Book review: Sue Boyd, Not Always Diplomatic: An Australian Woman’s Journey Through International Affairs (University of Western Australia Press, 2020)

I first met Sue Boyd in Hanoi, where she was Australia’s Ambassador to Vietnam. She was an intriguing figure, combining a razor-sharp intellect, calm professionalism and a sense of command in official settings, and an irreverent wit in more relaxed contexts. She was observably highly effective as Australia’s representative in Vietnam: businesslike, personable and lacking in the pomposity that infected other diplomats.

Now retired, Boyd has produced a memoir, Not Always Diplomatic: An Australian Woman’s Journey Through International Affairs. For anyone interested in Australian diplomatic history it will be an informative and entertaining read.

But the book is more important as a set of observations about a woman’s career through a deeply patriarchal profession. Boyd discusses the deeply entrenched discrimination she experienced when she joined the Department of External Affairs in 1970 and the ongoing challenges and barriers, many cultural, unintended and semi-conscious, she continued to face in her many postings. Crucially, she writes of her strategies for dealing with the challenges (including her wicked humour), and in so doing she has done a great service to women everywhere.

A must-read – for women and men, Boyd speaks of the importance of supportive allies, the skilful use of humour and a broad set of interests to help overcome gender barriers.

Boyd begins the book with the story of her parents and grandparents, her birth in India and childhood and adolescence in various countries, and finally England. A lot of her early memories and adventures are described in a rather “jolly hockey sticks” way, but give the reader a sense of the richness of her early experiences and the way they must have moulded the personality of this consummate diplomat. Particularly enjoyable is her account of the year she spent as a volunteer teacher in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) and the liberating effect it had on her attitudes, including regarding race. She also describes her political activism at the University of Western Australia, where she met such luminaries as Kim Beazley and the historian Peter Edwards, an erstwhile boyfriend.

She describes in the preface a meeting with Gough Whitlam in 1974, when summoned to brief the Prime Minister on the coup in Portugal, from where she had just returned from a posting. Whitlam asked, “What’s going on in Portugal? What does it mean for Australia? And what should we do about it?” These three questions (though not necessarily about Portugal), she argues, frame the day-to-day work of Australian diplomats, and were to be the constant stimuli for her own work through her career.

Boyd recounts her postings to Portugal, East Germany, the United Nations in New York, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Hong Kong and Fiji. Each of these accounts combines a sense of the policy issues at play with observations about the local conditions, people and cultures she encountered. A passionate art collector, she explains that appreciating the art of a country is a sure way to gain a deeper understanding of its cultures and people. Playing golf was a way she transcended gender divides in postings such as Bangladesh, and she repeatedly was active in initiating and supporting women in leadership organisations. After the reunification of Germany, she requested and received her Stasi file, and recounts in the book the observations made of her by the infamous East German secret police and their informers.

Sue Boyd (fourth from right), then Australian High Commissioner to Fiji, during Australia–Fiji Foreign Ministers’ talks held at McLaren Vale, South Australia on 7 March 2003 (DFAT Photo Collection)

Along with observations throughout the text, Boyd devotes a chapter to the challenges faced by women in their professional careers and to how they can address some of these. It should be a must-read – for women and men. She speaks of the importance of supportive allies, the skilful use of humour and a broad set of interests to help overcome gender barriers, and the silencing effects of male-dominated meetings. There are also thoughtful reflections on building and leading effective teams.

One disappointment for me is the relative paucity of Boyd’s reflections on the substantive policy issues she worked on during her career. Her professional life repeatedly brought her to work on crucial national and international issues, from the Indonesian annexation of East Timor to the nuclear test ban treaty, to pre- and post-coup Fiji. I know personally what a thoughtful and sophisticated analyst of international issues Boyd can be; it is a shame not to have had her reflections on policy recorded. But perhaps these might be the subject of her next book.