No country for senior women: Australia’s international relations still preserve of men

By Elise Stephenson and Dr Susan Harris Rimmer
Griffith Law School

Today, the Lowy Institute launched the largest study ever on gender diversity in Australian international affairs.

The findings are critical and clear: gender diversity within the field lags significantly behind the Australian Public Service (APS), comparative countries and even corporate Australia in addressing workplace inequalities.

In a field which has long ignored research on gender or feminist approaches to understanding international relations, this report is welcome and sets forth an important research agenda within Australia.

Gender diversity is an important issue for all who value the pursuit of Australia’s national interests overseas. Australia needs all the talent it can get in its foreign relations in the current environment. Turnbull stated in June 2017 that ‘the economic, political and strategic currents that have carried us for generations are increasingly difficult to navigate’. Attracting and retaining the best talent is more important now than ever before.

Yet, among the research findings include that women are least represented in Australian intelligence communities. As the funding and resources of the intelligence sector continue to increase, this represents a serious issue with little transparency.

Women’s pathways to leadership also appear to be impeded by vertical and horizontal segregation, with the most important and high prestige international postings still largely dominated by men.

Another important finding is that the presence of female trailblazers, whilst to be celebrated, may be masking more systemic issues. This may be leading some agencies to becoming more complacent, than proactive, about gender diversity. The clear lesson here was that Julie Bishop, Marise Payne, Penny Wong and others deserve to be recognised and their legacy and contribution celebrated. But one swallow does not a summer make.

Interestingly, the report draws attention to the marginalisation of women from key policy-shaping activities, where a woman is yet to be selected to lead on any major foreign policy, defence, intelligence or trade white paper, inquiry or independent review.

We would include Heather Smith’s stewardship of the G20 as an exception and note the contribution of Jane Duke to the ASEAN Summit in Sydney, and Harinda Sidhu in the important post of High Commissioner to India. In Defence, further to the successes of Rebecca Skinner and Justine Grieg is the appointment of Major General Cheryl Pearce as force commander of the United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus – the first Australian woman to command a UN peacekeeping mission.

Women’s under-representation in international affairs is a core concern, however one that we would argue is not isolated to the practitioner community, and here the report could have a wider sample from academia and think tanks. Many organisations in the think tank and foreign affairs publications community have similarly woeful representation of women, with, for instance, Australian Foreign Affairs magazine criticised for the lack of women authors published. We know that it is not for lack of credible voices, but rather seems indicative of a systematic form of marginalisation of women within the wider foreign affairs community.

However, there are some causes for optimism. For instance, our current PhD project has documented how as of 31 January 2019 women represented 39.5 per cent of the SES in DFAT, and 41.4 per cent of head of mission or head of post roles (rather than the 36 per cent accounted for in the Report). Further, of interest might be counting the increased percentage of women whom work in diplomatic Defence roles, where women currently represent 19 per cent of Defence Attaches and associated roles. The achievements made in this sphere are not just limited to gender either, with women from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds forming an important and growing part of representation.

In fact, an intersectional analysis of the data would have produced some very interesting, and more nuanced, findings. For instance, foreign affairs has long been the preserve of men, however it has also been the preserve of certain types of men, with diplomacy remaining a bastion of prestige, social class, heteronormativity and, in Australia, Anglo-Saxon privilege. For instance, it was only in 2018 that Australia’s first Indigenous woman ambassador, Julie-Ann Guivarra, was appointed to Spain. In Larkin’s study of indigenous representation within the APS, he notes that a racial division of labour is also sustained within the APS, further to gendered divisions.

Overall, as the report outlines, gender equality is not just nice to have, and is not a marginal issue in foreign policy. Rather, the findings are clear: addressing the continued gender gaps are imperative to Australian foreign policy, national security and stability.

This research comes as a clarion call to international affairs: the pace of change has been too slow for women in this field. We can, and need, to do better. Australian foreign policy needs good ideas, and it needs a lot of them. We cannot assume they will all come from the same place.