Leading ladies' alliance

Sydney Morning Herald
February 28, 2006

They talk shop, gossip and offer each other support, but these women ambassadors also give new meaning to the phrase power lunch, writes Cynthia Banham.

WHEN Canberra's 10 or so female foreign ambassadors decided two years ago to form an unofficial luncheon club, they thought they should invite along an interesting guest each time they met.

China's enigmatic ambassador, Ying Fu, who was among the senior diplomats at that initial meeting, says one of the women suggested they should only ask handsome men.

Fu relays the story over a cup of tea, which she pours with great ceremony, explaining as she goes that she is "waking up the cup" before the tea can be drunk.

She says another woman at the table then spoke up. The guests should be "handsome but with brains".

Fu gives one of her captivating laughs. "Then Alexander Downer was our first guest."

Two years on, Fu and her female colleagues are the splash of colour - literally - in what is still the black-suited, male-dominated world of global diplomacy. Vivacious and highly accomplished, they form but a small minority - 10 women among more than 100 male heads of mission - yet they represent some of Australia's largest trading partners, including China, and key allies Britain and New Zealand.

They are the Lady Ambassadors in Canberra, or LAIC (Fu says the name was hotly debated), and they are an intriguing group. The idea to form it came from Fu's good friend, the Philippine ambassador, Cristina Ortega, who she knew from previous postings and who arrived in Canberra about the same time as her Chinese counterpart in 2004.

The lively Ortega, a career diplomat for 30 years, says she thought at the time that the ladies should organise themselves "just so that we would have, probably, one voice".

"You know how it is, you always have to double your efforts in everything you do because you are a woman," says Ortega, a single mother of two adopted children. She adds: "But I think it's changing now."

Fu expresses a similar view, saying the group was formed "to feel closer".

"It's a lonely world, it's a man's world, everybody wears black suits" says Fu, who has one daughter and a husband who won't let her near the kitchen for fear she will cause an accident, so little time has she spent in there the past decade. "My husband, he studies opposite the kitchen, when he hears my footsteps, he asks 'what do you want?' because [he fears] I'll cut my hand or break something," she says.

The group provides the women with a supportive network in an environment where many of them say there still exists a pressure to work harder than their male counterparts, just to prove that they are worthy of the job.

However, according to Fu, a formidable diplomat who has made a strong impression in Canberra for the aggressive way in which she pushes her country's interests, the biggest handicap women ambassadors face compared to men is that they have to take more clothes on their work trips.

"A man will go on a trip for a week, he will bring two or three suits, and I have to bring six, that's the biggest disadvantage," Fu says. "I think that's probably the weaker side of a woman - they like to look nice."

For the women, their monthly lunches are as much about having a gossip about their personal lives as they are about work.

"We speak a lot about political affairs, but we speak a lot about families also," says the Swedish ambassador, Karin Ehnbom-Palmquist, who points out that male networks have been in place for a long time. "Men go hunting or, in Nordic countries, they go to the sauna, so why shouldn't women also have networking?"

As for the male ambassadors of Canberra, Ehnbom-Palmquist says they regard the lady ambassadors club with some curiosity. "I think some of the male ambassadors think it's a bit strange," she says.

Japan's ambassador, Hideaki Ueda, when asked by the Herald what he thought of the lady ambassadors group, said it was "a delicate question". He described LAIC as an informal, but "powerful" grouping, because of the important countries who were represented. "Of course, they represent their countries beautifully," he said.

This month's meeting was hosted by the British high commissioner, Helen Liddell, who invited the secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Michael L'Estrange. The calibre of the guests, says Liddell, shows the group is "obviously held in high esteem".

"You have no difficulties in getting senior people to come and talk, and people talk quite frankly," she says.

