By Felicity Errington, Gender Equality lead, Southeast Asia Division
Launched in 2015, DFAT’s Women in Leadership Strategy tackles barriers to women’s career progression in the department, and seeks to enable all staff to reach their full potential. The Strategy applies to all staff, both Australian and locally engaged at our many overseas posts, and aims to ensure that all staff feel included, valued and inspired to do their best.
I spoke with three of DFAT’s inspiring women leaders at our Jakarta, Dili, and Hanoi posts about how they exercise their leadership in the workplace, and what advice they have for Australian colleagues seeking to make the Women in Leadership agenda a reality for locally engaged staff.
Patricia Bachtiar is a Senior Program Manager at Australia’s Embassy in Jakarta, Indonesia, working on gender equality issues in partnership with the Indonesian Government.
Patricia, who has worked for the Australian Government in Jakarta for 13 years, speaks passionately about her work: “I am captivated by so many development issues around the world that I am exposed to.
“Particularly in the current digital age, where knowledge is at our fingertips.
“I’ve also had the privilege to meet, learn, and network with so many experienced individuals, and the majority of them are women,” she said.
She speaks glowingly of the opportunities she has had working at the Embassy. From travelling to the most remote places in Indonesia, meeting and talking with people from all levels of society, and bringing what she learns from them into her work. She knows she is helping to make our region more secure and prosperous.
DFAT has supported Patricia as a female leader at post by giving her opportunities to access knowledge and research; to participate in discussions; to take up new work challenges; and to attend in-house and external training. Most significant though, for her, has been a succession of empowering supervisors.
I asked Patricia if there was one thing she could say to Australian colleagues about supporting locally engaged women in leadership at posts, what would it be?
“Despite locally engaged women at posts generally having tertiary education, it is not always easy for us to completely get out from our social cultural norms about women,” she said.
“Traditionally, we are trained to listen, to avoid too much attention, to respect the elderly or the more knowledgeable, and so on… I remember an Australian-based supervisor gave me some advice that an important value when working in an international organisation such as DFAT is to be proactive – to participate in discussions or in corporate events and so on.”
“I was perhaps lucky to have that advice, although it was not easy to break away from my ingrained values. So, my advice to Australian colleagues is to uncover the hidden talents of your staff and provide them opportunities so DFAT can benefit from their leadership potential.”
Isaura Teresa is Human Resources Manager at Australia’s Embassy in Timor-Leste, and has worked there for five years. She sees the biggest gender equality challenges facing Timor-Leste as access to education and decision-making.
“It is very common in our country (especially in the remote areas) for people to depend on men to make decisions in every situation,” Isaura said. “We, as a new generation, need to change this type of cultural belief and to support our children – girls and boys – to access high levels of education.”
Despite this, Isaura is encouraged by the recent increase of female participation in Timor-Leste’s parliament, and the election of women chiefs in villages.
Passionate about helping people, Isaura describes working with the Embassy’s human resource team as one of her dream jobs. She is particularly positive about her role in helping to run the learning and development program, which significantly improved staff performance at the embassy in 2017.
I asked Isaura how DFAT has supported her as a leader at post, and what makes the biggest difference in building women leaders. She said the establishment of the Women in Leadership Committee at the Embassy, which is currently prioritising how to support women to lead official meetings and represent the department, had been significant.
“The Australian Embassy is one of the best organisations to work for,” she said. “This is because they always prioritise the wellbeing of employees, and see the importance of everyone accessing career development, both personal and professional…
“The best way to support women leaders at post is to give the female leaders more opportunity to attend training, workshops and conferences, because I have experienced myself how this has built my knowledge and confidence to lead my team. Recognise their strengths and give them the chance to lead.”
Duong Hong Loan has worked for the Australian Embassy in Vietnam or the past 15 years, and is currently the Head of the Strategic Coordination Unit at Hanoi post. She provides Embassy leadership with strategic advice about Vietnam, mentors Vietnamese staff, and manages the innovation agenda, aid quality and evaluation, and coordinates aid. She enjoys the role as it utilises her knowledge of, and networks within, the Vietnamese government system. In Loan’s words, her job brings “new things every day, [and] no day is business as usual.”
“No matter what you do in the society, in public, in the community, being a female, the top priority [for you] is to look after your family. If anything goes wrong in the family, it’s the woman’s fault. Things are worse in rural and remote areas.
“From the outside, gender equality is a great story in Vietnam, but from the inside, social norms are yet to be changed.”
Loan speaks of the positive impact doing a secondment had on her leadership development: senior management encouraged her to take a 15-month secondment to perform the role of Vietnam Country Director for Thrive Networks (US based NGO), to enable her to experience a senior leadership role in another organization.
If there was one thing Loan could say to Australian colleagues about how they can better support locally engaged women in leadership it would be this: “Talk to locally engaged women staff, listen to them, and together with them, identify opportunities to support them. Then follow up. Don’t just give a one-off opportunity to tick the box of compliance. If you are really serious about giving locally engaged women a chance, and in supporting them in leadership, you need a strategy.”
DFAT’s Women in Leadership strategy asks Australia’s embassies to apply the Strategy to their local circumstances, and develop their own action plans: for example, Honiara post has supported female staff to obtain drivers’ licences; Hanoi and Dili posts have provided a carers’ room to support breastfeeding mothers; and Jakarta post has established a mentoring program. Patricia, Isaura and Loan’s suggestions provide excellent insights. In the words of Loan though, its implementation that is key: “Talking is easy, launching a strategy is fancy, but making it work is the real challenge.”
DFAT is committed to making it work.
Felicity Errington works on gender equality for DFAT’s Southeast Asian region. Prior to this, she worked on global partnerships in the Gender Equality Branch, and recently took leave from the Department to manage an Oxfam program in the Solomon Islands aiming to prevent and respond to violence against women.