First woman to head an Australian intelligence agency said a spy chief she had been asked to bring men coffee.

    The first woman to head an Australian intelligence agency said on Friday the glass ceiling for women's career advancement was more like a "concrete block", revealing even as a spy chief she had been asked to bring men coffee.

    Director-general of the Australian Signals Directorate, Rachel Noble, traced the history of women in the intelligence service, from code breakers who intercepted Japanese flight plans during World War Two, working on cypher machines in a garage outside the main building, in an address to the Lowy Institute in Sydney.

    "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," she said, noting she had only recently become a feminist.

    She said she had refused when asked to take a cup of coffee to a man who was in a meeting, explaining that women should sit at the table in their own right, "not the notetaker or the coffee bringer".

    The treatment of women in workplaces was a theme in Australia's general election in May, which saw a swathe of seats won by professional women who ran as independent candidates.

    Noble referred to former Prime Minister Julia Gillard, whose speech on misogyny in parliament a decade ago drew international attention.

    Noble said she had experienced micro-humiliations in a world dominated by men, adding "words like she's a witch (or worse), she's bossy, she's scary" belittled women who show characteristics of strength.

    Her agency schedules morning meetings at 9:30 a.m., after parents made the school drop-off, she said.


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    Evarist Chahali

    Evarist Chahali

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