Lowy Institute: Lack of women in Australia’s international relations sector harms national interest

By Shannon Jenkins

Wednesday July 10, 2019

Photo by chuttersnap on Unsplash

Australia’s intelligence community “lags” behind the broader public sector when it comes to gender balance, according to a new report.

The scathing review from the Lowy Institute says there is a “severe gender imbalance” across the international relations sector, despite evidence of gender-balanced workforces functioning more efficiently.

The three year study argues that women are missing from key policy-shaping activities and have rarely held the most important diplomatic postings, which can harm the national interest.

“A more diverse workforce will not only better-reflect Australian society, but make full use of the available talent pool,” the report says.

“Having a senior cohort which is mostly male depicts a society that, despite its claims, has failed to progress socially; this is detrimental to the national interest and hinders the achievement of our foreign policy objectives.” 

But it’s not all bad. Australia currently has a lineup of strong women in the senior ranks of the international relations sector.

There is the Foreign Minister, Marise Payne; Defence Minister, Linda Reynolds; Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister, Penny Wong; and Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), Frances Adamson.

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Furthermore, DFAT maintains that it is committed to achieving gender equality.

“There are no roles in which women cannot serve overseas,” a DFAT spokesperson told The Mandarin.

Capable women currently serve as ambassadors in 40% of career-appointed positions overseas, and in 40% of senior executive positions at home and abroad. DFAT’s first female secretary was appointed in 2016, having served as Australia’s first female ambassador in Beijing.

“DFAT is confident that in time, women will have served as heads of mission in all overseas posts.”

The study found that there has been some progress: Defence has made a “strong, sustained, and transparent effort” to include women; the Australian Federal Police has strengthened its gender strategy for international operations; some agencies, including the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation and the Australian Signals Directorate, have significantly improved their gender balances in their senior executive service levels; DFAT’s current Secretary, Frances Adamson, has continued the work of her predecessor Peter Varghese by attempting to improve the gender balance in the foreign service. 

However, despite the few “trailblazers”, some agencies in the sector “have been far more timid in their approaches” and progress towards equality has been slow.

“Some organisations in the sector have well-documented cultural problems … acknowledged and unacknowledged sources of bias persist,” the report says.

Ironically, there is some evidence from the private sector that the achievements of female trailblazers can cause organisations to become complacent, rather than more proactive, about gender diversity.”

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The intelligence community continues to have fewer women and “lags badly” behind the public and corporate sectors, as well as internationally. To tackle this, the Lowy Institute points to areas of action that agencies can immediately address.

They give the following recommendations as “some of the possible actions the sector should take to improve the representation of women at all levels of its organisations”:

  • The sector must systematically address recruitment deficits and promotion processes, to build and support career ladders for females, particularly in the intelligence community.
  • The newly established Office of National Intelligence should create a dedicated branch to broaden the intelligence community’s diversity efforts in both recruitment and retention, and track and report publicly on their progress.
  • The deterrent effect of lengthy and invasive security clearance processes for jobs must be better understood and acknowledged. Efforts should be made to explain the processes to applicants and streamline them as far as possible.
  • There is scope for stronger mentoring programs to bolster women’s performance in promotion rounds, assisting them in preparing applications and interview techniques. While some organisations have policies for this, the challenge lies in implementing them effectively.
  • Departments and agencies should allow overseas officials with children (male and female) access to a dedicated childcare allowance or rebate, to alleviate the pressure of family duties.
  • Organisational gender balance should be a matter of public record, whether agencies are within the intelligence community or not. Improving transparency on gender balance across the sector will set public benchmarks and hedge against the impact of management transitions. All taxpayer-funded gender and diversity strategies and independent reviews should be published. Where security concerns exist, sanitised versions should be made available to the public, as several of our Five Eyes partners have done.
  • In accordance with the 50:50 gender balance goals of the APS Gender Equality Strategy 2016–2019, all departments and agencies examined in this study should have a gender equality or diversity action plan, with published data, targets and time frames.
  • Leaders and organisations should be equally accountable for progress on these plans. Diversity targets should be attached to management performance assessments, including at the secretary and director-general level, with minister-level involvement for any who fall short. 
  • Political appointees to ambassadorial roles overseas should reflect the gender diversity of parliament at a minimum.


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