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Young Women to Watch 5 Years On: Zoe Hawkins

In this alumni spotlight: “Five years on - where are they now?”, we have the pleasure of speaking with 2019 Young Women to Watch in International Affairs Finalist and Tech Policy Specialist Zoe Hawkins about her remarkable career at the nexus of technology and international affairs.

Zoe has worked on technology policy in think tanks, academia, politics, industry, and foreign affairs. 

Zoe is currently working for the University of Oxford on a research project titled ‘Political Geography of AI Infrastructure’. She recently completed a MSc in Social Science of the Internet at the Oxford Internet Institute with a thesis on the foreign affairs relationship between big tech companies and governments. 

Prior to returning to study, Zoe managed Amazon's digital public policy strategy in Australia and New Zealand, and represented the company on global cross-industry initiatives such as the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism. Zoe has served as Adviser to Australia’s Minister for Communications and Minister for Jobs and Innovation, overseeing the development of the Online Safety Act and Digital Economy Strategy. At the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Zoe was one of the drafters of Australia's first International Cyber Engagement Strategy and represented Australia’s cyber affairs interests in diplomatic contexts around the world. Zoe started her career as an Analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s International Cyber Policy Centre, where she published and spoke internationally on tech policy issues.

Zoe is passionate about responsible technology and serves as a pro bono Strategic Adviser to the Alliance for Universal Digital Rights.


You are currently working as a Researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute. What are your day-to-day responsibilities, and what has been your proudest achievement in this role so far? 

Having just returned to Australia after completing an MSc in Social Science of the Internet at the University of Oxford, I am enjoying working remotely with Professor Vili Lehdonvirta to research the political geography of AI infrastructure. The project resonates with my ongoing interest in international affairs: it explores the way in which the geopolitics of great powers and big tech firms is shaping global digital infrastructure that underpins the AI revolution. 

My responsibilities include creating a new dataset that maps the AI infrastructure (data centres) of leading US and Chinese tech firms around the world; co-authoring articles for peer review journals; and engaging with interested stakeholders across academia, industry and policy. 

While the project is still in its early stages, I’m pleased that it has already garnered international public interest, including being the focus of a recent POLITICO article titled ‘A new global map of the AI future’. 

Looking back at your recognition as one of the Young Women to Watch in International Affairs in 2019, how has it influenced your professional journey and personal growth over the past five years?

Recognition is a powerful tool. Being noted as a Young Woman to Watch in International Affairs in 2019 was a significant boost to my confidence on a personal level. The framing of YAIA’s list as ‘women to watch’ is empowering because it’s not just celebrating what young women have already achieved, which is, of course, important, but it is really focused on potential and speaks to the idea that these women’s greatest work is still to come. 

I think that vote of confidence really inspired me to dream big. It also gave me a positive achievement to share with my professional network, and I used it in the following years to emphasise my suitability for roles with international dimensions.

What advice would you offer to women who are interested in applying?

My advice to women interested in applying for the Young Women to Watch in International Affairs is - do it! Like any application, there is no downside to putting yourself forward. Whether or not you are successful for this particular list, the most important thing is not to self-exclude from these opportunities to be recognised. We can too often be our own greatest critics, and it is great to push yourself beyond your comfort zone and build the muscle of celebrating your successes. Also, don’t miss chances to nominate female peers that you admire - women celebrating other women’s success is so important.

Cybersecurity has historically been a male-dominated field. What strategies have you employed to navigate it and what advice would you offer to young women aspiring to pursue careers in this field?

Everyone has their own brand and way of taking up space, so I think the biggest trap is for us to talk about this question as if there is a ‘one size fits all’ approach to ‘being a woman’ (or any other identity group) in male-dominated policy spaces. Decide what you want your personal leadership style to be, and use that to guide the way you approach your work environment.

