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Australian Women in Diplomacy: Australian Diplomacy for Women

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Speaker: Trevor Peacock, Australian High Commissioner to Cyprus

Eastern Mediterranean University, Cyprus

Trevor Peacock, Australian High Commissioner to Cyprus, E&OE

Professor Sözen, Ladies and Gentlemen

Australia has its first woman prime minister.

The Prime Minister's current ministry contains eight women ministers (out of 30).

But we have never had a woman foreign minister (or trade minister, also in our portfolio).

What we have had, since September 2011, is a Global Ambassador for Women and Girls, Penny Williams. We are one of only five countries to have such a position. The United States has an Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues. Norway has an Ambassador for Women's Rights. Spain has an Ambassador for Gender Issues and Pakistan has a Goodwill Ambassador for Women's Empowerment.

Altogether we now have 24 women ambassadors and high commissioners out of 81. They include some of our most important head of mission positions, such as Ambassador to China, High Commissioner to Canada and High Commissioner to South Africa.

This has been a very dramatic change since the days when I joined the Department of Foreign Affairs in 1985 when there were only two women heads of mission (coincidentally, one of them was High Commissioner to Cyprus).

In this first part of my talk, I'd like to look at why in the past there were so few women heads of mission, and so few women diplomats generally, and what has happened in the meantime to make the difference. Of course, the answers to some extent mirror broad social change that was happening at the same time, but the answers also throw up some quite specific institutional answers that are relevant for foreign service and public service careers, not only in Australia.

Until 1966, the most significant barrier for female career diplomats in Australia, as in other western countries, was the marriage bar. This was a requirement for women either to resign on marriage or, if marriage was allowed, to be regarded as unsuitable for posting overseas. These restrictions limited women's opportunities and compelled some women to make tough decisions about their personal lives. The marriage bar reflected the views that a married woman should be supported by her husband, and that married women took men's jobs. It was also argued that recruiting women was an inefficient use of resources – who employ women when they would marry sooner or later and have to resign? The resistance to appointing married women rested on claims that there would be no place for a male spouse at an overseas mission and that it would be socially inappropriate – if not scandalous – to post a married woman without her husband.

Partly as a result of the marriage bar, the Australian diplomatic service recruited only three women in the whole of the 1950s. But only partly – there were other factors, including the widespread prejudices of male officers against the capacity of women to perform the work as required. For example, as late as 1963, a trade official named Mr Taysom, opposing women's recruitment as trade commissioners, argued that " women could not mix nearly as freely with businessmen as men do; they could not withstand the fairly severe strains and stresses, mental and physical, of the trade commissioner's life, and "a spinster lady can, and often does, turn into something of a battleaxe with the passing years – whereas a man usually mellows". Tellingly, the writer's greatest concern was that women recruits "would take the place of a man and preclude us from giving experience to a male officer".

Happily, in 1966 Australia became the first western nation to lift the marriage bar. Subsequently the numbers of women recruited by the foreign service increased and some, who had previously left on getting married, returned. The introduction of equal pay in Australia in 1973, and flexible working hours and paid maternity leave in 1973, removed further barriers to women's employment. Throughout the 1970s more women were included in the larger numbers of young graduates being recruited to a rapidly expanding foreign service. From about one in six in the early 1970s, the proportion of women rose until in 1985, the year that I joined, for the first time more women than men were recruited. From then the numbers were roughly even until the last decade, when the balance generally shifted towards women.

But even as the number of female recruits was steadily rising, significant prejudice continued against female officers within the department. In 1973, the ambassador in South Africa asked that a female officer not be sent to the post as it was unsuitable for a woman. Senior officers in Canberra also appeared to consider that some posts in the Middle East and Africa were unsuitable for women diplomats, though the same misgiving was not applied to secretarial and communications staff.

Although by 1984 most forms of overt discrimination had been removed (and a couple of female ambassadors had been appointed) informal barriers remained, including negative attitudes about the professionalism of women officers. A survey of women officers that year also found that women felt inhibited by a predominantly male culture and the domination of male executives. Over half felt that being a woman had affected their career. In areas of the department where they were the only woman, most felt isolated at some time and under special scrutiny. Married woman believed that institutional barriers to their promotion and postings continued, as well as negative assumptions about their ability to manage work and family commitments. Some men remained adamantly opposed to women working on these grounds. One woman who went on to be ambassador at several of our most important posts and is now the Governor of the State of Queensland, recalls being told at that time by a senior officer – when she was required to collect her children from day care – that she needed to decide whether she was a mother or an officer, reflecting a then prevalent view that it was not possible for women to be both.

