Breaking barriers: the women leading Australia’s national security community

An historic appointment was made late last year, of Heather Cook as CEO of the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission and director of the Australian Institute of Criminology.

To little fanfare or media coverage, Cook started her new role on 15 January. She was announced by Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus in December as the leader of Australia’s national criminal intelligence agency for the next five years. The commission, which is Part of the National Intelligence Community (NIC), has an interesting remit. It has covert collection capabilities and coercive powers, including to conduct telephone intercept, surveillance and controlled operations. Under new laws it can also identify and disrupt criminal networks operating online. Its targets are vast, with the focus tending to be on the most nefarious serious and organised criminals.

The appointment of a new CEO may not sound like much, except that Cook is the first ever female CEO of the ACIC. A number of women have acted in the role over the years but none has been appointed permanently since the organisation was created in 2016 with the merger of CrimTrac and the Australian Crime Commission.

Cook’s appointment capped off an unprecedented year for women in Australia’s national security and intelligence sector with leadership ceilings smashed in a field historically dominated by men at the top. And 2024 is shaping up to be another historic year.

Perhaps the most prominent of the 2023 appointments was the new chief of Australia’s foreign intelligence collection agency, Kerri Hartland. Australia’s equivalent of the CIA and MI6, the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS) states prominently on its website that Hartland is its first female director-general. After 70 years in existence, many of them unacknowledged, it must be pleasing for ASIS officers to see their leader publicly and proudly recognised.

Another is Kathryn McMullan director of the Australian Geospatial Intelligence Organisation (AGO).  A key part of Defence and Australian intelligence, the AGO plays a role like no other, collecting and analysing geospatial data to understand what’s happening in our strategic environment. It is a critical enabler of Australia’s intelligence advantage, fusing its insights with HUMINT, SIGINT and OSINT to give government an edge.

And after decades of reviews led by men—from 1974 to 2017—last year saw the first ever appointment of a woman as co-lead of the Independent Intelligence Review. With long experience in top government jobs, Heather Smith’s appointment will no doubt bring a new lens to reviewing the complex intelligence enterprise and lead to a more holistic and nuanced consideration of the threats, vulnerabilities and opportunities facing the national intelligence community.

These appointments might not seem like a lot. But when considered in light of the previous head count when just one of Australia’s 10 intelligence agencies was headed by a woman (ASD, led by Rachel Noble) it’s a landmark moment.

Already in 2024, we’ve seen Stephanie Foster appointed Secretary of the powerful Department of Home Affairs, permanently taking the reins from Mike Pezzulo after he was asked to step aside when found to have breached government code of conduct. Meanwhile, Lieutenant General Michelle McGuinness was appointed National Cyber Security Coordinator after the mysterious recall of the former incumbent for an undisclosed workplace matter.

The appointments of women to leadership positions in Australia’s national security and intelligence sector mark a significant milestone in the ongoing effort to change the status quo and address entrenched biases within these institutions. While there have been women leaders before, such as Noble’s appointment as director-general of a statutory intelligence agency in 2019, the recent appointments of Cook, Hartland, McMullan, Smith, Foster and McGuinness signify a pivotal and much needed shift towards gender diversity at the top levels of Australia’s national security profession.

These women share common characteristics of exceptional leadership and extensive expertise in their fields. Cook, for instance, began her career as an intelligence officer in 1989 and quickly ascended the ranks, spending nearly two decades in senior executive positions at ASIO. Her resilience and capability were evident in challenging times, as she weathered leadership upheavals within ASIO in recent years. McMullan brings a wealth of experience in operational and strategic policy roles, including her work in the Office of National Intelligence, demonstrating her deep understanding of Australia’s intelligence landscape. While Foster has been a public servant since 1987, starting her career as a graduate and working her way up through the Defence Signals Directorate (the former ASD), Defence and the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.

Their achievements extend beyond their individual roles. Leaders like this pave the way for future generations of women leaders in intelligence and associated fields. They are not only breaking barriers but are reshaping the culture of the intelligence and national security communities, fostering connection, collaboration, innovation, and influencing strategic decision-making. Leaders like Cook, Hartland and McMullan excel not only in traditional intelligence roles but also at the intersection of intelligence and strategic foresight, where their perspectives and approaches drive forward-thinking solutions to complex Australian and global challenges.

But let’s not pretend that their journey to the top has been easy or straightforward. Historically, women in intelligence have been relegated to supporting roles, or, as in the case of Virginia Hall, being the subject of books with titles like ‘A Woman of No Importance’. Dangerous yet overlooked.

These trailblazers have shattered those norms and proven that gender is not a barrier to success in Australia’s national security field. Their stories inspire and underscore the importance of backing women to the top.

This year’s International Women’s Day theme is ‘Invest in Women: Accelerate Progress’. Australia is doing this right now, whether we’ve noticed it or not.

The narrative of women breaking barriers and reshaping traditionally male-dominated fields is more than just the stuff of history books. The contemporary stories of Australia’s national security leaders, who happen to be women, serve as beacons of inspiration for aspiring female leaders nationwide and demonstrate that gender should never be a barrier to achievement or progress.

The ascension of these leaders to the top jobs within the intelligence and national security community symbolises a broader movement towards gender equality and empowerment. On this International Women’s Day, their accomplishments serve as a reminder of the countless women who have paved the way for future generations, challenging entrenched biases and stereotypes along the journey.

As we honour their achievements, let us recommit ourselves to fostering environments where women are supported, respected, and provided equal opportunities to thrive in every sector, both locally and globally, regardless of the position they hold. In doing so—and moving closer to a world where every woman’s potential is fully realised—gender parity is not just an aspiration but a reality.

Looking towards the future, it’s imperative to continue challenging social norms and stereotypes within the intelligence and national security community. As we celebrate the progress made, we must also acknowledge and address the remaining barriers to equality, including power structures, pay imbalance, and cultural norms.

By nurturing a culture of equality at all levels, we can ensure that the doors opened by trailblazers, current and past, remain open for generations to come. And perhaps, not only might a new generation of young women aspire to the top national security jobs in Australia, but 2024 can be our best year yet.