Australian diplomacy needs more women of colour
15 Jun 2023|

Women of colour continue to be systemically under-represented in Australian diplomacy. While a number of prominent Australian diplomatic positions are occupied by women of colour—including minister for foreign affairs, held by Penny Wong, who has Malaysian–Chinese heritage; and high commissioner to New Zealand, held by Harinder Sidhu, who was born in Singapore and has an Indian background—further work is required to achieve a proportionate representation.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has placed significant emphasis on encouraging diverse perspectives in diplomacy. Over the past 50 years, DFAT’s workplace reforms have focused on addressing the systemic barriers faced by marginalised groups who have been traditionally under-represented in the agency’s male, ‘WASPy’ (white Anglo-Saxon Protestant) culture. Today, diversity and inclusion strategies and initiatives in DFAT focus on groups including women, culturally and linguistically diverse Australians, Indigenous Australians, LGBTI Australians and Australians with disabilities.

The integration of an Indigenous perspective is one area that DFAT has made significant progress on since Labor came to power in May last year. One key step was the appointment of an ambassador for First Nations people earlier this year, who, among other roles, is providing strategic guidance on the development and implementation of a First Nations foreign policy strategy.

Gender equity, including at the leadership level, is another area of diversity that DFAT has focused on. Between 2016 and 2021, the number of women serving as heads of Australian diplomatic missions more than doubled, from 19% to 39%, and Australia’s three most recent foreign ministers have been women.

However, the dividends of such gender initiatives appear to be unevenly distributed, as highlighted by DFAT’s 2021 women in leadership strategy. The strategy notes that DFAT ‘has further to go’ in ensuring that ‘the benefits of gender equality are shared equitably’ with women from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, Indigenous women, women with disabilities, and sex or gender diverse people.

The shortcomings of DFAT’s gender equity initiatives are consistent with broader findings on the impact of diversity and inclusion programs in Australian workplaces. The Diversity Council Australia recently released landmark research on culturally and racially marginalised women in leadership noting that while gender equity initiatives ‘have made great strides’, they have been criticised for having a ‘tendency to improve outcomes mainly for white, middle class, able-bodied, heterosexual, cisgendered women’. The research also highlights that women of colour are often overlooked in Australian workplaces.

Discrimination is one of the many factors contributing to the under-representation of women of colour, and people of colour more generally, in professional settings. Recent research into promotion in the Australian public service supports this notion, emphasising widespread racial discrimination. One key finding was that Anglo-Australian applicants were about 60% more likely than non-Anglo-Australian applicants to receive a promotion from Executive Level 2 to Senior Executive Service positions—and DFAT is no exception.

DFAT’s report on the results of the 2022 APS employee census revealed that gender-based and race-based discrimination were two of the three most common categories of discrimination experienced by employees who had reported discrimination in the past 12 months. For women of colour, who often experience both gender- and race-based discrimination, this double disadvantage—dubbed the ‘glass–cultural ceiling’—has tended to be overlooked in workplaces.

Despite DFAT’s acknowledgement that marginalised groups, such as women of colour, are under-represented and that discrimination is an issue, a lack of data is limiting progress on diversity and inclusion initiatives. While the Australian Public Service Commission collects data on cultural diversity through the APS employment database, the information is incomplete because it is provided voluntarily and because, apart from gender, the only relevant metrics are an employee’s first language spoken and country of birth.

The Greens’ deputy leader, Mehreen Faruqi, has argued that APS data should be supplemented with disaggregated data about ethnic diversity. The APS is working with the Diversity Council Australia to ensure that the next APS survey, to be held later this year, collects more detailed data on cultural background. The next iteration of the Australian population census, to be held in 2026, will also collect ethnicity data for the first time. Once released, these two datasets should be used by the APS, including DFAT, to better understand the extent to which marginalised groups such as women of colour are under-represented. This will help them focus their efforts and improve the inclusion of women of colour in diplomacy.

In the meantime, DFAT should use proxies for cultural diversity, such as the population census’s ancestry metric, to approximate the under-representation of women of colour. The ancestry metric enables the size of ethnic groups such as Asian-Australians to be estimated. Since Asian-Australians make up 17.4% of the Australian population, that means roughly 8.7% of the population are female Asian-Australians. However, when looking at the gallery of women who have been posted abroad as ambassadors and high commissioners, we see that this cultural diversity hasn’t proportionately filtered through. The under-representation of Asian-Australian women in diplomatic leadership positions reflects the ‘bamboo ceiling’ they face.

Aside from improving data collation and analysis, existing gender equity initiatives can be used specifically to address the under-representation of marginalised women, including women of colour, in diplomacy. DFAT has committed to achieving a 40/40/20 gender balance—40% men, 40% women and 20% any gender—at division level and at posts by 2025. However, it’s vital that within those targets there’s a focus on marginalised groups such as women of colour, Indigenous women, women with disabilities and LGBTI women.

Tailored training and development programs are another important method for fostering the inclusion of women of colour in diplomacy. Even though several mentoring programs exist for women in APS leadership positions, programs that specifically acknowledge the barriers and issues faced by people of colour, including women of colour, are necessary. Such initiatives already exist in the private sector, such as Women of Colour Australia’s mentorship program and executive leadership program. The Dr John Yu fellowship, based at University of Sydney, aims to promote cultural diversity in leadership and has included participants from public-sector agencies such as DFAT.

While improving inclusion of women of colour in diplomacy requires significant time and investment, the business case for change is clear. Aside from the importance of reflecting the diversity of the wider Australian community, intercultural and multilingual skills are a clear necessity in Australia’s engagement with foreign counterparts. Leveraging the lived experience of people of colour, especially those who have a multicultural background, speak a foreign language or have lived overseas, is integral to fulfilling the Australian government’s desire to close key capability gaps in diplomacy. Enhancing Asian literacy across various areas of Australian government policymaking, including trade, national security and intelligence, is critical. One area for growth would be leveraging the skills of Chinese-speaking diaspora communities in Australia.

By building on recent progress, the government has an opportunity to step up to ensure the inclusion of women of colour in Australian diplomacy. An approach to cultural inclusivity that considers marginalised groups in DFAT’s gender equity initiatives will produce significant dividends for Australia’s foreign policy objectives.