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Gender inequality in the workplace is a pressing global problem. While we’ve made meaningful progress, women are far less likely than men to be active in diplomatic circles, there is still a long way to go. 


Here’s what HE Ms Sally Mansfield, the Australian Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the United Nations and Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, had to say about her role as Australian Ambassador, the obstacles she has encountered and what she hopes to achieve in her tenure. 



After finishing her Graduate Diploma in Public Administration at ENA Paris (French National School of Administration), Miss Mansfield joined the then-Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in 1985. She worked on issues including the Middle East, Africa, the Pacific and services to Parliament and Media. She served many roles in the DFAT - as Assistant Secretary, Chief of Protocol and head of Staffing branch. Her overseas postings have included New Caledonia in the capacity of Consul-General; Australian Embassy in Paris and Deputy Head of Mission and Permanent Delegate for Australia to UNESCO.

She has also taken part in a number of Emergency Response Teams - Phuket (during the 2004 tsunami); Bali (second bombing of 2005) and Dili (2006 East Timor crisis). In February 2016, she headed the Crisis Response Team sent to Fiji in response to Tropical Cyclone Winston. Until recently, she was serving as the Chief People Officer in DFAT before she assumed office as Ambassador to the UN in Geneva. 

Sally is married with one child. She and her spouse (also with DFAT) have accompanied each other on their respective postings. 


What do you hope to achieve in your tenure as Australian Ambassador to the UN in Geneva, and do you have any thoughts on where you’d like to go next?

The multilateral agenda in Geneva is wide-ranging and Australia has interests that we prosecute across many of these, in particular human rights, disarmament, health and humanitarian work, international telecommunications and labour. Furthering our interests can mean pushing for better international norms, measuring how we and others meet those norms, supporting people in crisis and contributing to better standards of living, through health and education.  Gender is a big focus for us, as is diversity more generally, and a focus on those most marginalised in society, such as those with disabilities, young girls, or the LGBTI community.  Having Australia contribute to furthering these issues is a government priority; as is projecting a positive image of Australia as an open and dynamic society working on these issues itself.

As to ‘where next’ – I’d like to return to Australia.  It’s important to balance time representing Australia’s interests overseas with living and working in Australia and making sure you keep in touch with our priorities.  And for personal reasons, as it is always good to come back home to family and friends.


What are some important attributes for an ambassador to have?

Being authentic and credible is important. The person who is effective in Geneva and dives into multilateral work may be very different from the person in Apia, Hanoi, Washington or Cairo.  Being curious about the world is invaluable, as is knowledge about your own country and what its interests are and how to further them.  A sense of humour goes a long way, and respect for others is critical.  As ambassador, you are responsible for the whole relationship with that country or organisation, so also being aware of the interests beyond those of DFAT is essential.  Each mission is a team and tapping into the knowledge, talent and experience of each person goes a long way in being productive and effective.  


Do you find the gender disparity reflected in diplomatic circles and in what way?

Given that I started in DFAT in 1985, this is an area I have seen change a great deal.  But I should say I joined the public service just when employment changes were legislated in Australia in the 1980s came through – graduate intakes before mine had had roughly 1 woman for every four or five men; whereas in 1985 there were 14 women and 12 men.  So, in that sense, balance seemed normal at the beginning, but as I saw more of the department, and of other organisations, I realised the situation was rather different.  Now, in Geneva, I have a great group of women ambassadors to work with and we use one another as a network of support.  That said, women represent about 35% of ambassadors in Geneva, so it is still not as balanced as one might hope.  Along with many colleagues here, I belong to the Gender Champions network to further advance equality, both in terms of the issues we cover, within our own organisation, as well as the UN and other organisations with which we work.

As for DFAT, it has made great strides in actively ‘shaking the tree’ through our Women in Leadership (WIL) Strategy to ensure that we are maximising performance and capability by enabling all women and men to thrive equally.  We’re not there yet, but the targets we’ve set and the good data we have ensure such issues are not left to chance.  The senior leadership in the department, with Frances Adamson as Secretary – the first woman to take the role –ensure that decisions are being made taking gender diversity into account.

As of July 2019, female Head of Mission/Post representation was at 42%, up from 27% in November 2015, when DFAT’s WIL Strategy was launched. This figure does not include political Head of Mission/Post appointments.  


Have you encountered obstacles as a result of your gender and, if so, how have you overcome them?

Early in my career I found I had very few women counterparts. Navigating what was clearly a man’s world took some doing.  It was not unusual to go to a diplomatic reception that spouses were also invited to, only to find that every other diplomat was a man. The men would be in one room, while the spouses (usually all women) in another.  Our ambassadors are now aware of what it means to have balance in their teams and know that getting diversity right brings broader views, different approaches and results in richer reporting and analysis.


What are Australia’s goals and interests for gender equality on a global scale, and how do we aim to achieve them through diplomacy?

The Foreign Policy White Paper (2017) highlights ‘the empowerment of women as a top priority’.  The department has a Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment Strategy that outlines three priority areas:

  • women’s leadership and voice in decision-making including in peacebuilding

  • promoting women’s economic empowerment

  • ending violence against women and girls


The Strategy targets gender inequality where challenges are persistent and improvement is slow, and mainstreams gender across all areas of the department.

Gender equality is an investment priority of the aid program. In 2017-18, $1.3 billion was spent on investments that targeted gender equality.  It is a major element of our bilateral program, notably in the Pacific, but of course also through multilateral and regional engagement where we push for anything from education for girls; safe places for women in refugee camps; health programs that target good outcomes for women through pregnancy to peacekeeping that protects women, such as when they need to collect firewood or water.  We also push for diversity in areas such as security or disarmament, which are still typically not areas where women are as present.



What advice would you give to young women hoping to enter into diplomacy/foreign affairs?

I have found my career endlessly rewarding – an extraordinary range of issues are covered by the portfolio, with options for people with varied backgrounds, from journalism to IT and far more.  For those who want to work overseas, you do have to think about family and the impact on your private life, and go into it with your eyes open, but the range of jobs and locations, as well as Canberra (which is far more grown up than it was in 1985!) means there are terrific opportunities.  Being a part of the Australian public service is a great career choice. So I’d say to anyone thinking about it, read up and go for it!


If you have any questions for Sally Mansfield, please:

1. Leave a comment under our Woman of the Week FB post, or

2. Email us at

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