Frances Adamson becomes Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade's first female secretary
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Frances Adamson becomes Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade's first female secretary

Malcolm Turnbull has named Frances Adamson as the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade's new secretary, making her the first woman to hold the post.

Her appointment brings the number of female department heads to seven, more than at any other time.

Appointed: The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade's new secretary, Frances Adamson in 2014.

Appointed: The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade's new secretary, Frances Adamson in 2014.Credit:Sanghee Liu

By some people's reckoning, it also makes her Australia's top female public servant: her job commands a larger salary than Finance Department chief Jane Halton, who is the longest-serving secretary of the current incumbents.

Ms Adamson, who has been the Prime Minister's personal adviser on international affairs since he took over the Liberal leadership last year, was previously Australia's ambassador to China, one of the nation's most crucial diplomatic posts.

Mr Turnbull congratulated Ms Adamson on Wednesday, saying she "has had a distinguished career as a diplomat and brings a depth of experience and understanding of international affairs to this position".

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The decision to appoint her had been widely tipped since DFAT's previous secretary, Peter Varghese, announced his retirement, though new department heads are usually not named close to an election.

Born in Adelaide, Ms Adamson, now 55, is a competent Mandarin speaker. She is the daughter of former South Australian state Liberal politician Jennifer Cashmore.

She was recently described as a "hard-headed realist" by Defence Department head Dennis Richardson, who was once her boss at DFAT.

During last month's election campaign, Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop was asked whether Ms Adamson would be appointed as her department's next secretary, though the minister avoided answering the question.

Ms Bishop instead said that "were it to be a woman, that would be notable because, of course, it would be the first female secretary of DFAT and that is obviously a milestone, just as people often comment on the fact that I'm the first female foreign minister of Australia".

Ms Adamson had been in the front row at the Lowy Institute where Ms Bishop made the remark.

The career diplomat has served as an adviser to both sides of politics: she was chief of staff to Labor's Stephen Smith when he held the portfolios of foreign affairs and then defence in 2009 and 2010.

She begins her new job on Friday, taking over from acting secretary Gary Quinlan.

Markus Mannheim edits The Public Sector Informant and writes regularly about government.