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Bishop joins ranks of the few

Date

Susan Harris Rimmer

Julie Bishop: Australia's first female foreign affairs minister.

Julie Bishop: Australia's first female foreign affairs minister. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

There has been a lot of discussion this week - some quite witty - about the lack of women in Prime Minister Tony Abbott's cabinet, and rightly so.

But, in this heated political moment, it is important to pause and reflect on Australia finally having our first female foreign affairs minister in Julie Bishop. As Jenny Hayward-Jones from the Lowy Institute points out, there have been more than 70 female foreign ministers in the world since World War II, from most regions, although very few from Oceania.

The story of women in diplomacy is a long one, stretching from Catherine the Great, whose portrait reportedly hangs in German Chancellor Angela Merkel's office as inspiration.

Yet at present there are 193 member states in the United Nations and only 18 led by women, and only 23 female foreign ministers. This is not much changed from when the first female US secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, set up a global network for female foreign ministers, which then numbered 27, in 1997. We may have been beaten to this milestone by Pakistan and Somalia, but it is a milestone nonetheless.

Some female diplomats have become globally recognised names like Albright, Condoleeza Rice, and Hillary Rodham Clinton from the US, Baroness Catherine Ashton of Upholland, representing the European Union, and Tzipi Livni of Israel.

Some have been tragic figures, like murdered Swedish foreign minister Anna Lindh. Some have gone on to lead their nation, like Golda Meir of Israel, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo of the Philippines, Joyce Banda of Malawi and Tarja Halonen of Finland.

There is no political or personality type to be discerned among Bishop's global predecessors, except for talent and ambition. Even with three females consecutively holding the position of US secretary of state, there is not much that could be said to be similar about the personal styles of Albright, Rice and Clinton, nor present US ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power. That is as it should be; we do not expect conformity from male leaders.

Some have championed the rights of women and their contribution to international decision making, like Albright and Clinton, some have not. I would advocate that Bishop should hold a brief for the rights of women in the region, in East Timor and the Pacific in particular.

But regardless of policy reforms, all female foreign ministers have had a searchlight placed on their dress style and personal attributes in a way that males have not. I already know what label suits Bishop wears (Armani), courtesy of the West Australian press, and certainly she is remarkably well-groomed. But did anyone ever care enough to ask her predecessor Bob Carr about his fashion sense?

Female foreign ministers (and diplomats) have also always been in the minority in any negotiating room. This is particularly the case on the UN Security Council, where Bishop may speak during Australia's September presidency, and may find herself cutting a lonely figure in the leaders' corridor.

I also saw this first hand at the recent G20 meeting in St Petersburg, where leaders and several foreign ministers met to discuss global economic co-ordination. Australia will host the G20 in November next year, and our duties begin on December 1. The female leaders of Germany, South Korea, Brazil and Argentina, along with Christine Lagarde from the IMF, stood out clearly among the 34 world, regional and UN leaders.

The G20 officials from treasury, finance and central banks were also overwhelmingly male, less than 15 per cent being women. Russian Finance Minister Anton Siluanov even joked towards the end of a press briefing on financial inclusion that ''women consume a lot, so they need help with their financial management''.

So, this is why a female foreign affairs minister represents crossing a psychological frontier for Australian politics, as did the appointment of the first female attorney-general and prime minister and governor-general.

This is not just because these are prestigious appointments, though that is an important element. The foreign affairs minister is our face to the world. The foreign affairs minister manages trade, negotiations around peace and conflict, shifts in global power. The foreign affairs minister deals with global high politics. When this is seen without comment as women's work as well as men's, that will be an achievement indeed.

A female as defence minister seems to elude us still, but that will be another frontier moment.

Hillary Rodham Clinton's advice to Julie Bishop was reportedly: "Believe in yourself. Don't let others define you.'' Good advice, for an important new role.

Dr Susan Harris Rimmer is director of studies for the diplomacy program in the Australian National University's Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy.

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