Being bold for change: DFAT’s South-East Asia Mainland and Regional Division

phil-green Phillip Green, First Assistant Secretary, South-East Asia Mainland and Regional Division. 

On International Women’s Day, I asked my colleagues to reflect on how women have shaped and inspired their work.  The result is an important and diverse set of reflections below from a group of skilled and bold women.

Nerida King Nerida King, Assistant Director, Strategic Issues in South East Asia

Strategic and security challenges are present in all parts of our world; and effective diplomacy is the best way to address them. I’ve been privileged to work as a diplomat on a range of Australia’s key relationships, from our Pacific neighbours, to North and South East Asia.

Early into my career, I spoke at my first International Women’s Day event in the Solomon Islands in 2004. At that time, the capital Honiara was receiving an influx of returning women and girls because of an improved security situation following the arrival of the Regional Mission to the Solomon Islands. These women were ambitious and hungry to play a part in their country’s future. It was particularly powerful to see women boldly rise to combat corruption, political indifference and barriers to economic development.

In Beijing, China’s foreign policy and regional engagement was the focus of my work. The majority of my contacts were men, but I found it was the female voices, Chinese and international, that added a crucial depth to my understanding of China and analysis of China’s policies.

Our Secretary, Frances Adamson, was my Ambassador in Beijing and her example continually raised the bar. She inspired us all to think more deeply, analyse issues more thoughtfully; but also to invest in our families and ourselves, because this is what sustains us.

The department understands that diverse workplaces produce better results. Our division has embraced both flexible and remote working opportunities (which I am using as I write this blog) to ensure a range of voices are heard on all issues confronting South-East Asia. Strategic and security analysts are still predominately white and male, but this is changing and it’s great to be part of that change.

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Nerida King at a market stall during a visit to Yunnan Province, China 

Nerida King works on strategic issues in South East Asia. She returned to work in Canberra in 2016 following maternity leave and a four-year posting as First Secretary (Political) at the Australian Embassy in Beijing, China. She was previously posted to the Australian High Commission in Honiara, Solomon Islands.

Heidi.png Heidi Bootle, Director, South-East Asia Development Strategies Section

As a diplomat, there are countless opportunities to connect with people across the globe, including women and girls.  I have valued the remarkable women and girls I have met in the course of my work, extending into difficult-to-reach parts of the world, such as Futuna island (in the French department of Wallis and Futuna) or Ulawa (in Solomon Islands), but also in major metropolitan cities, such as Paris.  In all of these places women have very important roles in society, though these may vary greatly.

One consistent theme for me in all of these places has been the importance of building inclusive societies.  There are things we can do collectively and individually to support inclusive societies, and we can have a weighty impact through Australia’s aid program.

Individually, we can insist on hearing voices that are easily drowned-out, including through our diplomatic, community and public dialogue.  We can genuinely listen and learn from people of differing backgrounds and different parts of society including, or especially, the most disadvantaged.

Since DFAT assumed responsibility for Australia’s integrated aid program, it is easier to connect the dots between our diplomatic and development work.  As a newcomer to the aid world, I am now tracking and assessing the impact of our aid across South-East Asia, including in supporting inclusive societies.  Our aid investments can have even more impact, if we focus on the whole of society. Programs like Women’s Economic Empowerment through Agriculture Value Chain Enhancement in Vietnam are having a real impact on the lives of women and girls in our region, assisting rural women to connect to income streams, education opportunities and to benefit from economic growth.

Women throughout South East Asia experience significant economic and social disadvantage. Australia’s support is connecting women to more diverse income sources, with real and positive outcomes.

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Heidi Bootle with scholarship recipients departing for Australia, 2015

Heidi Bootle returned to Canberra from almost four years as Australian Consul-General to New Caledonia, French Polynesia and Wallis and Futuna.  She has previously been posted to Solomon Islands (twice) and France.

Anna Anna Sutiyono, Policy Officer, Vietnam and Cambodia Section

On International Women’s Day 2017, I reflect on the female leadership that surrounds and has inspired me during my DFAT career.

I recently returned from a posting in Manila in an Embassy headed by Australia’s second female Ambassador to the Philippines, Amanda Gorely. The Philippines is not short of its own female leaders. It has had two female Presidents, Corazon Aquino and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, and currently a female Vice-President, Leni Robredo.

In my new role in Canberra, I have happily landed on the Cambodia political desk. Gender equality and women’s empowerment are key themes of Australia’s aid partnership with Cambodia.  This reflects our commitment to direct Australia’s development assistance towards these important issues. I don’t have to look far for female roles models in my current role: my Director (Anita Dwyer) and Branch Head (Lisa Wright) model strong leadership, as does Australia’s Ambassador to Cambodia, Angela Corcoran.  At the top of the Division, Philip Green, is a champion of DFAT’s Women in Leadership Strategy. Not forgetting of course DFAT is led by its first female Secretary, Frances Adamson, coupled with leadership by Australia’s first female Foreign Minister, the Hon Julie Bishop MP.  

It’s an exceptional time for Australian diplomacy. In keeping with this year’s International Women’s Day theme, Be Bold For Change, these are indeed bold and inspiring times.

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Anna Sutiyono (right) in Manila with Australian Ambassador to the Philippines, Amanda Gorley, and Philippine DFAT officials responsible for Philippine-Australia bilateral relations.

Anna Sutiyono is currently a policy officer in the Vietnam and Cambodia Section. She recently returned from three years as Second Secretary (Political) at Australia’s Embassy in the Philippines. 

Nancy Nancy Yang, Policy Officer, East Asia Summit and Regional Architecture Section

Norms shape our perceptions of the world and influence our actions. At the core of my team’s work is strengthening ASEAN-centred regional security forums to reinforce strategic norms. That is, how do you encourage countries to behave in a way that the broader community would judge to be fair and acceptable? In celebrating International Women’s Day this year, I thought about how social norms around gender – in both DFAT’s corporate practices and policy work – have evolved.

I think you can’t change others’ behaviour effectively without examining your own. When DFAT inquired into barriers to women’s career progression in the department, it said to me that the department recognised the playing field was not equal. When DFAT initiated the resulting Women in Leadership Strategy, it signalled to me that the department was seeking to level the playing field. When implementation of the Strategy became a regular part of our team discussions, it sent a strong message to me that this was indeed a priority.

But I know that shifting cultural norms is incredibly hard – norms are by definition entrenched and self-sustaining. I am encouraged, however, by changes I see around me. Meeting room names have been changed to honour pioneer women diplomats. Gender equality and women’s economic empowerment objectives are embedded in our policy work. These changes are important because you look at those around you – consciously but often unconsciously – then decide what is possible. So it’s affirming to know it’s possible. Hopefully one day it will be the norm for both women and men to thrive equally.

Nancy Yang works on the East Asia Summit, a regional security forum comprising 18 countries in the Indo-Pacific. She previously served as Deputy Director of the Australian Office in Taipei. Before then she worked on the G20 and Southern Europe issues.

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