Sonia Clark

Lieutenant Sonia Clark is in charge of some of the biggest ships in the Royal Australian Navy, protecting Australia's borders.

Her unique path to the Navy is a journey of building self-respect, some wisdom from Mum, and not judging anything (even the military!) by its cover.

If we look back at your time at school, when did you attend PLC Sydney, and what did you plan to do after school?

I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, but I loved science. I thought possibly medical science or engineering. It turned out my marks in English and History were better, and we received our HSC results when I was on a school trip to Nepal. We had to keep international phone calls short as they were so expensive, and my brother convinced me to study Arts/Law that I’d just made the marks for at Macquarie Uni.

Please briefly tell us what you did after finishing school?

I went to uni for a few years, but I didn’t do very well. I became incredibly shy after high school and struggled initially. When I ended up working and switching to uni part-time, it worked much better for me. I dropped out of Law, finished my Arts degree, and managed to get a Graduate position in the Australian Public Service. I went back to law a few years later and finally became a solicitor before chucking it all in to join the Royal Australian Navy as a Maritime Warfare Officer.

What does a typical "work" day look like for you?

Ha, I love this question! Being in the Navy, virtually no two days are the same. When I’m out at sea, we have a daily routine, and it’s nice that your home and workplace are one and the same - no commute.

But I also do shift work at sea, which sometimes means working up to 12 hours a day, including through the night. I’ve spent many hours at sea being awake at some ungodly hour. It can be tough sometimes but being out on the ocean watching the sun come up knowing you’re keeping everyone safe is something quite special.

When the ship is in homeport, I usually work similar to office hours and do a lot of admin work and training.

What has been the proudest moment in your life so far?

Actually, this one is probably quite recent. Apart from getting into the Navy (I’m not a physical person, so passing the fitness test was a very proud moment), I recently had the privilege of deploying to Fiji to help after the devastation caused by Cyclone Yasa. I was able to go ashore and help build temporary school facilities, and all the kids were so cute and everyone so grateful. We even received a letter from the island Chief apologising for not being able to feed the troops as all their crops had been devastated. We definitely had enough food with us and had been supplying emergency rations to the islands, so that was very humbling.

Could you tell us about a mistake you have made and what did you learn from that mistake?

Not following my mother’s advice! It’s a bit hard to pick out one mistake; I’ve definitely made a few! Professionally I’m quite proud of my achievements, although the road has been long and windy. Personally, I think my biggest mistake was not having enough self-respect or self-worth. That led me to investing time in people who weren’t good for me and was very draining. I think if I’d had more self-worth, I would have made some better decisions in my 20s! If only I’d listened to my mother, she believed in my worth, and she was right. It’s taken me a long time to value myself, and it’s still a struggle.

What's the most significant piece of advice you've received, and who shared it with you?

Just over ten years ago now, I was progressing my public service career really well, but I never felt right. I did an executive leadership course, and they tested my personality. I had great chats with one of the consultants who said ‘just because you’re good at something doesn’t mean it’s good for you’ or words to that effect. I was good at my job but so drained. It turned out I wasn’t doing the right sort of job for my big sky thinking sort of brain. I was down in the data. The chats I had with those leadership coaches helped me dare believe that I could get out of my comfort zone and do something that was right for me. Without that, I would never have taken the plunge and joined the military.

If you could travel back in time, what would you say to your younger self at the age of 20 or 30?

You’re worth self-respect. Give yourself some.

Do what YOU want to do, not what you think other people want you to do.

What tools (apps, books, podcasts, etc.) or activities do you go to for inspiration/ideas/productivity/balance?

I love the work of Brene Brown. Highly recommend watching her Ted Talks. The idea of vulnerability in leadership really resonated with me. In my 20s, I tried to be the tough results-driven person, but my leadership style has changed since then. Being in the military, it would seem like an oxymoron to be vulnerable, but it isn’t. It’s the best kind of leadership I’ve seen and inspires people to come with you. I’m currently reading Think Again by Adam Grant - all about rethinking, unlearning and relearning. I love the Smiling Mind app for short, simple guided meditation.

If a younger woman asked you about joining the military, what advice would you give her?

Do it. The military offers so many wonderful opportunities for all people. I had the benefit of coming into the organisation a bit more mature, but I must admit I’m sometimes jealous of the incredible careers ahead of those who join soon after school or in their early 20s. It’s rare to work for an employer who offers you so much variety through your career - not only in Australia but overseas as well. It’s also got the flexibility to allow you to have a family and continue your career, with excellent extras such as full health care coverage and great parental leave conditions.