The catalyst for real institutional change came in 1984 with the passage through the Australian Parliament of the Sex Discrimination Act and the Public Service Reform Act. Under this legislation, the government committed the federal bureaucracy to implement equal employment opportunity (EEO) programs and to identify and remove barriers to equal employment opportunity. A strategy to develop gender-sensitive analyses of the government's budgets was introduced through the Women's Budget Program, requiring all departments and agencies to review thoroughly every aspect of their activities that could be regarded as having implications for women. The 1984 survey was the first phase of the Department of Foreign Affairs' response.

In order to respond to the views reflected in the survey in a systematic and forward looking way, in 1985 the department introduced an EEO program that required the achievement of indicative outcomes in significant areas for all women officers – diplomatic and administrative. Within three years the department's EEO outcomes included reducing the number of posts deemed unsuitable for women officers; reviewing the status of women in delegations to international conferences to increase their inclusion and broaden their involvement; strengthening EEO within the department by appointing an officer as an ombudsman for women officers; supporting the department's family-sensitive operations with family liaison officers; reviewing recruitment procedures to remove perceived gender imbalance' and encouraging mentoring for junior officers. These EEO programs served to change – or at least moderate – attitudes among male officers to their female colleagues and to raise awareness about practices that were disadvantageous for women officers.

A number of other issues emerged from a similar study in 1994. These included a persistent culture of long hours – the perceived career advantage of being seen to work late, regardless of efficiency; and the need for greater departmental support for officers to fulfil family responsibilities. A significant development that helped women officers in particular was the establishment in 1996 of a childcare centre within the department in Canberra. It was one of the first work-based childcare centres within the Australian Government bureaucracy and became a model for other such facilities. In other family-friendly initiatives, the department established a "family room" for parents to care for non-contagious sick children, and a "babycare room" for women officers to breastfeed in private. The on-site childcare made it easier for officers, both male and female, to balance work and family responsibilities; as did the subsequent vigorous "working smarter" campaign that addressed the issue of long hours by emphasising prioritisation to make a shorter working day be used more effectively. The department also negotiated reciprocal work agreements with a number of foreign governments to make it easier for diplomatic spouses to work overseas, thus increasing the attractiveness of overseas postings for families.

There is no doubt that from the mid-1990s women in the department had a higher profile. Visible examples of this were the annual activities that the department sponsored at home and overseas to mark International Women's Day, celebrating a growing list of achievements by women in Australia's foreign service, including service on dangerous assignments. Events to mark International Women's Day continue. Each year of my recent posting in Jordan my wife and I would invite eighty or so women to our residence, for a discussion on women's life and work by Australian and Jordanian presenters, which my wife would chair. Tomorrow there will be a public International Women's Day event in the atrium of the department's building in Canberra, featuring presentations by the Ambassadors of Denmark and Mexico and the High Commissioner of South Africa, all women.

More significantly, by the end of the 1990s an increasing number of women were filling the ranks of senior career officers, including the appointment of a woman as deputy secretary of the department – there are now two – and larger numbers of women headed Australia's overseas missions and posts.

Australia's first female head of mission was Dame Annabelle Rankin; she was a political appointee and not a member of Australia's career diplomatic service. A former senior cabinet minister, Dame Annabelle was appointed in 1971 as Australian High Commissioner to New Zealand. The first career head of mission, Ruth Dobson, was appointed three years later, in 1987, as Ambassador to Denmark. Neither of these appointments, however, signalled a significant change in the approach towards appointment of women as heads of mission. From 1974 to the end of 1992, only thirteen female officers were appointed to head Australian missions overseas, one of them, Mary McPherson, being appointed High Commissioner to Cyprus in 1982.

The reasons for the low number of female ambassadors and high commissioners were examined in a study by the department in 1996. While some of the explanations identified were to do with selection and appointment processes, others were quite specific reasons why such appointments were not always attractive for women. These included the difficulty of obtaining employment for women's spouses, coupled with the assumption made in societies some spouses that male spouses should work; the requirement for a woman head of mission to run a residence as well as a busy mission; the intense scrutiny to which they might be subjected locally, particularly if they were the sole female among all the diplomatic representatives in a country; while some societies found single women culturally puzzling.

