Women in International Relations: In Conversation with Sue Boyd

24 Nov 2020
Women in International Relations: In Conversation with Sue Boyd
Council of the UWA Guild of Undergraduates 1969.

There are many women in the field of international relations that may be considered trailblazers, paving the way for so many modern emerging leaders. Sue Boyd is one such woman, serving our nation during her long and successful career, and now the author of Not Always Diplomatic: An Australian Woman’s Journey through international affairs. This blog is the first of a two-part series highlighting Ms Boyd’s success story through a conversation with our Ryan Gibson.
  1. Earlier in your career, you were a part of a new generation of women entering the foreign service, what are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen in the industry since then?
When I joined the then Department of External Affairs in 1970 our entry class was 23 graduates: only two of us were women. A third woman transferred from the general public service graduate recruitment, to join us after a few months. So then we were three. There were few role models of older, more experienced women in the diplomatic stream. Tonya Shand had to retire on marriage, and then retired a second time, for the birth of her daughter. Penny Wensley, who joined two years before us and went on to a stellar career, was already on her posting in Paris. So we women had to forge our own way, through the very masculine sea of colleagues. The older men were individually quite welcoming, but found it hard to relate to women who were not their wives or secretaries. 
It was a very hierarchical workplace, with strict rules for the times you had to arrive for work in the mornings and when you could leave at night. You were expected to be married to your workplace, to be seen to be working extra later hours, and over the weekend. This was difficult for those who had families or other private obligations. The three of us were then single and could then fit into these norms and expectations.
After a year of training, we were sent to our first postings, places which our gentleman colleagues thought were suitable and safe for us “ladies”. Penny had gone to France, I went to Portugal, Wendy Field went to Sweden and Jenny Turnbull went to South Africa. None of these was at that time in the Australian policy focus. And these postings were for three years, whereas the other more “difficult” posts had a two-year duration. Places like Tokyo, Jakarta, Malaysia, Moscow, India and Pakistan. Unexpectedly, South Africa and Portugal acquired a more interesting and important status during our postings, as East Timor and developments in Southern Africa became politically important.
But, back in Canberra, the federal government became committed to gender diversity, and departments were instructed to recruit more women. And then after a few years, the equal opportunity focus was broadened to include Aboriginal Australians and Torres Strait Islanders and people from the ethnic communities as well as those with disabilities. Experience showed that actually recruiting more outstanding women and others in the EEO categories was the easy part. The real challenge was making it possible for them to move into more senior roles and building a leadership group which was not made up only of white males.
I was a member of the working group set up by the department to look at current practices, identify the blockages, and advise on new policies and practices which would lead to a more diverse workforce and which would develop and use the skills of all its members. We identified the discrimination in postings as a blockage to be overcome. Those who had experience in the “two year” postings, in significant counties which really mattered to Australia (and who were men) were more competitive in promotion rounds and more easily moved into more senior positions. So the departments started to post women to such countries. The department’s practices also made it difficult for women (or indeed, men) who were married and had children. The introduction of paid maternity, and paternity, leave was a good start, and so was the later introduction of flexi-time, recognising the needs of families. And in due course, the department had a fully licenced child care centre at the building.
Parents were reimbursed for fees paid for boarding schools, if parents chose to leave their children at school in Australia when posted overseas, but reunion fares were only paid once a year. We got this changed, so that parents could also choose to have their children in boarding or other schools in Europe or America, and the regime of paid reunion fares was made flexible – parents could visit their children or children could come home for holidays. The foreign service wives were an important pressure group. They also won the right to work when overseas, where possible, and the commitment to negotiate reciprocal legal arrangements for partners at the local workplace. 
When we joined the department, the performance of the wife of an officer posted overseas was also assessed, along with that of her husband. This ceased. New challenges arose as “tandem couples” started to emerge – husbands and wives who were each foreign service officers. To begin with, the department refused to have them both at the same post, and in the first cases, positions were found for each at diplomatic posts not too far apart. This made life difficult not only for the two officers concerned, but for their families. But then it was agreed that both could be accommodated at the same, larger, post, where one would not have reporting responsibilities to the other. And it was agreed that if one officer was to be posted overseas, an accompanying partner would be granted leave for the duration of the posting, if that was sought. An important development was the recognition of gay couples, and the extension to the accompanying partner of the rights and allowances available to same-sex couples.
All this created a different climate in the department and at our overseas posts, and made it much easier for the talented women to prosper, and then enjoy an equal range of professional experiences which assisted their professional development.
Kim Beazley, who was posted as Australian Ambassador to Washington 2010-16, with his wife and teenage daughter, said that there were none of the earlier difficulties I had experienced, and he worked with a large number of very talented senior women who were representing Australia overseas. Most important of whom is Frances Adamson AO, Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. She was formerly Australian Ambassador to China, She is married and had an impressive career up the ladder in DFAT and in ministers offices, including four periods of maternity leave.
I feel very proud of the part I and my contemporary women colleagues played in bringing these changes about. When I tell the younger women I now mentor about these past difficulties, they are incredulous about the insults, sexism and discrimination we had to deal with.
The scope of international relations has also broadened over the years. Trade policy and the development of greater freedom in trade, and the range of trade commodities has grown. Intellectual policy and the growth of technical, digital and electronic industries have on the one hand made the practice of international diplomacy easier, yet more complex. As has the business of protection of Australian business internationally. As well as Ambassadors to most countries and international organisations, Australia now has Ambassadors for Climate Change; The Environment; Cyber Security; Arms Control and Counter Proliferation; Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation; ASEAN; Counter Terrorism; Gender Equality; People Smuggling and Human Trafficking; and Regional Health Security. All these reflect the broader range of international issues now of importance to Australia. And the scope of areas of speciality in international relations. Not all these posts are held by officers of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade: some are held by experts from other relevant government departments and non-government organisations.

