How a diverse workforce in Australia’s intelligence community aids intelligence capability

By Felicity Millar

March 18, 2022

ASIO headquarters, Canberra
ASIO headquarters, Canberra. (AAP Image/Lukas Coch)

Having a monocultural intelligence workforce leads to issues with the recruitment and retention of highly specialised staff and a decline in capability. The needed specialist skills of the intelligence community no longer come from one subsection of Australian society, and nor should they.  

Policies and legislation that promote gender equality and diversity amongst its workforce would make the intelligence community a more attractive work environment and would benefit Australia’s intelligence output and capabilities.

Enhancing entitlements in maternity leave from 14 weeks of leave to 22 weeks for birthmothers and continuing superannuation payments for parents when they are on leave without pay would aid women in a field still dominated by men.

At the same time, the National Intelligence Community (NIC) should look to expand its talent pool outside of Canberra. The creation of NIC offices outside Canberra would entice talent into the NIC that is not available in Australia’s capital whilst improving the relationship between federal and state and territory government’s intelligence capabilities.

Gender diversity in the intelligence workforce

In the current threat environment, the NIC needs to be able to urgently address decision makers’ need for context and influence in our region. This means harnessing the best talent and tapping into the unique skillset that intelligence personnel have to offer.

Therefore, it is in the NIC’s best interest to expedite addressing existing diversity barriers.

Australia’s intelligence sector has historically been dominated by men in specialist areas and in leadership roles. This limits decision-making and the recruitment pool within the intelligence community to a select few of the Australian workforce, thus limiting specialist leadership and capabilities. For example, the 2020-2021 annual reports for the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD) and the Australian Security Organisation (ASIO) show a gender imbalance across the organisations.

In the ASD, there are a total of 1,472 male employees and 831 female employees – 117 of them part-time. ASIO has struck a better balance overall, but in its upcoming leaders – namely SES 1s and AEE 1-3 (the equivalent of EL1 – EL 2) the gap is much wider.

To counteract this discrepancy, the intelligence community can lead the charge for better workplace entitlements to promote the retention of a more diverse workforce. As shown in December 2021, the Australian Public Service Commission (APSC) commenced a review of the Maternity Leave Act (Commonwealth Employees) 1973. Enhancing the entitlements from 14 weeks of paid leave to 22 weeks for birthmothers will help make the NIC and Australia’s national security sector an employer of choice, and retain specialist and diverse skillsets that are sorely needed in the national security workforce.

Another factor for women in the workforce, intelligence and otherwise, is the insufficient superannuation accrued at retirement due to taking leave without pay to care for children. To help combat this aspect of the gender pay gap in Australia and the intelligence workforce, Commonwealth employers through the reform of the Maternity Leave Act should continue to make superannuation payments for parents whilst they are on Leave Without Pay up to the child’s first birthday, so that primary carers do not have to sacrifice retirement income for parenthood. This will also help improve choice for couples wishing to have a stay-at-home parent.

It is not only civilian staff and non-military operational that needs to be considered. The suggested amendments made to the Maternity Leave Act should also be extended to the ADF, whose entitlements are under section 58b of the Defence Act 1903 (Cth) in order to have equitable reform in Australia’s national security sector.

A small Canberra equals non-diverse intelligence capabilities

Whilst the recruitment process for Australia’s intelligence agencies aims to capture the entirety of the nation’s talent, the career prospects of many intelligence staff is still limited to Canberra.

Limiting viable recruitment to Canberra, or those who wish to move to the capital reduces the exposure of the NIC to other talent pools in Australia. This results in restrictive recruitment and lack of retention of intelligence professionals. Intelligence agencies should have offices in all Australian states and territories, similar to the model for the Joint Cyber Security Centres in ASD.

Whilst strategic decision-making and policy components centring on intelligence operations need to be in the capital, recruitment, outreach and analytical capabilities could be conducted in offices around Australia. This would widen the talent pool for intelligence professionals and allow them career growth outside of Canberra, which would aid in preventing the intelligence “Canberra Pool”.

Establishing inter-state offices could cultivate and improve the relationship between intelligence agencies, state and territory governments and respective law enforcement agencies. As shown through the responses for counter-terrorism, the state and territory governments hold a considerable amount of decision-making power. They also have been a consistent target for foreign interference. Intelligence offices would provide access to information and staff who can guide state and territory governments in Federal decision making on national security and widen the recruitment pool to increase capability. 

For Australia’s intelligence community and capability to grow and meet the outputs that are currently required it should expand the diversity of its current workforce.

Increasing entitlements for women to advance in their career and establishing more offices for intelligence agencies around Australia would widen the talent pool, offer career advancement and help Australia’s national security.


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