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Transcript of speech by Robyn Mudie, Executive Director, DFAT Diplomatic Academy, given on Tuesday 6 March 2018 on the occasion of presenting the Ruth Dobson Scholarship for 2018 to Sally Swinnen.
Vice Chancellor, Professor Brian Schmidt, Professor Geoffrey Wiseman, Director of the Asia Pacific College of Diplomacy, Mr Robert Bolton, representing the family of Ruth Dobson, colleagues and friends.
I am honoured to be representing the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade at this evening’s ceremony to present the inaugural Ruth Dobson Scholarship.
As you have already heard, Ruth Dobson was the first Australian female career diplomat to be appointed as Head of Mission, as Australia’s Ambassador to Denmark from 1974-78.
Ruth’s appointment was a milestone for the Australian diplomatic service. It marked a significant shift away from a time when women were able to serve as – predominantly junior - diplomats, but with very measured expectations as to how long they could serve, due to the marriage bar (only lifted in 1966) and as to how high they might aim in terms of seniority.
Ruth’s story gives an insight to the determination and persistence required by women to overcome and exceed the barriers they faced in many professions at the time, including within the diplomatic service.
Ruth originally applied for a cadetship at the Department of External Affairs in 1943. Although her application was unsuccessful, she was employed as a temporary research assistant. Ruth was keen to work overseas, but found that her age (over 25) and gender both worked against her. So she resigned from the Department to work as a locally engaged employee at the High Commission in London.
In this role she clearly embraced every opportunity open to her, and acted as advisor to the Australian delegation to the United Nations in Geneva and the Paris Peace conference, before being selected to join the Geneva office of the Australian UN delegation, and, later to join the Australian delegation to the UN’s Third Committee in New York.
In all of these roles, Ruth remained a temporary, locally engaged employee, a status that, ordinarily, would have precluded her from aspiring to a permanent role with External Affairs. Ruth was clearly not going to let this stand in her way and by 1953 had gained a permanent position as a clerk in the Department in Canberra.
This was not the usual pathway to a diplomatic career, but Ruth continued to push against the boundaries and, after a further unsuccessful application for a cadetship, was eventually appointed as a diplomatic officer in 1957, fourteen years after her first attempt.
From that point there was no stopping her, as she gained postings to Wellington, Manila and Athens, interspersed with increasingly senior roles in Canberra, and culminating in her appointment as Australian Ambassador to Denmark.
These are the bare bones of a story which I am sure would reveal numerous instances of institutional and societal discrimination against women if we were able to delve a bit more closely into Ruth’s experience . However, even on the basis of these few facts, it’s clear that Ruth was ambitious, determined and persistent in her pursuit of a diplomatic career. Indeed, she did not stop at one Head of Mission appointment and went on to serve as Australia’s Ambassador to Ireland before her retirement in 1981.
The world, and the diplomatic service, has come a long way since 1974 and I am pleased to be able to tell you that today we have 34 women Heads of Mission serving in posts around the world, including at the most senior levels. I am delighted to acknowledge a number of colleagues who have served as Heads of Mission here this evening.
Despite this progress, there is still work to be done across the public and private sectors to ensure that women are equally able to pursue challenging and fulfilling roles, and to serve at the most senior levels in their careers of choice.
The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s Women in Leadership (WIL) strategy, launched by the then Secretary Peter Varghese in 2015, represents our own effort to support this ongoing process of change and reform.
The department committed to its WIL strategy so that all staff – women and men - would feel valued and supported to perform at their best. The strategy draws from research, expertise and extensive staff consultation.
The implementation of the strategy has driven deep cultural change in the department which helps staff reach their full potential and enhance productivity. There are now many active male and female WIL advocates across the department.
The “if not, why not?” approach to flexible work is being embedded across the department. Female role models are more visible and unconscious bias is being tackled. Gender-disaggregated data is regularly shared with all staff.
The results are visible; more women are reaching DFAT’s senior ranks and becoming Heads of Mission overseas, and there are positive changes in how women perceive their career progression.
DFAT’s Secretary, Frances Adamson, has taken direct responsibility for the strategy’s implementation and is pleased with what has been accomplished so far. There is more to do but there is a real determination to build a more gender equal workplace.
The WIL Strategy received the APS Gender Equality Award for 2017. At the time, the judges described the strategy as “ambitious and innovative”.
I am quite sure that Ruth Dobson would have approved of the strategy and its goals, but also of this description of it. Even with the brief insight we have had of her journey this evening, it’s clear that Ruth was a woman prepared to innovate, to take chances and leaps of faith and to challenge systemic barriers in order to achieve her ambitions.
One of the elements of the WIL strategy was to rename rooms in the RG Casey Building, DFAT’s Canberra headquarters, after significant female diplomats. Ruth was one of those given this honour, and has helped correct a longstanding anomaly whereby we had many rooms named after senior male diplomats, but in place of women, a series of rooms named after flowers. Again, I am sure Ruth would have approved!
On behalf of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, I would like to congratulate Sally Swinnen on her receipt of the inaugural Ruth Dobson scholarship.
I very much hope that the Scholarship will provide Sally with the opportunity to pursue her own ambitions and goals, and to take similar leaps of faith when required, albeit in a very different world to the one Ruth lived in less than 50 years ago.
I thank the ANU and the Asia Pacific College of Diplomacy for supporting this wonderful initiative to honour Ruth Dobson’s memory, and to educate and empower women leaders of the future.