A few things that worked for me:

  • While you may come across people who underestimate you in your career, don’t be one of them - put your hand up for opportunities and recognition (like this YAIA list!). If you’ve ever felt like you suffer from ‘imposter syndrome’, you need to watch this speech from Reshma Saujani about ‘bicycle face’

  • When thinking about how to succeed in your career, it’s easy to think only of your professional context but don’t forget to think about the personal network around you. I have sought out friendships focused on building each other up - I get a big dose of support and confidence from these women (and men) that sustains me when I’m operating in high-stress male-dominated environments. So prioritise the people and activities (for me, running and yoga) outside of work that lift you up and give you the fuel you need!

  • If someone interrupts you when you’re speaking in a meeting, call it out or even just keep talking. It’s awkward, but I promise it makes them look silly, not you. Remember to do the same for others.

  • Reach out to senior women (or men) who you admire and seek their mentorship. This doesn’t have to be a formal arrangement and will vary depending on your style and theirs, but build a list in your mind of people you’d like to learn from and seek regular dialogue with them. My thanks to Gisele Kapterian, Johanna Weaver, Sam Yorke and Julie Inman Grant for being ongoing sources of advice and encouragement for me.

  • Find opportunities early in your career to write and publish your policy insights. Doing so establishes a helpful proof point of your knowledge and skills.
 Perhaps even more importantly, it matures your professional voice, gets you comfortable sharing your opinions, and develops your confidence to advocate for yourself in professional settings.

What experiences or moments helped you identify your passion in tech policy, and how did you pursue it?

I was lucky and discovered my passion for tech policy during my undergraduate degree at the University of Sydney in a class called Science, Technology and Security taught by Dr Frank Smith. I was intrigued by the mysterious two-way relationship between humans and the technology they create, and how this dynamic impacts the nature and trajectory of the world we live in. 

From that point on, I have been fortunate to be able to pursue this interest and explore this dynamic relationship through different lenses: from defence and security, to diplomacy and trade, to innovation and productivity, to social harms and human rights. I have also pursued these questions from different vantage points: from think tanks and academia, government and politics, as well as the private sector. This varied experience has been so stimulating for me, and given me a comprehensive understanding of how different parts of society are grappling with a range of technology policy questions. 

Looking ahead, what are your goals and aspirations? What impact do you hope to make in the coming years?

I have so enjoyed my journey to date, that I almost want to say…more of that please! 

On a more serious note: I’m motivated to advance responsible technology policy and make a positive contribution to shaping technology for the benefit of humanity. My goal is to help make sense of some of the most complex tech policy challenges and to provide practical policy advice that helps decision-makers in government and business reach balanced solutions. This sounds slightly vague because the exciting thing about tech policy is you can achieve that principle by working on such a diverse range of policy areas: keeping people safe through cyber diplomacy or critical infrastructure security, empowering entrepreneurs to find innovative solutions to the world’s problems, or protecting vulnerable people from online harms and human rights abuses. I also believe that being too set on exactly what you want to do can set you up to miss unexpected opportunities, which are particularly likely to crop up in the ever-changing field of technology. 

I also aspire to see technology governance and policy designed with everybody in mind, not just the powerful few. I’m currently volunteering as a Strategic Advisor for the Alliance for Universal Digital Rights (AUDRi), a coalition of NGOs advocating for gender equality in global digital governance (with a current focus on the United Nations’ Global Digital Compact). I plan to continue supporting these sorts of initiatives that promote inclusive tech policy throughout my career. In a similar vein, I am passionate about encouraging young people to get involved in the responsible tech policy profession. I’m currently a Mentor for the responsible technology community organisation All Tech Is Human and remain open to other opportunities where I can support young people to reach their potential, in this field or otherwise. 

I’m feeling excited for the next five years, and looking forward to seeing the 2024 cohort of the YAIA Young Women to Watch in International Affairs!

Nominations for the 2024 Young Women to Watch List are now open!

Nominate (or self-nominate!) an outstanding woman before midnight on January 31st 2024.


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