On the other side of the coin, the same study outlined advantages which women ambassadors and high commissioners believed they brought to their positions. As women they were seen to be more ethical and, because they were more consultative, better managers of staff. They had access to a broader range of contacts because they could talk more easily with women, who in many societies might not be politically or economically visible, but who were influential. In developing countries their access to women gave them an advantage in dealing with projects for women, which were often those at the forefront of Australian development programs. Where they were the only head of mission, or one of just a few, in a particular country, they were role models raising Australia's profile in the local community.

The outcome of the 1996 study and the department's renewed focus on appointing women to head its diplomatic missions was that many more women applied for these positions in the following months. From seven such appointments in 1995, by February 1998 the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Alexander Downer, was able to announce that eleven women now headed Australia's overseas missions and posts, including two in the Middle East. In March 1999 the number rose to fourteen.

Figures about ambassadors don't show the whole story about women in diplomacy. But they are a useful indicator, and an increase from women being 5 per cent of Australia's ambassadors and high commissioners in 1985 to 30 per cent today is surely a serious measure of achievement. Furthermore, the posts currently held by Australia's women ambassadors and high commissioners include a number – such as Amman, Baghdad and Pretoria – which in earlier times were regarded as unsuitable for women diplomats at any level. In my own career experience I find it interesting – diverting, perhaps – to compare Australia's 30 per cent of women ambassadors and high commissioners with the total number of women ambassadors – from anywhere – in countries where I have served. In Amman, Jordan, 1.5 per cent of the resident foreign ambassadors were women when I commenced in 2005 (there was just one, from Georgia), and 9 per cent when I left in 2009. In Cyprus, currently 18 per cent of the resident foreign ambassadors and high commissioners are women. No doubt other countries have greater numbers of women ambassadors elsewhere, and no doubt the history that I have told of the progress of women in Australia's foreign service would be broadly paralleled in other OECD countries, even if Australia can lay claim to a couple of firsts such as removal of the marriage bar.

Currently, the status of women in Australia's diplomatic service is in line with leading western foreign services such as those of the United Kingdom, the United States and Canada. This position has been achieved through many changes that have taken place within the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and its predecessor departments over the years since the first women diplomatic cadets joined Australia's fledgling diplomatic service. Three factors influenced these changes: forces within, as women maintained their belief in their capacity to manage successfully a full and rewarding career in diplomacy; external pressures, as the government legislated against the iniquity of limited employment opportunities for women; and progressive departmental practice that came with recognition of the various difficulties and implementation of measures aimed at better management practices.

The role of women as Australian heads of mission is secure. Young women now entering Australia's foreign service as graduate trainees do so with every expectation that they might well represent their country at the highest level of international diplomacy.

Going beyond career foreign service issues to the second part of this talk, the appointment of an ambassador for women and girls demonstrates and is a key part of a commitment to improve our advocacy on genders issues and actively promoting gender equality in all aspects of foreign and trade policy, including by putting gender at the core of our development assistance programs.

In announcing the ambassador's appointment, former Foreign Minister Rudd said that she would work to ensure the needs of women and girls were properly represented in Australia's overseas development program and in foreign policy more broadly.

It is clear that is in development programs that we can do the most to improve the welfare and position of women and, to look at it a little differently, we have also found overall that aid spending is more effective when women are central to our investment. The ambassador's priorities include coordinating and promoting Australia's work to eradicate violence against women, improving access to services for women, the protection of women and girls in conflict zones and increasing the representation of women in leadership roles.

We're proud of the fact that through greatly increased spending in the last five years we've now become the seventh biggest aid donor in the world, in absolute terms. But that ranking brings with it a great responsibility to ensure that we're directing assistance widely and well. The involvement of women, on both side of the donor/recipient relationship, is clearly critical to that.

