Stark gender divide hampers Australian strategic policymaking  
9 Jul 2019|

There are few things more ridiculous than an all-male panel (‘manel’), committee or decision-making body. Aside from some very rare exceptions, why they continue to exist today is completely beyond me.

Ambassador to the US Joe Hockey’s 2018 ‘mateship patrons’—all white men, most of a particular demographic—was a particularly egregious example of manel madness and a stark reminder that we still have a long way to go.

The problem with situations like this is two-fold. First, the lack of ‘mateship patron’ diversity—across virtually all indicators by which it can be measured—was appalling (the inclusion of NBA player Matthew Dellavedova could have been characterised as an inspired choice were it not for the fact Australia’s Olympic medal–winning female basketballers completely dominate in the WNBA).

Second, decisions of this kind make one wonder about the quality of other decisions being made. How could decision-makers not see the all-male ‘mateship patrons’ as such an obviously bad idea? The thing is, many would—including, in this case, many within the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. But for whatever reason, their views weren’t heard or taken into account. Not bringing a diverse set of experiences to the table is simply poor strategic decision-making.

And while only one example, this highlights precisely why diversity is so important.

No matter the occasion, we want to end up with the best possible decisions being made. And we especially want to end up with the best outcomes when it comes to Australia’s place in the world. The effective conduct of international relations across the spectrum of diplomacy, trade, defence and intelligence requires analytical, operational and problem-solving skills. There is plenty of evidence to show that gender-balanced workforces are more efficient, effective and innovative. We also know they produce a broader range of ideas and have more diverse experiences, leading to greater productivity and better decision-making.

So why is Australia still failing to take advantage of both men and women in international relations?

In a report out today, Foreign territory: women in international relations, my colleagues from the Lowy Institute and I found that women remain shut out of many of the sector’s most influential roles, decision-making bodies and policy-setting activities.

The analysis, which was based on a lengthy and complicated process of collecting data from a 20-year period, took place from 2016–2018 and found three stark divides:

  • A vertical divide: men and women in the international relations sector experience different pathways to seniority, particularly in the intelligence community
  • A horizontal divide: women are more common in the ‘people’, corporate or ‘softer’ policy side of the house. We were repeatedly told in interviews that senior women are less likely to be running high-profile policy, operational or intelligence-focused branches and divisions 
  • A sharp ‘international’ divide between the sexes. Spending time overseas is an integral part of the career path for many in the international sector, but there is a disconnect between the gender balances in government agencies in Canberra and in their overseas workforces. 

The most disturbing findings don’t pertain to one particular government department or agency, many of which are individually making positive and recent strides. And it’s clear that there are visible trailblazers; Australia has a female foreign minister, defence minister and secretary of DFAT. But stepping above the bureaucracy and taking a helicopter view of the sector highlights some troubling gaps, here are just four:

  • Heads of department: Australia has never had a female secretary of the departments of prime minister and cabinet, treasury, defence or the attorney-general (despite women making up a significant percentage, and sometimes a majority, of junior and mid-level ranks in some of these departments)
  • Intelligence chiefs: Australia has never had a woman run any of its major intelligence agencies
  • Ambassadors: Australia has never appointed a female Ambassador to Washington, London, Jakarta, Tokyo or Bangkok
  • Government white papers and reviews: incredibly, a woman is yet to be selected to lead any major Australian foreign policy, defence, intelligence or trade white paper, inquiry or independent review. 

The gender record of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security—the very body that should be holding much of the sector to account—is plain terrible. Since it was stood up in 1998, the committee has never been chaired by a female MP, and for almost half of that time has had no female members at all, including as recently as in 2015. At this start of this year, just two of the committee’s 11 members were female (though that number has since increased to three).

Outside the public sector, the situation is little different. Few women have been appointed to the most senior roles at major think-tanks, non-government organisations or relevant university colleges. Women comprise the minority (21%) of sources cited in media reports, 25% of sources in foreign affairs reports and 28% of opinion-piece authors, according to a 2016 study. Yet 59% of all university graduates in Australia and close to 50% of political science PhD candidates are women.

Of the major think tanks in Australia—the Lowy Institute, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, the Australian Institute of International Affairs (AIIA), the United States Studies Centre, and Perth USAsia Centre, none have a female head.

Are organisations in this sector improving? Absolutely. Some have made phenomenal progress, particularly over the last few years, and there is plenty of good news worth celebrating. But this progress is uneven and often attached to one proactive leader—what happens when he/she moves on? There isn’t real, accessible transparency across the sector and there’s little accountability for organisations who drop the ball (which they do).

We know we are living in a more challenging world than we were even five years ago and Australia’s policymakers must work harder and smarter to ensure our interests are prosecuted globally. We also know that based on the balance of available evidence, gender diversity—and diversity more broadly—gives an organisation a clear competitive advantage. A competitive advantage that, across a range of key measures spanning diplomacy, intelligence and defence, Australia is failing to realise.