That’s not to say it won’t be challenging. There are ups and downs, particularly as a trainee when you are regularly out of your comfort zone. The female numbers in the military are ever-increasing, and whilst it’s a traditionally masculine occupation, as a capable and compassionate individual, I have thrived in the organised. That’s not to say I don’t try and change things now and then, but usually, the blokes listen and are interested! My view is – the more women we have in the organisation, the less exceptional we are. The less exceptional we are, the less exceptional we have to be. I think that’s the ultimate goal, so we can just get on with the job.

It’s a big organisation, and each job is very unique and has its own challenges and rewards. I’m more than happy to talk to anyone who’s interested in a military career to provide an insider’s perspective. Whether it be looking to go to ADFA as part of an Undergraduate program, gaining a trade, or joining as your second (or even third) career, there are quite a few options.

What are some misconceptions about working in the military that you wish other people understood?

They’re probably the same misconceptions I had. For me, it was that I would not be a good fit for the military, particularly the Navy, as an older, professional (and gay) woman. But the organisation is so very different. It has values I strongly believe in, and it’s constantly working hard to be better and improve itself. Even in the eight years, I’ve been in, it’s changed a lot for the better. I joined the Navy at 32, and they have given me every opportunity – to drive some of the biggest ships and now in charge of some of the most expensive and leading-edge warfighting kit in the world. I’m trusted to defend the ship and keep everyone on board safe. The trust placed in me is incredible.

The modern Navy is not like the old school stories or probably how many people imagine it. It’s a diverse, interesting organisation, full of some of the most intelligent and hard-working people I’ve ever met. The work practices and atmosphere have often been so much better than my experience with previous employers (both government and private).

One of the greatest misconceptions is that when you are posted to a ship, you are out at sea for that whole time. Most postings are about two years in length, and there’s a mix of what we call sea and shore postings (on a ship or in an office building). During your sea posting, you also spend plenty of time in homeport (for me at the moment, it’s Sydney) and get time for leave and respite. Seagoing trips can be anywhere from a few days to six months, with one of the great benefits (pre-COVID-19 of course!) being the many wonderful ports you get to visit.

ANZAC Day is coming up very soon - what does this day mean for you?

My grandfather served in the Second World War. He was a quiet family man, didn’t like alcohol much and hated the drinking culture around ANZAC Day, so he never marched. I think that made me very conscious of what ANZAC Day should really be about - a solemn commemoration of often senseless death and suffering. For example, it’s still hard to fathom the number of men who died in the First World War as a proportion of Australia’s population at the time. There’s no other way to describe it than a great tragedy.

Our modern society is so complex and diverse. I think ANZAC Day is a critical part of an overall picture of who we are that starts with First Nations peoples and includes all our new migrants forging a uniquely modern Australian identity. We should never forget the sacrifice of all Australians, either fighting for our country or fighting to make our country a better place.

I still feel like a bit of an imposter when I march, or people thank me for my service. Although the work has been tough at times, with long stints away from home, I’ve never had to endure anything like what my grandfather did, and hopefully, none of us have to again.

How has your education at PLC Sydney shaped the person you are today?

There’s something about all us PLC Sydney girls that’s hard to put a finger on. I think we’re all our own worst critics; we constantly strive to be better, which is often no bad thing. Sometimes we just need to step back and give ourselves a pat on the back every so often (and be vulnerable)!

I think my time at PLC Sydney helped engender good manners, some humility and the ability to talk to anyone - wonderful life skills. No doubt it set me up academically and professionally too. I didn’t always feel like a classic PLC Sydney girl, but now I realise there isn’t any such thing - we’re all individuals, but we all share that unique experience. I feel very privileged.

Please share some of your most vivid, favourite or amusing memories from school.

I’m sure a lot of my amusing memories revolve around my (still) best friend Alicia Hambly (1998), and I doubt I’m alone in that feeling!

One of my most vivid memories was being on Year 10 school camp; I was hanging in another cabin (past bedtime) and singing some Rolling Stones song at the top of my lungs, dancing away when one of our maths teachers, Ms Turnbull, walks in.

Everyone else scattered like cockroaches, and I’m there still singing and dancing away, not realising she was staring right at me until I turned around! Suffice to say; she was not amused (secretly, she probably was very amused!).

My other vivid memory was winning the Music Night for Kinross in Year 8 with Run to Paradise!

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