Gender equality in Australia’s intelligence community must come out of the shadows

The February 2020 release of the latest parliamentary review of administration and expenditure in the Australian intelligence agencies (2017–18) does little to allay the concerns that I raised after the publication of the last one (2015–16).

At that time, the agencies—especially the Office of National Assessments (which became the Office of National Intelligence in December 2018) and ASIO—seemed to be doing some constructive work to close the gender gap. However, the gap was still there, especially at the senior levels and particularly in the defence intelligence agencies. I presented those findings at the 2019 annual conference of the Australian Institute of Professional Intelligence Officers.

In the report for 2017–18, there’s little or no straightforward information on gender equity for a number of agencies, and what is there is less detailed than in the earlier review.

Why the change? According to the report, ‘Staffing demographics information provided by ASIS, ASD, DIO and AGO [Australian Secret Intelligence Service, Australian Signals Directorate, Defence Intelligence Organisation and Australian Geospatial-Intelligence Organisation] were [sic] assigned classifications or Dissemination Limiting Markers, and cannot be published’. That information was previously publicly available. Is it now omitted because of a need for secrecy or because of a lack of progress on gender equality and diversity in the agencies?

Key agencies such as ASIS and ASD are vague in their reporting of their percentages of female and male employees. Given that the former ASD director-general, Mike Burgess, made several public speeches about bringing ASD out of the shadows, this is very disappointing.

Even more disappointingly, DIO reported yet again that it hasn’t achieved gender parity in its workforce. Fewer than half of its employees at the APS 5, EL 1, EL 2 and SES levels are women. Female employees again outnumber male employees only at the APS 3 and APS 4 levels.

Encouragingly, though, ASIO reported that 46% of its staff were women in 2017–18, up from 45% the previous year and 44% the year before that. Just under half of its SES employees in 2017–18 were women.

AGO reported that women made up just under 40% of its civilian staff but only about 20% of its defence force staff in 2017–18. Promisingly, the overall percentage of female staff increased by around 4 percentage points on the previous year, after remaining steady for several reporting periods.

ONI advised that had its met self-established ‘gender stretch’ targets in 2016–17 and 2017–18, increasing the number of women it employs at both the SES and EL 2 levels. However, it also noted that further work is needed to achieve gender parity, particularly in its analyst cohort.

The Lowy Institute’s groundbreaking 2019 report, Foreign territory: women in international relations, revealed that, of the 233 respondents (male and female) who expressed a view on the Australian intelligence community’s commitment to ‘achieving real progress on gender equality’, only 6% said that the agencies were ‘very committed’, 42% said they were ‘somewhat committed’, and 51% answered that they were ‘not committed’. Those figures should sound as a clarion call for the agencies.

Moreover, a recent piece on The Interpreter asserts that the lack of independent and in-depth investigation over many decades has allowed a community to evolve in which women haven’t risen to the top at nearly the same rate as their male counterparts. This has produced a culture far less diverse than Australian society more broadly. The authors call for an independent review to be conducted. I wholeheartedly support their recommendation, but I propose that they extend it a step further and have a woman or women either lead or co-lead the next intelligence review. So far only men have led the reviews, and the focus on workplace diversity has been fleeting.

International Women’s Day was on 8 March, with the theme of ‘Generation Equality’. As a woman who teaches young women every day that they can achieve anything they set their minds to, I question whether that lesson applies in our intelligence community. Something must change within the agencies to better reflect the society in which we live and which they are charged with protecting. After all, intelligence agencies have a greater need for a diverse workforce than the rest of government, given the nature of their work.

Clearly, change has been agonisingly slow, but intelligence isn’t just men’s business—it’s women’s business as well. Australia’s intelligence community should lead by example by sending a clear signal to women that it reflects the population that it serves.

If the agencies want to recruit and retain the best personnel, gender equality should be front and centre in their efforts, especially for the future generations of aspiring officers to come.