Women In International Relations: In Conversation With Sue Boyd
By Perth USAsia Centre
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 article highlights Ms Boyd’s success story through a conversation with the Perth USAsia Centre’s Media and Communications Coordinator, Ryan Gibson.
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.
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.
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.
How did the book come about, and what do you believe readers will take away from the book?
The first trigger was obtaining my Stasi file in 2013. While I had been posted at the Australian Embassy to the German Democratic Republic in Berlin, in East Gemany from 1976-79 I knew that the East German security agency, the Staatssicherheitdienst, abbreviated to Stasi was keeping me under observation. They did that for all foreigners. It was formally forbidden for GDR citizens to have contacts with foreigners, so I knew that the many East Germans with whom I had professional or social contact would have had to report back on me. For them, it was the price they had to pay for having these contacts. I knew that they knew, and as I was not doing anything which could get anybody into trouble, we were all relaxed about it. It was a fact of life, and I was careful not to do anything which could compromise these contacts.
After I retired from DFAT I learned that it was possible, following the collapse of the Berlin wall and the reunification of Germany, to obtain any files which Stasi had held on me. Control of the Stasi archive was within a specially-created German government department and you could apply to read or get a copy of your file. I applied, using the appropriate application form, through the German consulate in Perth, and in due course was notified that indeed they had located files on me, and they were happy to photocopy and send these to me in Perth, for a very low fee, to cover costs. This box of 800-odd photocopy pages arrived in 2013, and I spent the next months reading all the documents, which were in German, and taking notes. My German language skills were for the most part up to the task, though I had to seek advice on some formulations which were beyond me. I decided that the contents were probably interesting enough to warrant publication. I thought they would interest the Australian security services as well as the more general reader. But in what format, and where? I explored the possibility of turning the information into an Essay for The Monthly, or for publication elsewhere. A German journalist friend thought they would be useful if published in German in Germany.
While this was going on, I had a lot of contact with international relations students, both at UWA and Murdoch University, and through St Catherines College and The WA Branch of the Australian Institute of International Affairs. They all asked the same questions. How do you get into DFAT? What subjects should I study to prepare for a career in international affairs? What other possibilities are there for someone interested in international affairs? What was it like being a woman in DFAT? How would it be for women with families? For gay women? What does an Embassy actually do? What is a Third Secretary? What happens if you disagree with your government’s policy or actions?
I came to the conclusion that all this warranted a book, and the Stasi article could be a chapter.
I was talking about all this for some time, and thinking about how I could manage the writing. I needed to be in my living room, with all my artworks around me, as I wanted to weave into the book my interest in the arts in each of the countries where I had worked. I needed a desk and suitable chair, but how would that fit into what was the living room of my house? My study was a cold room on the south side of the house, whereas the northern living room opened onto my garden, and I liked to be there. Then, in Sydney, voicing my challenges to my old Vietnamese teacher, Ninh, he introduced me to the perfect chair, a Scandinavian design by Stressless, which had a built in adjustable tray table, perfect to hold a laptop computer. He had written his whole PhD thesis in this chair! It was perfect for my needs. On return to Perth, I went straight into the store, tested out their chairs and found the perfect one to fit into my living room.
At the same time I was approached by Krystal Hartig, who had just finished her masters degree in international relations at Murdoch University, and was working with the Perth USAsia Centre at UWA.
She chided me forcefully about the need to actually sit down and WRITE the book, which she thought was an important enterprise, and offered to be my research assistant. The last piece was fitting into the puzzle and I immediately knew the time was right to start writing some stuff, so she could begin work helping with the manuscript. I was disciplined about time. I kept most mornings free for writing, was seated at the computer by 10 am, fully showered, dressed, made-up and with jewellery on – ready for the working day. I wrote until lunch time and sometimes into the afternoon. I tried to keep all my other commitments into the afternoon – coaching and mentoring clients, coffee with friends, medical appointments, meetings of various organisations, shopping and so on.
All this worked, and I had the first draft ready, including all Krystal’s input, in eighteen months.
