Director-General ASD speech to the Lowy Institute - Women and ASD in our 75th year

Speaker(s): Ms Rachel Noble PSM

Location: Lowy Institute, Sydney

Date of Speech: 02 September 2022


Video of speech (courtesy Lowy Institute)

“Owning your own story is the bravest thing you’ll ever do”. Casandra Brene Brown

I didn’t become a feminist until recently. And by recently I mean the last few years.

My mother had always been a feminist. It was something my sister and I didn’t really feel we could relate to. But of course as we grew older, had our own experiences, and as we learned more about the plight of Australian women and employment, we began to understand why she would sometimes become quite fierce when talking about her own career.

Born in 1941 she was probably like many young women of the 60s. She sought independence from her family through a career. She told me that her father had reacted very badly upon learning that she wanted to become a nurse. He issued an ultimatum - if she didn’t stay living at home and become a public servant, she wouldn’t be welcome in his home again. For those of you who know me, and science tells us that the apple really doesn’t fall far from the tree, you won’t be surprised to hear that she walked on out that door. (In case you’re worried – they patched things up later).

The story that followed when she joined the military as a nurse is one very familiar to women of the time.

So, as a new feminist, and as the only woman ever to have headed a statutory intelligence agency in Australia’s history, I am hugely motivated to tell the story of women in national security roles on the occasion of the Australian Signals Directorate’s 75th anniversary.

As part of my newfound feminist journey, I have recently taken to reading books about the plight of women in leadership roles. I was particularly taken by Julia Gillard and Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala’s book, “Women in Leadership Real lives, Real Lessons”, published in 2020. In the opening of that book Ms Gillard writes about the challenges of writing about the plight of women today without sounding shrill or even worse, bitter. So I have set myself a big challenge to talk about the history of women in ASD up to the current day whilst also sharing with you a little about my own personal journey without I hope sounding shrill or even a bit bitter. But as a lot of women in leadership roles out there know, that’s an awfully big challenge!

I want to start by telling you about the journey of women in ASD. Much of which has come together thanks to our history people in ASD and to Dr John Fahey whose book about the history of ASD is due to be released early next year. It is through the stories of those women that I want to cover off a few things about being a woman in national security or maybe being a female leader in any business.

And in telling you those stories I have a few key themes.

The first is that bridging the gender equity pay gap is a team sport.

On this theme - my own view is one best expressed by Ita Buttrose who said: “Like it or not, liberation for women will be achieved only with the full cooperation of men”. And I would add, including through the liberation of men.

The second theme is that the small changes we make as leaders and managers really do make a difference.

The first part of my story takes us back to World War II. It is so very true when people say that change is born of necessity. This is how the first amazing women joined ASD‘s precursor organisation known as the Central Bureau.

The work of the women and men of Central Bureau significantly boosted the Allied forces’ chances of victory in the Pacific. Central Bureau’s codebreakers cracked Japanese army and air force codes, playing a hugely important role in the battles of Midway, Milne Bay, the Coral Sea, Hollandia and Leyte. These codebreakers were also involved in the crucial intercept of Admiral Yamamoto’s flight plans. Yamamoto was a significant member of the Imperial Japanese Navy, and the intelligence that was collected on this occasion led to his plane being shot down and his death.

General MacArthur defined Central Bureau’s role to be ‘the interception and cryptoanalysing of Japanese intelligence’. Central Bureau was given such a name as to reveal nothing to outsiders about its role. Central Bureau was located in a huge house in Ascot Queensland known as ‘Nyrambla’.

At the rear of Nyrambla, there was a garage that housed 12 Typex machines. These were British cipher machines that had been adapted from the German Enigma which were operated by women from the Australian Women’s Army Service (AWAS). These women became known as the Garage Girls – it was a label they gave themselves.

These women also literally did work in the garage out the back of the main building.

When recalling ‘the garage’ in 1991, Helen Kenny remembered that it smelt of paper and glue, and of grease and dampness, describing it as a place of ‘business and bafflement’.

