Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull named Frances Adamson as the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade's new secretary on 20 July, making her the first woman to hold the post. The smart money had been on Ms Adamson to be appointed and internal and external reactions were generally very positive.

Li Zhaoxing, Ma Zhaoxu, Julie Bishop and Frances Adamson (Photo courtesy of DFAT)

Most coverage has been about how smart Adamson’s appointment was in terms of her particular background, as previous Ambassador to China and advisor to both sides of politics. Some mention has been made of her character and Dennis Richardson’s endorsement of her ‘hard-headed realism’. No doubt Peter Varghese will be disappointed that he retires from DFAT having never been described as ‘elegantly dressed’ by the media, but generally the coverage was fair, even warm. This reception is testament to just how talented a diplomat Adamson is, especially given Varghese’s exceptional legacy.

But this is a radical appointment that deserves deeper reflection in three key and very positive areas of reform, as outlined below.

1. Taking on the 'stupid curve' in Canberra

First, it was an important signal in Canberra and to the Parliament in terms of women’s leadership in the Australian Public Service. Adamson's appointment brings the number of female department heads to seven (out of 28), more than at any other time in Australian history. The APS has long been a place where the so-called ‘stupid curve’ plays out in terms of female talent, despite being a traditionally strong employer of women. The ‘stupid curve’ is a term coined by former US Deloitte boss Mike Cook to describe corporates who derive 90% of senior management from just 50% of their talent base. (A clearer and more evocative phrase than ‘leaky pipeline’.)

Things are not quite as dire in the public service — Australia has seen a steady improvement since the bar on employment of married women in the Commonwealth Public Service was abolished some 50 years ago. But still, as at 31 December 2015, women made up 58.7% of the APS, but only 41.8% of the senior executive service. Improvement had become slow going, prompting the government to give an extra push with the release of a new strategy before the election. Balancing the Future: Australian Public Service Gender Equality Strategy 2016–19 sets out ‘actions for driving high performance and boosting productivity in the APS’. This is important because, given taxpayers fund the APS, its client base is the Australian public which deserve an APS that mirrors the diversity of the Australian population. It will also give hope to the women in the APS who are fed up with working hard only to remain at the bottom of the pyramid.

Secretaries are obviously the interface between departments and ministers, but also the wider Parliament. This is especially in relation to Senate Estimates and the Joint Standing Committees on Treaties, and Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade. Our Parliament also interacts with other parliaments. Along with Heather Smith, our G20 Brisbane Sherpa, now secretary of the Department of Communications and the Arts, we now have two female secretaries with exceptional international representational experience. Amongst the other secretaries, we also have male champions for gender equality, like Martin Parkinson.

2. An important step for DFAT

Second, Adamson’s appointment was a radical and welcome step for DFAT itself. DFAT has fewer women in senior positions when compared to the rest of the APS, due in major part to the particular barriers posed by dipomatic careers. Fewer than 34% of the DFAT senior executive service (SES) are women, and only 27% of heads of missions and posts. This is despite talented women entering the department in equal numbers for many years. Varghese responded to this with a carefully designed Women in Leadership initiative launched in November 2015. In my view, it could have gone the extra mile to quotas rather than targets but the strategy is evidence based, concrete and achievable. Varghese’s own own commitment was real and strategic. Combined with the 2014 Capability Review, Adamson has a strong base on which to build. It is for stakeholders to continue to make the urgent case that DFAT requires extra resources to adequately represent Australia’s interests globally.

3. Sending a message to the world

Finally, DFAT is our face to the world. Adamson’s appointment is still radical for a foreign ministry. There are only 30 female foreign ministers out of 193 UN member states, plus the European Union, and this is a historical high point.

There are only 20 female heads of state, or a mere 10%, with the UK’s Theresa May joining the ranks of those leading a government but Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff suspended. This is what makes the debate over the selection of a woman to the post of United Nations Secretary-General so fervent, as the possible traditional sample size is very small.

There are also very few women at the helm of a foreign ministry around the world, and those who are there are usually pioneers, the first in history to hold the role, as Adamson is. Chokila Iyer was India's first female foreign secretary from 2001–2002.

Even the leader of ‘feminist foreign policy’ Sweden appointed Annika Söder as State Secretary for Political Affairs (Kabinettsekreterare) at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs only in 2014. Heather Anne Higginbottom is the US deputy Secretary of State for management and resources. A woman has not held the position of permanent under-secretary at the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office since 1790.

To conclude, DFAT’s gender policies are now joined up. Its internal gender equality measures can meet external policy imperatives, as outlined in the new Gender Strategy. Modelling behaviour is always the most effective diplomacy.

Adamson joins Australia’s first female foreign minister, Julie Bishop and shadow foreign minister in Penny Wong, who has recently replaced Tanya Plibersek. This is a remarkable trio on the world stage. Combined with Marise Payne in Defence, our face to the world is modern, intelligent, Asia-literate female power.

So Adamson’s appointment represents three layers of exceptional achievement, and is indeed a radical step.