The gender equality initiatives the Australian Government has driven over the past five years are significant, particularly the release last year of a draft National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security, with the final plan to be launched in the coming days. The action plan is within the framework of the UN Security Council Resolution 1325, a landmark resolution which recognised the essential role of women in the prevention of conflict and as full participants in post-conflict peace building and reconstruction efforts. Australia's action plan will set out our plan to integrate gender perspectives and recognition of gender-specific issues into all of our peace and security efforts and support work to eliminate violence against women in fragile, conflict and post-conflict situations where Australia operates.

In supporting women through our development assistance program we focus particularly on the Asia Pacific region which has been ranked lowest by the United Nations Development Program on a range of gender indicators including access to education, employment and political participation. The International Labour Organisation has estimated that the Asia Pacific region is losing up to US$47 billion annually because of women's limited access to employment opportunities. Of the ten UN members with no women in their parliaments, six are in the Pacific.

Let me give you some examples of the sorts of activities that Australia has been assisting in this growing part of our assistance program.

In Afghanistan, we've helped build over 800 schools and train over 98,000 teachers across the country.

Under the Taliban, school enrolments were a dismal one million in 2001 – of whom none were girls. Today there are over seven million enrolments and over 2.5 million of those are Afghan girls.

In Nepal, we've helped more than 3,000 women set up new businesses through the United Nations Development Program's Micro Enterprise Development Program.

In Bangladesh, we have supported a local Non Government Organisation which helped more than 21,000 women in extreme poverty develop sustainable income generating activities. Four years after receiving assistance, 98 per cent of past beneficiaries have remained above the poverty line.

And in Papua New Guinea, we've helped boost the number of women village court magistrates from ten in 2004 to more than a thousand at the end of 2011 through increased recruitment and training. We've assisted an estimated 1,050 victims of family and sexual violence in Papua New Guinea through a number of Family and Sexual Violence Units.

In Fiji, we've helped to provide counselling and support services to nearly 4,000 women subjected to violence through 2009 and 2010, through support for the Fiji Women's Crisis Centre.

In Bougainville, we've helped train rural health workers to improve antenatal and postnatal checks and manage obstetric emergencies, seeing a 33 per cent increase in supervised deliveries, from 3,175 in 2005 up to 4,210 births by 2009. This is estimated to have reduced maternal deaths from 235 per 100,000 in 2006 to 123 per 100,000 in 2009. Ensuring women survive childbirth is fundamental to all else we are talking about.

In Samoa, we've enabled over 300 girls and boys with disabilities to get to and from school, trained teachers in sign language, and provided tailored learning materials.

We've supported the Vanuatu Women in Development Scheme – a microfinance initiative in Vanuatu, now with 6,000 members, allowing women to take out loans, repair their homes, start businesses and support their villages and families. I understand this scheme has seen members report a change in attitude from their husbands, with women happier, busier, and more engaged in their own futures.

And we announced in November that we would support the Vanuatu Women's Centre to deliver counselling, legal services and emergency accommodation for up to 15,000 survivors of violence.

We were one of the first countries to pledge multi-year core funding for UN Women, recognising the important work that the United Nations does to improve gender equality and empower women.

I'd like in closing to tell a story from Mrs Rhoda Geita, one of Papua New Guinea's first women magistrates appointed in 2008.

On the front line of gender-based violence issues in the Pacific, her story shows simply and beautifully how supporting women and engaging men on this issue holds the key to overturning this age-old problem. She says:

"As a woman and a mother, when domestic violence comes up I try and get women talking. In a case where a man hit a woman in the market for not getting his food, I made him switch places with her for a week so he could learn what it was like for her running her stall all day, looking after children, cooking his food. After three days he came and said he now understood why I made the order. I told him he had to finish the week as that was his penalty. At the end he came and apologised to his wife.

Women come and talk to me about domestic violence – they speak their feelings. They are often scared of talking to men."

From little things, big things grow.

Finally, let me put the two parts of this talk together. Australia has made a serious commitment to orient its development assistance programs towards women. We have done so in the conviction that by empowering women, the world can be changed for the better. Link that, if you will, to the understanding that women diplomats' better access to women gives them an advantage in dealing with projects for women, and what we have is an affirmation that equity for women in diplomacy goes hand in hand with a commitment to diplomacy for women, for the sake of all.

It remains for me to thank you for your attention and to wish to all the women here a happy international women's day for tomorrow.

Kadinlar gününüz kutlu olsun, teşsekkür ederin.

Last Updated: 10 December 2012
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