These women not only did incredible, extremely challenging and gruelling work they did it in conditions that surely would’ve taken a physical toll.

Helen painted the work as monotonous, writing of ‘paper tapes, backed by glue, spilt from the machines, code on the left, plain language on the right’ and describing how ‘we took the incoming messages, ran the tapes over rollers which stood in water, then gummed them down’. Madeline Chidgey responded to this claim of monotony, reflecting that she ‘found nothing in 11 Australian Cipher Section monotonous’. She wrote that the ‘streams of messages concerning shipping and aircraft movements…and the strange place names like Amboina and Biak…made us feel closer to the war and part of it’.

The nature of the women’s work was so secret that they couldn’t even tell their families about it. Madeline’s inquisitive younger sister would write her letters asking what she was doing, and Madeline remembered her sister writing that ‘it just sounds as if you’re just doing letters’, and that ‘you don’t do anything, you just sit there and talk!’ In keeping with this intense secrecy, at the end of every shift the women would carefully burn the contents of their wastepaper bins in an incinerator under the watchful eye of an officer: Madeline remembers a time where one of the girls lost her engagement ring in the fire and never got it back.

Helen Kenny was involved in the intercept that lead to the shooting down of Admiral Yamamoto’s plane, and later remembered her frustration at not knowing what happened to the messages once they handed them over.

Madeline Chidgey later wrote of her experience at Central Bureau that she would never forget the night of D-Day, 6th June 1944: ‘The excitement in the garage was electric, the stream of traffic was incredible, and every machine clattered nonstop all night. We rode wearily back to barracks, but with that wonderful feeling born of concentrated team effort’.

The women would be ferried between their barracks in Chermside and Nyrambla by a bus before their shifts. Madeline described the shift that took place between 8am and midnight as the worst shift as it was usually the busiest: ‘we used to say that if our boyfriends could see us after the “horror shift” and still care, then it was real love’.

When the war ended the women were discharged and their life paths diverged. Helen carried out a career as a trailblazer for women in journalism, writing for The Women’s Weekly and The Sydney Morning Herald and covering landmark events such as the 1954 Royal Tour and the Petrov Affair, and won awards for her work covering infant mortality in Central and Northern Australia. She also edited the Central Bureau Intelligence Corps Association’s newsletters and contributed to many oral histories about her work during the war right up until her death in 2019. Madeline worked tirelessly for the Central Bureau Intelligence Corps Association following the war, serving as its publicity officer and editor in the 1980s and later as its Vice President.

After Madeline’s death in 2017, her daughter Margaret wrote of the way that her mother spoke of her wartime years, writing that ‘it was with such pride that she spoke of how her unit members were responsible for cracking the Japanese code’, and adding that it was believed to have shortened the war by two and a half years. Of her time in the war, Madeline had written in 1991 that they were ‘Great days, and I would not have missed it for anything’.

I think that these women contributed more than they could have ever foreseen or imagined in terms of what they actually did for women in ASD, which is what now follows.

The next part of our story takes us into the immediate post War era.

There was much debate, internal service rivalry and tricky negotiations with the US and UK that followed the War about the merits, or otherwise of Australia having its own signals intelligence capability. If you want to know more about that you’ll have to wait for our history to be published next year!

What I will do though is share a part of that story where, in an example of change born of necessity, Teddy Poulden, the first Director-General of ASD (1947-49), became the first male champion of change for women in ASD’s workforce.

When Teddy took up his position as Director he was faced with the challenge of finding skilled people to fill the positions that he had been assigned. He was given 88 positions to fill and only 17 of those were designated as female positions. He wanted more of these positons to be filled by women because during the war this work had almost exclusively been carried out by women, like Helen. Teddy asked for permission to recruit women for up to 25% of the research officer positions, 40% for the technical officer positions and an enormous 66% for specialised clerical positions. Teddy’s challenges were compounded by the fact that 56% of the positions within the Bureau had wages starting below the minimum basic wage in 1947 and 36% of the positions, many designated as female, had an upper salary level that never reached the level of the basic wage. Teddy made his arguments up through the Defence hierarchy to the Secretary of the Public Service Board and finally by May 1948, Teddy won approval to employ more women.

