Getting serious about diversity in Australia’s security discourse
12 Apr 2023|

‘There’s been lots of recent shouting about Australia’s national security policy,’ Matthew Sussex wrote recently in The Conversation. Indeed, the clamour reached astounding, almost dizzying heights following the AUKUS announcement last month. Sussex is right to argue that Australia needs to grow up and have an informed and mature national security conversation.

That might start with recognising that gender is a big part of it—after all, much of the shouting in these recent discussions has been by men.

It’s not just the strong opinions and reactions to AUKUS over the past few weeks that have been mostly male dominated. Unfortunately, despite some great strides, there’s been a regression in gender and diversity in the overall security and foreign policy discourse in Australia in recent years. Male-dominated panels (even the occasional ‘manel’) remain common at conferences and other public events. Journalists often only quote or seek comment from male experts for media reporting. Social media posts by male experts are often the most frequently engaged with and amplified. Major publications and reports by think tanks and research centres often have a majority of male authors. Much like in other industries, there aren’t enough women or people of colour in leadership positions in Australia’s national security sector.

This has a significant impact on the overall culture of Australia’s security discourse—not to mention on the quality of ideas and perspectives being debated.

Of course, we should value diversity and different perspectives regardless, but as we navigate a challenging strategic environment, having a variety of voices is all the more vital. Yet we seem to fall short when it comes to making that happen. Just as it’s high time Australia had a mature security conversation, it’s high time we got serious about improving gender and diversity.

We should start with getting a number of basic things right.

It shouldn’t need to be said, but organisations should not, for example, run all-male panels or events dominated by male speakers. If you are invited to speak, ask who else is on the panel or at the event before accepting. Don’t agree to speak if women and underrepresented groups aren’t included. If your organisation hasn’t got one already, instigate a ‘no all-male panel’ policy.

Actively set targets for women and underrepresented groups as speakers at your organisation’s events. Aim for more than 50% overall to ensure a diverse and inclusive line-up—particularly in the event someone declines or is a last-minute drop out. Make sure there isn’t an overall line-up of all-male keynotes, either. Don’t relegate women to panels about women, peace and security. It might surprise some people, but not all women work on women, peace and security or feminist foreign policy—as much as they are important issues that need a stronger focus. We need women and underrepresented groups working across the full spectrum of security issues.

As with events and panels, don’t commission, publish or contribute to reports or other publications with all-male authors. If you are researching and writing an article or report, are you citing mostly male sources? Or are you consciously seeking out a diverse range of contributors?

The same goes for the media. If you are a journalist, don’t just seek or include quotes from male experts. With deadlines and a race to get comments, it’s understandably easy to go to established, well-known leaders in the security field. Yet when only (or mostly) men are quoted in the media, it helps perpetuate a sector in which male voices are the most valued and deprives women of the chance to build a profile. Actively cultivate a diverse network of sources you can turn to.

Likewise, if you are a male expert and you are approached to provide media comment, ask who else has been approached and will be included in the article or segment. Pass on opportunities to speak or provide comment if you can. This might feel awkward when you have the expertise and your job is to influence policy discussions, particularly if your organisation uses metrics to help demonstrate that. But perhaps you could keep a tally of all the times you were approached for comment (or to speak) and recommended a woman to speak instead. Knowing when your voice or contributions aren’t needed is important.

Much of Australia’s day-to-day security discussions take place on social media. Check your social media accounts for diversity in the experts you follow and engage with. Are you only or mostly following male experts? Do you mostly retweet or engage with men on Twitter? Retrain your algorithm and actively follow, engage and amplify women, people of colour and other underrepresented groups.

Everyone should consider how the workload is distributed across their team or organisation. Are women and people of colour doing the majority of administrative or organising work? Are they doing a disproportionate share of the unglamorous and time-consuming (but essential) work, which may prevent them from building their expertise or doing higher-profile work that will get them promoted? How can you help address this, share the burden and create opportunities for underrepresented groups to focus on higher-level work?

Indeed, everyone should consider how they can be a better ally and help dismantle the institutional and systemic barriers that continue to hold women, people of colour and other underrepresented groups back. It’s not simply a matter of women ‘leaning in’ and speaking up more in meetings or roundtables.

As we confront the complex and evolving challenges of the 21st century, it’s crucial that we draw upon the full range of perspectives and experiences that our society has to offer. If we don’t, at best we get treated to shouty opinions like we’ve had over the past few weeks. At worst, we risk a deterioration in the creativity and dynamism of our strategic thinking as a nation.