In December 2021, Karyn Ervin took on a new role as the Director Diversity, Performance and Leadership Development at the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT). There she helps create an inclusive workplace that provides an environment for a diverse workforce to succeed and grow.
“It’s important we not only reflect the Australian community, but that we use our diverse lived experiences to support and advance our foreign policy in a positive way,” Karyn says. “It’s my job to be an inclusive leader and establish a culture that can make that happen.”
The new role was a big step for Karyn – one she might not have been ready to take a few years ago. For decades Karyn, a proud Gooreng Gooreng/Punthamara woman, dealt with what she called “internal blockers” that stunted her professional growth.
“I’m from a generation where, throughout school, the narrative in my head was that I wasn’t the same. And when you’re not the same, the expectations are much lower. I was never told I was smart; I didn’t have that supporting environment to push me. I didn’t have that vision of going to university,” Karyn says.
“There were systemic things in school that really influenced my identity as an Aboriginal woman and built up this negative narrative. I took it on board and internalised it. I didn’t think I was smart. And when you don’t think you’re smart, you don’t aspire.”
Before joining DFAT, Karyn worked for the Australian Department of Defence and the Australian Public Service Commission. Despite the fact she’d built an incredible career in the public service, that doubt from school still followed Karyn.
“I second-guessed everything – impostor syndrome was alive and well inside of me, screaming ‘hello, here I am.’”
But all that changed in 2018, when she enrolled in the AGSM Emerging Indigenous Executive Leadership Program (EIELP). Something clicked for Karyn that changed how she thought about herself, her community and her abilities.
“One day Professor Mark Rose, AGSM Adjunct Faculty member and Indigenous programs Academic Director, told us that, as Aboriginal people, we’re strategic, we’re smart, we’re great connectors, we’re funny – I had never heard anybody say that before. And it was like, wow, he’s right! Back yourself. It was so powerful and so critical to my development – reshaping that internal dialogue of not being quite good enough.”
Helping reshape the public sector
Karyn says she pursued the role at DFAT for two main reasons. One was her love of challenges. The other was her passion for and interest in nurturing diversity and inclusion across Australia, especially in the public sector.
“I’d never worked for an organisation with such a global outward focus. Representing Australians in such a diverse and inclusive manner for a globally focused organisation is really interesting. It gives me a chance to stretch my thinking and constantly learn and evolve as a public servant,” she says.
Karyn’s mother worked in the public sector and her father was in the army, so Karyn says an element of national pride and service has been present her whole life and continues to inspire her today.
“I love being involved in work that I can see has a tangible impact on Australians from all walks of life – building environments where they can really develop. Because of my lived experience, I can talk from a place of knowing and understanding. When I joined the public sector it wasn’t as inclusive and welcoming of diversity, and I’m proud of the progress we’re making in this space.”
And Karyn says she might not have been part of this progress without the help of the EIELP.
“The program taught me to look at opportunities differently. So when I saw this job at DFAT, I thought about what I could bring to that role. Before the EIELP I probably would’ve never had that perspective or been looking to progress in my career.”