The battle to employ women into signals intelligence did not end there. By 1951, Ralph Thompson was the Director. Ralph continued to face challenges on finding suitably qualified people to fill these highly specialised signals intelligence positions. He continued the battle with the Public Service Board that Teddy had started, with the Board still finding it difficult to relate to the Bureau’s specialised needs. Ralph courageously finally won approval from the Public Service Board to hire 4 women who were married!

In the immediate post-war years there was a Defence policy of not allowing any of the wartime service women to remain enlisted in the military. Under the Public Service Act at the time a woman was deemed to have resigned when she married. This measure wasn’t repealed until 1966. Australia was one of the last countries in the developed world to get rid of such inequitable arrangements. As a fully trained nurse in the Royal Australian Air Force my Mum when she married my Dad was deemed resigned. It still took until 1972 for women to win the right to equal pay and until 1974 to win equal minimum wage. Finally, in 1984 it becomes illegal to discriminate on the basis of gender, sexuality, marital status, family responsibilities or pregnancy. Teddy and Ralph fortunately didn’t wait until then!

Despite this wildly radical history of employing women in the ASD, it took until 1989 for a woman, Janet Tyler, to make it to the rank of Senior Executive Service officer in ASD. If it weren’t for Teddy’s efforts, one can’t help wondering how much longer it might have otherwise taken.

I have told only a tiny handful of the stories of the amazing women of ASD – all of whose careers were enabled, as Ita says, by a reliance on men to champion that change.

With such a strong record of gender inclusivity over 75 years, it is not entirely surprising, I don't think, that ASD is the first of the statutory intelligence agencies to have a woman lead it.

And so, now, I turn to present day matters.

It’s a Team Effort

While many good things have happened to support women at work we are far from done.

Annabel Crabb in her marvellous book, “Men At Work, Australia’s Parenthood Trap” tells us that “…women make up 60% of university graduates and 45% middle managers, yet only 10% of executives and 6% of CEOs in the ASX200”. And of course, with her fabulous sense of humour, she goes on to write – “in that cohort there are more men called Andrew than there are women”!

Ms Crabb also tells us that “…a 25 year old man embarking on an average forty year career can expect to earn $2m over the course of that career. If he has kids, that goes up to $2.5m. A woman of the same age and aptitude, setting out on the same career, can expect earn $1.9m. But if she has kids, that goes down to $1.3m”.

Where’s Teddy Poulden when we need him?

Ms Crabb presents compelling evidence throughout her book that it is the arrival of a child in our lives that sets men and women on the departure course. The woman will take the primary caring responsibilities and thus her pay and career aspiration, and opportunity decline begins. The solution to this seems to be for men to have equal access to parental leave. For so long as the woman has more, the family economics of who takes that leave becomes pretty simple. But as importantly, we need to work to change our organisational values and expectations to allow him to take it!

As Ita and I said at the beginning “Like it or not, liberation for women will be achieved only with the full cooperation of men”…. including through the liberation of men.

That phenomenon, according to our Workplace Gender Equality Agency, combined with: gender discrimination; occupational segregation; and, years not working due to interruptions – such as child care and caring for elderly family members in turn causes the gender pay gap.

Currently, Australia’s national gender pay gap is 13.8% - but a whopping 24.4% pay gap in professional, scientific and technical services.

That means Australian women earn $255.30 per week less than men. It equates to about 60 days of work and last week marked the 60 day mark for women where women are essentially working for free.

We have wonderful male role models in at ASD – men choosing to take the paternity leave available to them, choosing to be engaged fathers – and most importantly speaking up about those choices, and being supported to do so in their workplace.

I will come back to this point of the importance of creating a workplace that consciously and methodically removes barriers for women – and men.