My friend, Maureen Smith was living with the same neurological movement disorder I have – the quite rare Primary Orthostatic Tremor (POT), and this brought us together. She was a retired head of UWA Extension and had experience in professional editing. She very kindly carried out the first edit of my manuscript. I showed this to Terri-ann White, head of UWA Publishing. She made some serious and scathing suggestions for changes to the manuscript, which were useful, but she did not commit to publishing it.
Nicholas Hasluck, a friend who was much published author, offered to read the manuscript, which he thought was seriously good and worthy of a publisher. He educated me on the ins and outs of the Australian publishing scene and suggested we try and find a publisher in the eastern states. He said this was more than a local book. I found a literary agent in Melbourne, who read the manuscript and agreed to try and find a publisher for me. She suggested that in order to make it more marketable, in the current “Me Too” environment, I should include my experience as a woman, with all the discrimination that it entailed, and the work done to change the work place accordingly. It would make the book of interest to the gender studies world, as well as those interested in international relations. So I rewrote the manuscript accordingly.
But my agent had to report failure in her approaches to publishers. She said that in the prevailing economic climate, they were only interested in biographies of people who were already famous. “And” she said “I don’t want to be hurtful Sue, but you are not yet sufficiently famous”. So she suggested I should exploit on my position in Western Australia, and look for a West Australian publisher. When I approached Terri-Ann, with the considerably amended manuscript from the one she had seen originally she agreed instantly to publish it. Writing the book took 18 months. Finding the publisher had taken another 18 months. And then it took a further 12 months to actually bring the book out.
So, my target audience was originally my international relations students, who would find the answers for many of the questions they had posed. But as the book developed, it seemed to work for a wider audience. Indeed as a study of how a woman made it through a man’s world, it appears to be of interest. The book includes hitherto unpublished information about some of the important international relations situations I had been involved in, which will be of interest to IR practitioners. We cover Vietnam, East Germany, East Timor, the United Nations, Bangladesh, Hong Kong and the Pacific. I have a well-developed sense of humour, and that comes out in the book. Two reviewers, Diane Smith Gounder and Imrana Jalal, said it sometimes made them laugh out loud. I include some useful information on leadership, which I term “The Christopher Robin theory of leadership” as well as evidence of leadership experiences included in the book.
As well as stories from my international postings, I include stories covering my work in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade at headquarters in Canberra, working closely with Ministers, and also working in the Australian States.
While an undergraduate at UWA, I worked for three years as a journalist for the (now defunct) West Australian newspaper The Daily News and readers report that the book is well written, with an easy flow and is a good read. It is a series of great stories. The journalist Patrick Cornish, who has read the book says you can see that it was written by a journalist, marked by attention to the smaller details and the context of each story. In his introduction, Kim Beazley, a former Ambassador in Washington, says that it is a feature of all DFAT officers that they write very well.
A unique feature of the book is the inclusion of images of artworks I collected in each of the countries where I worked, along with the story of the artist and the role played by art exchanges in diplomacy. I hope readers will come away with an understanding of the role artists and of “soft diplomacy” in the conduct of international relations.
Based on your experience, how do you see the Indo-Pacific evolving over the next five years, and can you discuss some of the most important developments likely to take place in the region?
The Indo-Pacific is clearly of priority importance to Australia, and I have been fortunate to have considerable experience in the region. I was born in India, the third generation of a British family living in that country. Though my family left when I was six months old, I grew up with stories of my mother and my grandmother’s experiences, the language they used, the relationships between the Indians and the British Raj, many of the stories carried by my maternal grandmother, who lived with us for several years until her death. My first Head of Mission posting was as High Commissioner in Bangladesh, in itself an interesting country to work in, and I made some progress in speaking and understanding the Bengali language, including the written script. Bangladesh was also of course, close and inherently bound to India, and I used my time also to make exploratory visits to and try to begin to understand the country of my birth.
I spent three years in Vietnam, at a key period in its own development and building a multi-faceted close relationship with Australia – business, political, cultural, development cooperation.
