Boyd’s journey through diplomacy’s ‘sexist dark age’

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Pioneering diplomat Sue Boyd… “I worked hard to change the system where there was a barrier.” Photo: Helen Musa.

A TIMELY new book by pioneering diplomat Sue Boyd lifts the veil on one of Australia’s most male-dominated professions.

Boyd was the head of Australian diplomatic missions in Fiji, Hong Kong, Vietnam and Bangladesh and also had postings at the United Nations as well as in New York, Portugal and the former East Germany.

I caught up with her on a recent visit from her hometown Perth to Canberra, where the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade held a quiet launch of the book, “Not Always Diplomatic: An Australian Woman’s Journey Through International Affairs”.

Boyd’s book isn’t quite a tell-all no diplomat would do that but her racy style and direct language (which got her into a lot of trouble at times) leaves no doubt about what it was like to be a young woman embarking on a diplomatic career back in the 1970s. 

Gareth Evans, Foreign Minister from 1988-96, describes her as “a real pathfinder in leading our diplomatic establishment out of its sexist dark age”. 

The book will indeed arouse memories different memories for different people.

For me, it was her time in Vietnam and Bangladesh that resonated, along with the negotiations over East Timor for which her fluency in Portuguese equipped her.

Sue Boyd’s book “Not Always Diplomatic: An Australian Woman’s Journey Through International Affairs”.

For many women readers it will be the feminist trajectory in her narrative, laced with a healthy sense of humour, seen when she describes the difficulty of getting a good support bra while on a posting, or the looks of confusion on the faces of overseas diplomatic counterparts when they discovered that she, a woman, was actually our High Commissioner.

Boyd’s been back in Perth, where she initially rose to fame as a student politician, after retiring in 2003. The book has required exceptional discipline as, every day for 18 months she dressed as if she were going to work, wrote until lunch and then all afternoon.

Her path was eased by the surprising availability of access to Stasi files relating to an early posting. Hundreds of photocopied documents arrived, which, being fluent in German, she could read.

The Stasi exonerated her of any suspicion of being an intelligence agent, but, typical of the time, commented on her cooking.

“She is attractive and dresses well, with good housewifely skills… she drinks, but not to excess,” her file read.

At the heart of the book is the story of a young diplomat arriving at a time when women were thin on the ground in DFAT, but crucially when it was mandated that more women should be assigned to senior positions.

“I was part of all that change,” she tells me. “I worked hard to change the system where there was a barrier.”

As a long-time diplomat, she checked with DFAT who confirmed with her, “write what you like”.

That meant she felt free to cover her 34 years in the department, speaking up about gay diplomats, the situation of working spouses on overseas postings and other matters that will be fascinating to laypeople.

Boyd was born to be a diplomat. As a child she went to 13 different schools and got used to putting down roots quickly, learning several languages. She migrated here from England with her family as a late teenager, just in time to enjoy campus life at UWA, where she beat Kim Beazley to become president of the Guild of Undergraduates.

Since retiring, she’s been very busy giving lectures on diplomacy and it was a student who told her “you’ve got to write this”.

A friend, the writer and judge Nicholas Hasluck, helped her find the right publisher after she found that many publishers in that the eastern states are reluctant to take on biographies of people who aren’t already famous. Boyd was well-known in WA and eventually got an offer from UWA Press.

That relationship only hit one snag.

Boyd has devised what she calls the “Christopher Robin leadership” formula, a way of analysing leadership – “in your team you’ve got to have a gloomy Eeyore, a kind person like Kanga and a disruptive personality like Tigger… most important is to have a solid bear in the team like Pooh.”

But to her surprise, her editors thought the reference to Christopher Robin was obscure. Boyd stuck to her guns and it remains.

Another thing she teaches her students is that “women don’t have a career ladder; they have a career jungle”.

“Not Always Diplomatic” is an entertaining read, full of fascinating episodes covering everything from the 1980s floods in Bangladesh to the Speight coup in Fiji and her time negotiating peace in the Pacific from 1999 to 2003.

But as with all good books, there is a clear theme, summed up by her encounter with the then Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam. He needed someone to brief him on Portugal and asked the 25-year-old Boyd, just back from Portugal’s so-called “Carnation Revolution”.

“What’s going on in Portugal? What does it mean for Australia? And what should we do about it?” Gough boomed.

Those three questions, to Boyd, pretty well sum up the role of a diplomat.

“Not Always Diplomatic: An Australian Woman’s Journey Through International Affairs”, UWA Press. Available at all good bookstores, RRP $30.

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