Small Changes Matter

But for now I want to turn to the more insidious and less tangible barriers women face. I think these were so beautifully, and heart wrenchingly expressed in both Julia Gillard’s book – my favourite chapter of which is titled, pardon my language, “Hypothesis Four: She’s a Bit of a Bitch”, and in Annabel Crabb’s documentary, “Ms Represented”. Both of which brought me some comfort to know that the micro humiliations I have experienced in a world dominated by men weren’t all entirely in my imagination.

I don’t think there is a glass ceiling – it’s actually still a concrete block – today it is coated in advanced cloaking technology and I couldn’t see it until I got senior enough to reach out and touch it. During my tenure as Director-General, I have, for example, been asked if I would mind taking a cup of coffee in to a senior bloke, as I headed in to join the meeting. A young woman asked
me. I told her “no, because I'm an agency head”. Because I wanted her to know, that a woman could get into that room, not to be the note taker or the coffee bringer, but to sit at the table in her own right.

That is an example that the small things we do and the words that we use matter – and when we get it wrong they can suppress women.

Through our choice of words, we can unintentionally belittle women who show characteristics of strength, assertiveness and courage. Words like she’s a witch (or worse - I won't repeat the other word), she’s bossy, she’s scary and so on.

Characteristics where, if men display them, they are to be considered ‘stately’ or strong leaders.

To quote one of my most favourite female leaders in her field – Madonna – who said “…do you know what it feels like in this world for a girl? When you open up your mouth to speak, can you be a little weak?

We need to remain aware of these unconscious biases if we are ever actually going to address the remaining issues of pay and opportunity gaps.

And we must be thoughtful about why women do things that men may not do.

Women take notes in meetings and take notes to meetings – including to job interviews. It is not because we are less competent than our male counterparts.

It is now well documented that women typically carry the mental load for our domestic situations – whatever they may be.

We are thinking about dinner preparations, the shopping that needs to be done, the household duties that need to be done.

So we make lists and take notes, because, we are, after all only human – we just have more to remember!

In addition to watching our choice of words and our biases, there’s much more we can do as leaders to create a workplace that is more inclusive for women.

In ASD, we start the daily morning operational meeting at 930 – so parents can make it after school drop off.

47% of our SES are women. We're almost there!

And I have asked SES not to schedule meetings outside of the business hours of 9am to 5pm unless operationally urgent.

And you can take a notebook to your next job interview if you want to without fear of discrimination.

Women also prosper in different workplace environments to men. We are more likely to value the social and teamwork aspects of coming to work. In 2020, I said of myself, that I started my career in ASD as a codebreaker. I said:

“I didn’t like that job at all. I just thought I’d share that with you. I’ll tell you about that maybe in a different speech, and about what we hope we’ve learned from how we have historically failed to engage women in STEM. Here’s my spoiler alert – don’t starve them of human contact and make them sit alone with a computer all day.”

Lots of people have contacted me, worrying about what I meant with those words. I actually liked breaking codes – and it sure made me better at crosswords – what I didn’t like was how the team operated – with limited human interaction – just analysts with their computers. We have learned from that in the contemporary ASD, we have tech roles where men and women work together in teams to solve problems and execute operations.

At ASD, we also run a huge array of programs to support younger people to enter the workforce with the skills that they need – we have cadetships, apprenticeships, internships, work experience for years 11 and 12 and my personal favourite – the Girls Programming Network for years 4-12 to help girls get started in computer programming. We also sponsor the Australian Women in Security Network. And we work with TAFEs to help people qualify in tech areas – you do not need a university degree to work for ASD.

I feel optimistic about what the future holds for women, and all genders. Each of us can make seemingly small decisions that can make a huge difference. We are building on the effort of those who have come before in spearheading progressive change in the national security community – continuing a ‘mission‘ of inclusiveness, diversity and the valuing of human potential.

I will finish on this point with a quote from Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein who was born in 1797, she said: “I do not wish women to have power over men; but over themselves”.


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