I had one year in Hong Kong, immediately after the handover of the British colony, back to China. We had annual meetings of the Australian HOMs and HOPS in China – Beijing, Guangzhou and Hong Kong. And in the subcontinent, we had annual meetings of the Australian representatives in New Delhi, Dhaka, Kathmandu, Islamabad and Mumbai. These were good opportunities to focus on the regions and the current and emerging issues. I witnessed one disagreement between our old school High Commissioner in New Delhi, Graham Feakes and the new DFAT Secretary, Stuart Harris. Feakes complained that nowhere on our agenda for the meeting was an item, covering most of what he did, i.e. reporting on India. The Secretary told him that DFAT did not want any more reporting on India. It wanted analysis of what was going on with an emphasis on Australia’s interests and what Australia needed to do.
Rounding out my career were four years in the Pacific, with responsibility for Fiji, Tuvalu and Nauru as well as the Pacific Islands Forum, which took me to Samoa, Solomon Islands, Hawaii, Vanuatu and Palau. I managed our way through the Speight coup in Fiji, the restoration of constitutional democracy, the Australian Government’s “Pacific Solution” for managing the arrival by boat of asylum and refugee seekers and the establishment of RAMSI, the Regional Response to the troubles in Solomon Islands. Upon retirement, I joined the board of the Pacific Regional Human Rights Organisation (RRRT) and worked there for 10 years, visiting the Pacific many times.
In the Pacific, I observed at close quarters the change in Pacific Islander’ attitudes to Australia, their happier relations with New Zealand and the growing influence of China. Australia’s refusal to recognise and show sensitivity to the islanders’ belief in the reality of climate change and its impact on the low-lying states of the Pacific was a serious challenge to the old relationships.
The Pacific Island States Australia has to deal with have now changed. The population is better educated and resists the old colonial attitude which characterised Australia’s relationships in the past. The history of Australia’s relationship with East Timor and particularly the negotiations over the oil reserves in the Timor Sea have soured the view of Australia. As did the conflict over the copper mine in Bougainville.
Frank Bainimarama, as the Prime Minister of Fiji, characterises the new pacific leader. He was angered by efforts by Australia to demonstrate displeasure at developments in Fiji following the Speight coup, and then Bainimarama’s own coup. Australia cancelled parts of the bilateral aid program. It banned Fijians who had anything to do with the Speight coup from visiting Australia, including bans on sporting teams. Australia’s preventing Fijians from travelling anywhere which involved a transit through Australia was deeply resented. The Australian Government’s “smart sanctions” were designed to encourage Fiji to return to Parliamentary democracy. The very word “smart” was insulting. The implication being that the islanders were less than smart. There was a sense that Fiji was not being recorded respect and understanding. The fact that Australia was first to respond to the community needs following a cyclone made little difference. China was had already started moving in to fill the gap. It provided the new swimming pool complex in Suva for the Pacific Island Games in 2003. It funded and built the new road around the northern perimeter of Viti Levu island, linking Suva and Nadi and providing better access for the less developed northern part of the main Fiji island. Baimarama could thumb his nose at Fiji’s old friends, and turned not only to China, but also to India, for the new diplomatic group of friends. The period was uncomfortable for Australia’s High Commissioners, as Bainimarama was easily slighted and swift to show his contempt for Australia and its diplomatic representatives.
The strong commercial and economic relationship did not outweigh the political discomfort. I paid a short personal visit to Fiji in 2018 to visit our High Commissioner, Margaret Twomey, who had been my deputy during my term as High Commissioner. George Konrote, a prominent Rotuman, had been a close friend of both of us. Shortly before my visit, Konrote was appointed President of Fiji and when Margaret Twomey paid him a courtesy call, she mentioned my imminent arrival. He showed great pleasure at this news, and promised to have us both for lunch at Government House. Soon after my arrival, the formal invitation arrived, but soon after came an apologetic message from Government House saying the lunch could no longer go ahead.
It was clear that PM Bainimarama did not welcome the symbolism of the lunch, with the current and former High Commissioners of Australia. Shortly after this, I bumped into President Konrote at my hotel, where he was attending an official function. I went up to him and was embraced wholeheartedly by both him and his wife. In the closeness of the embrace he apologised for having to cancel the lunch and confirmed that he had been forced by the Prime Minister and the Attorney General.
