By Rhiannon Stanley, Trade Policy Officer, Free Trade Agreement Division, DFAT
“Even after some deliberation, it is difficult to find reasons to support the appointment of women trade commissioners … such an appointee would not stay young and attractive forever and later on could well become a problem.” – [Minute to the Director, Trade Commissioner Service, 13 March 1963]
That memorable statement was made four years before the appointment, 50 years ago, of Australia’s first female Trade Commissioner, Beryl Wilson.
At a time when women were struggling to be recognised in the Commonwealth Public Service, Beryl Wilson was a trailblazer. I personally find her a strong role model and inspiration.
Her career included postings in San Francisco, the Pacific Islands, New Zealand and London. She also served as Deputy Director within the then Department of Trade and Industry, parts of which later formed the Australian Trade and Investment Commission (Austrade).
In the lead up to her 1967 appointment, Beryl had been successfully leading the Los Angeles office, as acting Trade Commissioner, and had previously been acting as Trade Commissioner in San Francisco.
But her appointment still faced strong opposition; Beryl even recounted hearing that the Director of the Commissioner’s Service instructed the doctor conducting her routine medical examinations to attempt to find something wrong with her, to prevent the promotion.
Fortunately, Beryl’s appointment went ahead due to the support of Alan Westerman and Alan Carmody (Head and Deputy Head, respectively, of the Department of Trade and Industry). However, it was noted at the time that her appointment was not to be regarded as a precedent for others.
Thankfully, today, we continue to move firmly away from such sentiments. As DFAT Secretary Frances Adamson said on International Women’s Day earlier this month, “I am proud to lead a department which has as one of its key priorities, absolutely embedded in everything we do, the empowerment of women and girls”.
Today, female diplomatic and trade commissioner appointments at senior levels are increasingly common. Beryl’s appointment opened the door to this previously closed shop of very senior positons at DFAT for women, and a number of other female appointments followed her promotion.
DFAT is continuing this important work through implementing the Women in Leadership strategy, launched in 2015, and addressing remaining barriers to the career advancement of women. That DFAT now has such a forward-looking strategy is thanks to those like Beryl who allowed women like me to know positons at the top were possible for us.
For her part, Beryl’s enduring contribution to the trade portfolio and its contribution to Australian prosperity is recognised through the annual Beryl Wilson Austrade Scholarship for Women in International Business, which began in 2014. In addition, a meeting room at DFAT was named after Beryl in late 2016.
It seems fitting that the 50th anniversary of Beryl’s appointment occured as we celebrated International Women’s Day 2017, which had the theme #BeBoldForChange. Beryl, and the people who supported her, were bold – and have helped create roles for women seeking to work at the highest levels in the public service. There is a way to go yet before full equality is reached. But as we progress further on this front we will continue to look back at our predecessors who set such wonderful examples of being so very bold for change.
Rhiannon Stanley is a trade policy officer in DFAT’s Free Trade Agreement Division in Canberra. She has university degrees in Sociology, Business and Public Administration. She joined the department in November 2013, and is passionate about digital transformation.