Speaking to other women in international affairs, you realise we've all had those moments: when we were the only woman on a panel or, worse, the only female speaker at an entire conference (Pacific specialist Jenny Hayward-Jones knows it well); or where the number of women at a workshop is so low that one almost feels inauthentic in making a contribution. To try to explain how this feels, a spoof was created in 2009 for the 'Lavy Institute of International Policy' that listed among its staff such luminaries such as Madeleine Albright, and Margaret Thatcher. Right at the bottom there were a couple of friendly male faces with captions like 'Contact Bernie with any queries about published reports or to book speakers'.

It was something of a rarity then, to be part of an impressive New Voices conference at the Lowy Institute recently which deliberately had a majority of female speakers. Superb contributions by the likes of Georgetown's Oriana Skylar Mastro and skillful facilitation by Susan Harris-Rimmer and Greta Nabbs-Keller showed that this did not compromise the quality of debate.

A welcome part of the program was a professional development panel where ambassador Margaret Twomey, broadcaster Geraldine Doogue and myself spoke about female voices in international policy and offered some career advice to the women and men in the room. It was a fascinating insight into how far we've come, and how far we still have to go.

I've written before about the continuing under-representation of women at senior levels in Australia's international affairs, explaining it by four factors: the legacy of direct discrimination (now, mercifully, fading), continuing indirect discrimination, the lack of support for family responsibilities and gendered notions of international relations. I looked at three case studies of women who commenced their careers in different decades (Helen Hughes in the 1950s, Penny Wensley in the 1960s and Hilary Charlesworth in the 1970s) to see what barriers they faced and how they overcame them. The trend is clear: things are getting better.

For example, listening to Margaret Twomey talk about her career, it sounds like a different department than the one Penny Wensley describes, in which she was asked 'are you a mother or an officer?' and had to fight to be able to have a baby on post rather than be evacuated home. 

That's not to say DFAT is perfect – there remain a number of elements which might make it harder for those who balance family responsibilities to reach senior positions, such as the demands of travel, dual career planning and the need to move family regularly. 

In most workplaces there remain some structural factors that affect career progression. This can be seen in the lack of women making it to senior positions through the 'leaky pipeline.' For example, at DFAT, women have been joining the graduate program in equal numbers since 1985 but as of 2012 made up only 26% of the Senior Executive Service and less than one-third of ambassadors. We need women and men in workplaces to think about these issues.

But while some issues are structural, others are attitudinal: the inability of some men (and even some women) to see women as serious actors in international affairs. Margaret shared some rip-roaring tales of Russian incomprehension of the species 'female ambassador'. Even in more enlightened Australia there still remain some socially constructed norms around masculine and feminine areas of international relations. As Alison Broinowski has noted, there is still something of a 'glass curtain', with more young women in human rights, development, peace and culture on one side, and more men of all ages in security studies and intelligence on the other. 

In some ways the hardest issue is the internalised attitudes that women themselves have to fight against. Geraldine Doogue, who so many of us admire, surprised with a candid discussion of the internal barriers and self-doubt she had to overcome to project herself in international forums: the sort of pushing yourself forward that Sheryl Sandberg discusses in Lean In. Given cultural norms which so squarely place hard issues of international relations, security and defence in the masculine realm, women and men have to be conscious of their own assumptions and push back against them.

For my part, I used the New Voices Conference to provide career advice on achieving your dreams: mainly by making sure that your aims are realistic and resilient. I suggested setting broad goals which give you the ability to adapt to circumstances. For myself, my career aim on graduation was simple: I wanted to do something good for the world with an international focus that helped me learn and grow. This took me to the US and South Africa and, I thought, to an international career in conflict and post-conflict environments.

When I ended up working in Australia (not at all according to my original plan) I had to adapt. Luckily, for most of us there is not just one job that will satisfy but a range of ways to contribute. Career progression involves building a portfolio of skills, investing in oneself and looking for opportunity whenever it comes. Looking back from the fortunate vantage of a job that is perfect for me (though different from what I'd planned), I suggested thinking more about skills and pathways rather than a single career path. 

And, in keeping with the theme of the day, I asked the women as much as the men in the room to push themselves to have expansive dreams, in hope of a day when no special effort is needed to have women on the podium.

Photo by Peter Morris/Sydney Heads.