The challenge for Australia is to work through the Pacific Islands Forum and bilaterally to build the new relationship of mutual respect. Australia can no longer be the gently bullying but loving elder brother. It is a matter of limiting the extension of Chinese influence while providing a mature and solidly based multi-faceted partnership with the Pacific Island nations. The development assistance program is a useful tool. (“Aid” is an outmoded term).
Maritime activities in the region are providing opportunities for Chinese influence, competing with Australia. East Timor acquired two Chinese Shanghai-class patrol boats in 2008 to protect its ocean fishery. In October 2019 a Chinese warship with Rear Admiral Yu Wenbin from the Chinese Peoples Liberation Army visited Dili and accepted Dili’s request for China to train Timorese naval officers. In August the same year Scott Morrison had visited East Timor to celebrate the 20-year anniversary of East Timor’s vote for Independence from Indonesia. He announced that Australia would provide a package of maritime support measures for an upgrade of the county’s port at Hera, east of Dili. This will also be the port for two Guardian-class patrol boats gifted to East Timor under Australia’s Pacific Maritime Security Program, with delivery expected in 2023. The boats are being built at the Austal Facility in WA. Similar Patrol Boats had earlier been provided to most Pacific Island states, accompanied by Australian Naval training staff. Morrison’s visit to East Timor, just 720 kms from Darwin, was the first for 12 years. It was clearly an attempt to repair the relations damaged by a bugging scandal and the handling of the sea boundary negotiations. Some see Dili’s efforts to strengthen relations with China as a balance to what some in the Timorese government see as undue influence and pressure from the West, including Australia. East Timor has established a 2000 strong Timor-Leste Defence force, known by its Portuguese language acronym F-FDTL. It draws its inspiration from the Australian “Sparrow Force” which conducted guerrilla warfare against the Japanese during WWII. It includes 200 women. There is scope here for joint training exercises with Australia,
In Dili China has financed the construction of important buildings including the Presidential Palace, the Foreign and Defence Ministries and the Defence Force Headquarters. It also financed the construction of the Timorese Embassy in Beijing. One of China’s objectives has been to convince East Timor not to allow diplomatic representation by Taiwan. This has been successful. Taiwan keeps up constant pressure in each the Pacific islands to support it, rather than mainland China, in the UN and elsewhere. Financial assistance is part of the persuasion package. Some states have flip flopped in their attitudes over recent years.
We can expect an increase in Mainland Chinese military, political and economic presence in the region, where a small gesture can have a great impact.
Looking forward, I see a growing and greater sophistication in the way the Pacific Islands leadership deals with international partners. I see improving economic circumstances, improved health conditions, noting the successful and sophisticated way Pacific Island Countries have dealt with the Covid 19 Pandemic. There will be continued pressure for freer labour movement, and the current shortage of agricultural workers in Australia, due to Covid 19, should open the doors for an expansion of the seasonal worker program from Pacific Islands, and important contribution to the islands’ economies.
The Australian Government has increased its agencies focussing on the South Pacific – the challenge is to come to the task with the right frame of mind and build Pacific island literacy among Australian politicians. The excellent and well funded New Colombo Plan is designed to develop an Asia literate workforce among Australia’s emerging leaders, and it includes a Pacific Island capacity. We should hope to see more soft diplomacy initiatives in our region, to accompany good commercial and economic linkages.
Beyond the Pacific Islands, Australia continues to explore ways in which the relationship with India can grow – how meat can be put on the bones. This is a hardy perennial – India is a difficult market to penetrate. It is also a complex political situation where it is hard to know what is going on, what Australia’s interests are, and how we move to maximise the mutual benefits. There used to be Australian universities where this was studied, but these areas of academic expertise were untended and dwindled. There is room for renewed interest and investment in this area.
China continues to be an important trading and political partner for Australia. Times are currently difficult and call for great skill on Australia’s part to ride out the storms and continue to build partnerships for mutual advantage. China cannot be ignored but must be treated with respect. It is proud of its history and historical power relationships. Australia needs to work skilfully to ensure a mutually useful relationship. China will remain a highly significant trading partner for Australia.