recognise me and come over and speak, as Vice Premier Wang Yang did in a crowded forum in Urumqi in 2014 when I needed to advocate for the conclusion of our Free Trade Agreement.

I was also often able to develop deeper and more productive professional relationships with female Chinese contacts at senior levels.

I invariably found my Chinese interlocutors - male and female - courteous, respectful and attentive. After all, China had posted its first (and so far only) female Ambassador to Australia, Fu Ying, several years earlier. Of course, we've since gone one better, with our second female Ambassador, Jan Adams, now in Beijing.

Foreign environments steeped in more prevalent gender bias can present challenges for our women diplomats posted abroad.

However, there are many times where their presence is uniquely useful – if for nothing else, than for their visibility as role models in their own right – strong, capable women across the table from their local male counterparts. I'm going to introduce some of them to you shortly

Women are also essential to understanding and engaging with local women, and developing a different appreciation of the needs and wants of the community as a whole.

Where we can, we make an effort to ensure that Australia represents a gender balance in these situations – visibility is important, no matter where in the world we are.

In China, we have Ambassador Jan Adams.

In the Middle East and Southwest Asia, traditionally relationships where security issues have a significant profile – in our posts in Abu Dhabi (where we have a female DHOM, Julie Shams) Baghdad (headed by Ambassador Joanne Loundes), and Tehran (female DHOM Anna Oldmeadow) - and heading further east to Kabul (where Nikki Gordon-Smith is our Ambassador) and Islamabad, where Margie Adamson serves as our High Commissioner.

Across key security partners in the Indo-Pacific – in New Delhi (where we have a female High Commissioner, Harinder Sidhu), in Washington (where Katrina Cooper serves as Joe Hockey's deputy); in Honolulu (where Jane Hardy is our Consul General) and in Tokyo (where until recently we had a female deputy, Clare Walsh, until, that is, she was promoted to Deputy Secretary). And on the subject of Deputy Secretaries, I was delighted to see Caroline Millar move across from DFAT to PM&C earlier this month to take on the Deputy Secretary National Security role.

Across multilateral posts, where the international security architecture is debated and negotiated and eventually reformed – in New York (where Gillian Bird serves as our Permanent Representative to the UN), in Geneva (where Sally Mansfield is our Permanent Representative and Vanessa Wood is the Counsellor for Disarmament) and in Vienna (our DHOM, Alison Drury) .

Aside from the optics of our representation, there is also strong evidence tying women to successful outcomes in peacebuilding.11

Whether informal influence at the grassroots level, or whether in formal positions of institutional power, the contribution of women is critical to our international security goals.

Impacts touching a broad stretch of fields – crisis management, international legal practice, intelligence analysis.

One recent study examined 40 peace processes, finding that where women were involved, parties were significantly more likely to reach agreement, and that those agreements were themselves more likely to be successfully implemented.12

Other well cited studies have shown a strong relationship between the status of women in a given society and the likelihood of that society experiencing war and conflict.13

Where women are more empowered in multiple spheres of life, countries are less likely to go to war, or to have serious problems with crime and violence.

It is a truly remarkable conclusion – gender equality seems to be a better indicator of peace than a society's wealth or the strength of its democracy.

Why is this important?

Because an understanding of gendered issues is key to examining how we can best leverage our diplomatic network, and best allocate our development budget.

Gender equality is a widely recognised part of Australia's foreign policy posture and part of our global contribution – from the multilateral level right down to our grassroots development work.

We have been a strong advocate for UN Security Council Resolution 1325 to boost the role of women in peacebuilding, security and foreign policy.

1325 recognises that the experiences and needs of women differ from those of men in conflict and post-conflict situations, particularly in relation to human rights violations such as sexual and gender-based violence.

It underlines the essential role of women in conflict prevention, management and resolution.

For Australia, this is a critical framework – not a tokenistic gesture, but a commitment to practical implementation voiced in our National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security.

Currently a member of the Human Rights Council, we have used our membership to promote gender rights around the world.

Across each and every one of our overseas posts, our diplomats engage partner governments – advocating for the inclusion of gender equality objectives in national planning, in budget process, and in legislative reform.

Australia's development investments are likewise used to influence and advocate for broader gender equality gains.

Under current government mandate, at least 80 per cent of all aid investments must effectively address gender issues in their implementation.

Fair to say that very few areas of my Department's work do not have at least some consideration of gender equality.

Issues of politics, trade, economics and security affect men and women in different ways and our engagement increasingly reflects this reality.

We partner with the private sector to increase women's economic empowerment.

We assist women to develop leadership skills and strengthen engagement in their own local political systems.

We support local champions and service providers seeking to end violence against women.

An impressive, current, example of actively integrating a gender equality approach, is in the Department's work negotiating a Trade and Gender chapter of the Pacific Alliance Free Trade Agreement.

This Chapter recognises the benefits of joint cooperation activities and the sharing of best practices aimed at improving the ability of women, including workers, entrepreneurs, business women and business owners, to fully access and benefit from the opportunities created by the FTA.

In particular, Australia sought to accelerate tariff liberalisation on sectors that would have a disproportionately positive effect on women. The idea is that there could be positive gender outcomes through accelerated liberalisation of sectors that impact upon women.

