In this Career Spotlight, we have the pleasure of speaking with Caitlin Gauci, Research Associate in the Pacific Island Program at the Lowy Institute, about her career to date in international policy.
Caitlin Gauci is a Research Associate in the Pacific Island Program at the Lowy Institute.
Before joining the Institute, Caitlin was a policy adviser at the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Prior to her work in government, she was Australia’s inaugural New Colombo Plan Fellow to the Maldives where she worked at the United Nations Development Program.
Caitlin holds a Bachelor of Arts (Government and International Relations - Hons) from the University of Sydney and has undertaken research projects at the University of Cambridge and University of Edinburgh.
Firstly, tell us more about what you studied at university. Did you have a set trajectory in mind? What actions did you take at university to kickstart your career in international affairs?
From an early age, I had a clear idea of what I wanted to do. I was going to be a journalist – preferably a war‑zone foreign correspondent (sorry Mum!). But three degree changes, six countries and five universities later, things didn’t quite go to plan.
I started off studying journalism in Brisbane, moved to Sydney to study Media majoring in International Relations, changed to an Arts degree majoring in International Relations, and then added on an Honours year. Looking back, I can see that none of those detours were wasted. Each experience contributed to my skillset and has assisted me in unexpected ways. So yes, I had a set trajectory. And then I went completely off-course.
I was keen to make the most of my time at uni, so during those four years I undertook a summer school at Cambridge University, completed a semester-abroad at Edinburgh University, worked in a social enterprise in rural India, consulted for an Aboriginal Corporation in Kakadu National Park, studied media and politics in Korea and completed another exchange at Maldives National University.
To kickstart my career in international affairs, I undertook internships most semesters. I was usually unsuccessful in my internship applications, and so would cold-email organisations and create internships for myself. Because most internships were unpaid, I worked 30 hours a week in retail, hospitality, fitness, tutoring and babysitting to keep myself afloat financially. Ultimately, it meant that I couldn’t dedicate as much time or energy as I would have liked to my studies. But the practical experience I gained in those internships was invaluable.
You were the inaugural New Colombo Plan Fellow to the Maldives. What were some of the lessons that you took from this experience?
I chose to study and work in the Maldives to investigate how women engage with democracy in a strictly Islamic country. At the time, the Maldives was one of the most radicalised nations in the world – it sent more ISIS fighters to Iraq and Syria per capita than anywhere else. Plus, the government of the day was silencing opposition voices and many of my fellow university students were arrested for their political views.
In a country where women were expected to travel with their father or husband, my presence as a single, 20 year old, non-Muslim woman interning for the United Nations Development Program and studying at the local university raised some eyebrows. I was followed by intelligence agents who waited outside my apartment and my phone was tapped and conversations recorded. My expectation of ending each day relaxing on the beach was replaced with the reality of trying not to contract Zika virus and avoiding car bombs as I walked home from work.
On a professional level, I realised how problematic it is to overlay western notions of female political participation in communities where this can do more harm than good to the very women who are meant to be benefiting from this work. On a personal level, I met some incredible people, especially young women, who are making enormous positive change in their communities. I also learnt a lot about taking care of myself. Let’s just say it took me six months after arriving back in Australia to stop checking over my shoulder every time I walked outside.
The Maldives has since had a change of government and I have no doubt my experience would be vastly different if I went now. But it was certainly a wild and bumpy ride!
What do you wish you knew when starting out as a young professional?
In my very first role as a graduate, I experienced some pretty awful bullying, to the point that I would sob coming into work every day. When I reported it, a senior executive from the organisation reached out to tell me – and I quote – “to suck it up”. That experience was so damaging that it took me a couple of years to build my confidence back up and to feel safe in the workplace. I, thankfully, do not believe this is a common experience for young professionals in the public service. But it did teach me that who you work with is often more important than what you are working on.
Lesson 1: Choose your team wisely. Your relationships at work have an enormous impact on your confidence and wellbeing, especially as a young professional.
A few months later, I ended up in a new team with a brilliant boss. I was a 23 year old grad with only seven months of full-time work under my belt and he suggested I apply for a job at DFAT three ranks above my level. I thought it was a ridiculous proposition and that I would only embarrass myself. But my boss eventually convinced me that it was worth a shot. And he was right - I got the job. I am forever thankful to this mentor because I never would have taken that step of my own accord.
Lesson 2: Back yourself. I you don’t try, you won’t know.
I want to acknowledge the significant work underway to ensure gender equality and employee diversity in the foreign policy and national security sectors. But over the past four years, I have worked in five all-male teams of up to seven men. These roles have largely been positive experiences and many of these colleagues have become friends and mentors. But I am frequently the youngest, most junior, most culturally diverse person in the room, and the only woman.
If I knew this earlier, I would have more actively developed tools to make sure my voice is heard. I’ve since learnt to sit at the table instead of in the chairs at the side of the room, to keep talking when someone talks over me and to proactively contribute to the conversation, rather than waiting to be asked.
Lesson 3: Your voice matters and what you have to say is important. You have a unique perspective that deserves to be heard.
Where are you now? What does a day as a Research Associate at the Lowy Institute look like?
I am very fortunate to work at the Lowy Institute. As a Research Associate, a typical (non-lockdown) day could involve scanning the media for the latest developments in foreign policy and international news, researching and writing on specific projects, collating and analysing data, meeting with foreign delegations and participating in events.
Working on foreign policy both within, and outside of, government has been really insightful. These complementary experiences have given me access to a broader range of views on, and approaches to, the complex international problems we face.
Finally, reflecting on your career so far, what have been some highlights?
I have been fortunate to have worked under bosses who have given me incredible opportunities. I have met with most of Australia’s living Prime Ministers and international figures like former U.S. Senator John McCain. I have represented Australia overseas to meet diplomatic counterparts, worked across Parliament House, visited the DMZ, advised the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister’s Offices, helped deliver a Budget and worked on the national COVID Taskforce.
But one moment in particular stands out – the moment I finished my DFAT interview.
I come from a CALD background. My grandparents came to Australia after WWII with no English, no money and limited education. They started as cane-cutters and tobacco farmers, and worked incredibly hard to give their children and grandchildren opportunities that they could only dream of.
At the end of my DFAT interview, I realised there was a chance I could become an Australian diplomat. It felt like a full circle moment. My family travelled across the world to build a life here, and now I had the opportunity to go out into the world to represent Australia – the country that had given my family so much. My grandparents, when they arrived in Australia, could have never imagined it possible. That was pretty surreal.