Last month, Frances Adamson was named as the new Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT).

DFAT Secretary Frances Adamson (Photo: Commonwealth of Australia/DFAT)

I was delighted – partly because I know Frances and think this is a terrific appointment in its own right. And, like Susan Harris-Rimmer, I was struck by the fact that Frances will be the first woman in Australia to hold this senior diplomatic position.

This took me back to a conversation with my son (aged 6) when we were living in the UK. I was walking him to school, puffing up a big hill with bags a-plenty and lots on my mind. As he dawdled along, I snapped: 'Come on Joe! Hurry up!' To which he replied, with some wonder and awe looking back down the hill: 'But Mum, look how far we’ve come!'

You could say the same for women in diplomacy.

Others will know more about Australia’s own story in this regard. But I suspect it’s similar to the UK’s, where women were excluded from the Diplomatic Service until 1946, over a decade after the wider Civil Service opened its doors to women. This reflected societal norms of the time, but also a particular belief that it was impossible for women to contemplate a diplomatic career, not least given the global mobility obligation.

Part of the opposition came from within the Service itself. In her excellent book, Women of the World: The Rise of the Female Diplomat, Helen McCarthy tells the story of how successive generations of male diplomats sought to preserve their own grip on the instruments of British foreign policy.

Asked in 1933 whether the Diplomatic Service should be opened to women, Ambassadors of the day chorused their disapproval: it was 'inadvisable', 'unthinkable' or, even, 'criminal'. One wrote that it was 'impossible' to conceive of women having babies and a diplomatic career. (With three kids, I'm glad to prove him wrong.) Another explained that 'the clever woman would not be liked and the attractive woman would not be taken seriously'.

It took the Second World War to shift the status quo and allow women onto the hallowed ground of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO).

Even then, progress was painfully slow, thanks mainly to the ‘marriage bar’ in place until 1973, which obliged women to resign immediately if they decided to marry. This meant that a whole generation of capable women were effectively lost to diplomacy, casting a long legacy shadow over the organisation. It might also explain my grandmother’s startled reaction when I told her I was thinking of becoming a diplomat: 'Surely you mean a diplomat’s wife!'

So when I joined the FCO in 1989, there were still very few women in senior roles, and just two female Ambassadors posted overseas. This meant a dearth of role models, of women like me, and a working culture which felt stuck at an earlier stage of our history. It was unfamiliar, strange and pretty intimidating.

We’ve made huge progress since then: nearly 30% of our senior managers are now women; our Board of Management is 55% female; and we have around 50 women (including me) who are Heads of Post – Ambassadors, High Commissioners, Consuls-General.

This reflects the work of a generation of (mostly male) leaders who have seen the business case for diversity: that recruiting and retaining diverse talent is a necessity in today’s complex and challenging world, not an optional extra. It is also a tribute to the emergence of strong groups of advocates who have pushed for change; progressive HR policies (eg on maternity and parental leave; flexible and remote working) to help women and men navigate globally-mobile careers; and the adoption of targets, since what gets measured gets done.

In broader terms too, the FCO has become a more diverse organisation with a less hierarchical and elitist culture: we are more representative of modern Britain. And we’re taking care to celebrate the lives and contributions of our early female pioneers, who laid the path for the rest of us to follow. Last year, we named one of our ‘fine rooms’ in the main FCO building on Whitehall after Dame Anne Warburton, Britain’s first female Ambassador (to Denmark, in 1976). Yes, it took nearly 40 years, but we got there in the end.

These days, it sometimes feels as if the UK Diplomatic Service is ahead of the curve in seeing the value in diverse workforces and leadership teams – although DFAT probably has the edge on us! I find myself in a number of meetings, particularly with CEOs from the business community, where I am still the only woman in the room. And out of over 100 Ambassadors accredited to Canberra, only 15 of us are women.

That’s why it’s worth pausing to celebrate Frances Adamson’s appointment as another milestone reached on the winding road to diversity in diplomacy, and to gender equality in the conduct of international relations. And when I sit at the table at AUKMIN (the annual UK/Australia dialogue of Foreign and Defence Ministers, which will be held in London in September) and look across at the Australian team, led by Julie Bishop and Marise Payne, I will have Joe’s words ringing in my ears.

Look how far we’ve come.