Among the other guests have been Sweden's Crown Princess Victoria, the Immigration Minister, Amanda Vanstone, Labor's foreign affairs spokesman, Kevin Rudd, Democrats senator Natasha Stott Despoja, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Deputy Secretary, Gillian Bird, the ACT Chief Minister, Jon Stanhope, and the secretary of the Department of Agriculture Fisheries and Forestry, Joanna Hewitt.

Membership of LAIC, as Liddell remarks, is "a bit self-selecting - there's not much you can do about it". Among the other LAIC members at the moment are the ambassador for Mexico, Martha Ortiz de Rosas, New Zealand's high commissioner, Kate Lackey, Thailand's ambassador, Suchitra Hiranprueck, Brunei's Pengiran Datin Paduka Hajah Masrainah Pg Ahmad, and Romania's Anca Visan.

The newest recruit is Bosnia and Herzegovina's ambassador, Amira Kapetanovic, who arrived in Australia only two weeks ago. In many ways her story is the most fascinating of all.

The single mother of two, fluent in English, German and Italian, learned about diplomacy not from books, but "on the spot" during the conflict in Bosnia in the early 1990s, when she worked as the official translator to her president.

Kapetanovic recalls how difficult it was to go to work every day when there was no electricity, no water, no food and no heating. She says she did it because she had to look after elderly parents - her two sons had fled as refugees to Italy - but also because she thought it was better to do something useful rather "than to wait for the bomb or the mortar or the sniper bullet to hit me just sitting in the house".

Kapetanovic became a member of the Bosnak team which negotiated the Dayton Peace Accord ending the hostilities in late 1995, and she tells how before fronting the world's cameras which were so firmly focused on her homeland at that time, she would rub herself with towels because there was no water in which to bathe.

"Then I had in my drawers sets of earrings and sets of scarves, different scarves and shawls," Kapetanovic says.

"I would just change the earrings, put on some shawls which were presentable, because I was the interpreter, translator, PR, secretary, everything. Then I would come out and talk and pretend I was sort of something [like the] people I used to see on TV."

Liddell also has an interesting story to tell. With self-deprecating humour, she describes herself as having the "career pattern of a demented gnat".

She started out as an economist, then became a journalist for the BBC, before going into politics. During her time as a politician, Liddell was the general secretary of the Labour Party in Scotland, Britain's first woman secretary of state for Scotland, and she was a cabinet minister in the Blair Government.

Liddell, who has two children and a very supportive husband who took early retirement to accompany her to Australia, says the life of a female diplomat is more complex than that of a man because of family responsibilities, whether it be looking after children or elderly parents.

"I think to some extent we do see life through a different prism; we deal with a domestic environment as well as our career environment," Liddell says.

The view from Eastern Europe is very similar. Visan, who trained as a teacher and worked as a movie translator before getting into diplomacy when Romania opened up after the fall of communism, believes the group is important because "women ambassadors have to deal with issues that male ambassadors don't have to deal with".

Separated with a 21-year-old daughter, Visan says most male heads of mission have wives at home who look after the domestic side of their job.

"For instance, they give [a] dinner, and their wives take care of the table setting and the menu," Visan says.

"We don't have that, even those of us who are married. You get few husbands who are really interested in doing that part of the job, and it is definitely part of the job."

Being a woman can, however, mean better treatment at times. Ehnbom-Palmquist, who joined the Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs in 1970 as a trainee, has seen the percentages of female ambassadors from her country rise from 5 to 23 per cent in that time.

She says in the "macho" Latin American culture, where she has had a number of postings, being a woman can mean being automatically seated near the prime minister at official functions.

As for the Latin member of the group, Ortiz de Rosas, who studied international law and is married with two daughters, she says her country has undergone rapid change in the past few years, with 40 per cent of heads of mission from Mexico now women.

With such progress, one might wonder why there is such a disparity still at the top echelons of the profession when it comes to gender.

Liddell offers an explanation. In Britain until 1972, women diplomats had to resign once they married.

"That's the women now of my generation and, as a consequence, at my sort of level if you look around there actually aren't an awful lot of women around."


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