Entering Perth Court Petty Session for the Obscene Publications Trial, Perth 1969 L-R Pelican Editor, Alastair MacKinley, Guild President Sue Boyd and Solicitor, Ian Temby
  1. You were the first woman to become president of a student association in Australia and then the first female ambassador to Vietnam. Did you consciously seek avenues where you could become a trailblazer within your industry? 
Not exactly. I didn’t set out to be “the first”. I was ambitious and confident in my own capacities and when I saw something I wanted to do or achieve I just set about doing it, pushing aside or overcoming any obstacles which got in the way. When I arrived in Australia I was 19. I had been educated in British schools, where it was normal to finish high school at age 18, with an Advanced level General Certificate of Education (GCE A-Level) in a few subjects. I had A level passes in English, French and German. 
After school, I went to teach for a year in an upper primary school in Northern Rhodesia/Zambia with the British Voluntary Service Overseas. Then my family decided to migrate to Western Australia and I started study at the University of WA in 1966. I lived at St Catherine's College, and while there were some older students, like me, most freshers had come straight from school, aged 17. I was more confident and mature and had a wider range of experience. I was more advanced in English and French studies than the curriculum required, but had the challenges of new subjects like geology, psychology and politics. I already had plenty of organisational and leadership experiences, at school, in Africa and in the Girl Guides. I had been a prefect at school, and had founded a music society. I had been the captain of sports teams. Judith Laszlo, one of our psychology teachers at UWA who had taken an interest in her students, told me “Sue, you can achieve anything you want”. I took all this to heart, and undertook organisational and leadership roles at College. In second year I jointly managed the annual Miss University Quest for UWA, with Helen Wildy, who was a year ahead of me. Later that year I was elected to Guild Council. 
In 1968 when elections for Guild President were held, I had no hesitation in picking up suggestions that I should put myself forward. I was confident that I was better experienced and more suitably qualified than the two other candidates – Kim Beazley and Tim Blain – who happened to be male. There were important tasks to be accomplished for the student body and I was confident I could achieve them – whatever they turned out to be. The fact that I was a woman was incidental, and possibly a hurdle to be overcome. It might turn out to be an advantage. It certainly grabbed the headlines and made people sit up and think.

SB with Vietnamese President Le Duc Anh during Official Visit to Vietnam by Australian Governor Bill Hayden. Dallas Hayden on left 17 April 1995

 Much the same processes were in play when I joined DFAT. Obstacles were there to be overcome, and there were many smaller obstacles along the way. But when they asked me to go as High Commissioner to Bangladesh in 1986, I saw it as an interesting and worthwhile post. I did not realise till afterwards that my posting was the first of a woman to an Islamic country. That was not the obstacle to be overcome in Australia. The Department was under pressure to appoint more woman as Ambassadors, and I was an early cab off the rank. Penny Wensley was already in Hong Kong and Ros McGovern, seconded from Ausaid, was in Singapore. Both posts were in the policy focus. Di Johnstone was soon to be Ambassador in Nepal. And then we were four – all in Asia.


Ryan Gibson
Ryan Gibson
Media and Communications Coordinator
Ryan works as the Media and Communications Coordinator at the Perth USAsia Centre, responsible for the Centre’s external profile. He holds a Bachelor of Science and a Master of Strategic Communication from the University of Western Australia.
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