In the Pacific Alliance context the two predominant areas where women are represented are in agriculture and in textiles production. Many small holding farms in Latin America are operated by women.

For instance, one of Colombia's main agricultural exports, cut flowers, are dominated by women with 65% of the workforce being women. In Chile it is similar story on horticulture. Similarly, the textiles production industry in Pacific Alliance states predominantly employs women.

Faster than normal tariff liberalisation of these sectors helps better align the goals of trade liberalisation and empowering women.

This sort of gender sensitive approach to trade negotiations recognises in a practical way that trade may affect men and women differently and that they may face different challenges and barriers in accessing trade and finance.

Structured domestic efforts to increase the visibility of female role models

Domestically, we are also proactive.

Recognising the barriers to change, and acknowledging the advantages of removing them, is only a starting point.

Structural inequality requires structural efforts from top down, and at every level in between, to address imbalance and to increase the visibility of female role models for younger generations.

In the two years since I was appointed Secretary, I have prioritised our Women in Leadership Strategy as a formal means to address an enduring gender imbalance in our foreign service.

When the Strategy was first launched under my predecessor Peter Varghese, most of the meeting rooms in our Canberra offices were named after men – the rest after native flowers.

There were no rooms named after the many women whose dedication and persistence has moulded this foreign service into one that we can all be proud of.

It was a symbol of a far more pervasive issue – women were underrepresented at the senior levels of the Department, and as our Ambassadors overseas.

Well, I am pleased to say that our Women in Leadership Strategy has gone a long way to inspiring real change, something Peter was pivotal in leading in its initial phase.

The strategy has supported the implementation of fundamental training to address unconscious bias at every level.

It has pushed to see female role models become more visible and more celebrated in day-to-day work, down to gender representation in the photos that hang in DFAT hallways.

It has gone a long way to normalising flexible and remote work practices under the Department's flagship "if not, why not" approach.

We celebrate personal stories under a "Faces of Flexibility" campaign.

We welcome staff on parental leave to join us with their babies and toddlers for 'policy playdates'.

We promote dialogue through a large gender equality network.

We track our own progress through "Listen and Learn" conversations with DFAT staff – men and women, junior and senior.

The results are already visible – more women are taking up responsibilities in the ranks of the senior executive and more women are being appointed as heads of our posts overseas.

In fact, today, I'm pleased to say that 40 per cent of our posts overseas are led by women – that's up from 27 per cent when the Women in Leadership Strategy was first launched at DFAT.

And we are on track to meet our target of 40% women at SES Band 1 level by the end of this year, though we will fall short of our Band 2 target.

We can see that change emerging across the broader public service:

  • 46 per cent of Australian Government board positions are now held by women
  • 43 per cent of the Senior Executive across APS departments are now women
  • 9 of the 18 departmental secretaries are women.14

Under the Male Champions of Change initiative, to which I am a Special Advisor and member of the founding group, we are working together with male colleagues to ensure that visibility is a key word in addressing unconscious bias.

Under the motto "you can't be what you can't see," we have been promoting a Panel Pledge across both the public and private sectors in Australia.

It is estimated that less than 15 per cent of panellists at professional forums in Australia are women.15

Those who take the Panel Pledge commit to accepting invitations to participate at professional forums only where there are tangible efforts made to encourage a gender balance among the speakers.

It has been a successful initiative – numbers of visible female speakers are up, event organisers are better engaged with the issue, and it is becoming increasingly normal to hear a diversity of voices.

Normalising the contribution of women to international security – that is the goal.

Seeing these successes, I have decided to take it a step further.

I have committed to my own personal Participant Pledge, which aims to ensure that women are represented not only as speakers, but also as participants – I will only agree to speak when the event organisers undertake to ensure that at least 30 per cent of attendees are women.

You have overachieved today!


Visible role models matter, whether in real life or on television.

As the Game of Thrones phenomenon draws to a close next year, its most important legacy may well be in its female leads.

Imperfect, often imprudent, but nonetheless equal to men in their capacity to make difficult decisions and to take on roles of leadership in international security.

Perhaps a sign of the new normal for the field in years to come.

1 Source:

2 Source:

3 Sources: Penelope Lockwood. 2006. "'Someone Like Me Can Be Successful': Do College Students Need Same-Gender Role Models?" Psychology of Women Quarterly 30(1): 36-46; Lucia Nixon and Michael Robinson. 1999. "The Educational Attainment of Young Women: Role Model Effects of Female High School Faculty." Demography 36(2): 185-194.

4 Source: New York Times New Rules Summit 2018: Groundbreakers on the Global Stage (interview with Jacinda Ardern and Julia Gillard),

5 Source: New York Times New Rules Summit 2018: Groundbreakers on the Global Stage (interview with Jacinda Ardern and Julia Gillard),

6 Source:

7 Source:

8 Source:; Women in the ADF Report 2016-17, Defence People Group, Department of Defence, Australia, 2017

9 Source:

10 Source:

11 Source: DFAT, Gender Equality Branch

12 Source: DFAT, Gender Equality Branch

13 Source: DFAT, Gender Equality Branch

14 Source: DFAT, Women in Leadership Secretariat

15 Source:

Last Updated: 24 October 2018
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