Women’s leadership in international affairs: continuing the momentum

This article is part of a series on women, peace and security that The Strategist is publishing in recognition of International Women’s Day.

It’s been nearly 20 years since the UN Security Council adopted resolution 1325 (UNSCR 1325) on women, peace and security, and we would expect to see an increase in women leaders globally in the diplomacy and security. By all accounts, women are increasingly playing influential roles in the realms of international peace and security—reaffirmed by the very visible leadership of Julie Bishop and Marise Payne as ministers of the foreign affairs and defence portfolios in Australia, not to mention the prime minister of our close neighbour New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern, whose leadership in the wake of the recent terror attacks in Christchurch attracted worldwide praise.

Yet the WPS agenda has been repeatedly criticised over the past two decades for focusing on helping ‘other’, externalised women. And, while the UN framework recognises the link between women and peace and security, women have rarely been at the most senior levels in multilateral negotiations.

Women in leadership roles in Australia’s international affairs agencies—the departments of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Defence and Home Affairs and the Australian Federal Police—are deeply integral to our ability to deliver on the WPS agenda, and yet they’re often overlooked. Examples of the oversight include the 2018 ‘100 Years of Mateship’ campaign celebrating the relationship between Australia and the US that failed to include any women, and even the naming of DFAT meeting rooms for flowers rather than women leaders.

For the first 17 years of UNSCR 1325 (1990 to 2017), women made up only 2% of chief mediators of peace processes worldwide. A 2016 study of more than 7,000 ambassadorial appointments found that women held an average of only 15% of ambassadorships globally. There are currently only 11 women serving as heads of state, and women leaders across all spheres of international affairs are still battling to gain access to areas characterised as being guided by norms of masculinity and occupied by men. Australia, despite being a ‘strikingly culturally and ethnically diverse’ nation, exhibits little evidence of diversity among the senior leaders of its government agencies: most of them continue to be white.

This is a problem. With increasing threats of conflict on our doorstep, gender equality is not just nice to have and it’s not just a side to the main meat of foreign policy. Higher levels of domestic gender inequality are associated with higher levels of interstate violence—and women leaders are often key to preventing international disputes from escalating to armed conflict.

By all appearances, the field of international relations in Australia is at a critical juncture. Women are verging on parity in leadership in some of our core ministries for the first time in history. In the past year alone, women jumped from representing around 27% of heads and deputy heads of mission in DFAT to over 40%. But while women’s increasing representation may send positive signals about gender equality in international affairs, it is still not a substitute for gender equality in international affairs.

Australian agencies show signs of progress for women leaders, but this is hampered by excruciatingly slow rates of progress in recruiting and retaining ethnically diverse leaders and selecting women for operational and security roles. Moreover, as I found in my research on senior leaders across Australia’s international affairs agencies, discrimination, sexism and harassment continue to be a consistent feature at even the most senior levels.

The proportion of women representing the AFP overseas increased from 27% to 29% between 2017 and 2019. The Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands is a prominent example of using the deployment of women to strengthen operational effectiveness on the ground. Yet, as a mission involving a large contingent of Australians, my research found it was also one marked by pervasive male chauvinism and sexism. In Defence, just last year Australia’s own Major General Cheryl Pearce was appointed force commander of the United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus. While she’s the first Australian woman to command a UN peacekeeping mission, she is only the second woman globally to occupy that role. Home Affairs—a significant agency to the WPS agenda—currently has 47.5% of its overseas executive and senior executive roles filled by women. Yet, across these agencies, women have continued to report more instances of sexism, discrimination and harassment in their home departments than in their postings overseas, indicating serious difficulties in gaining (and retaining) representative international leadership in the first place.

Most of these departments have strategies in place to address the inclusion of women, people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, and people from the LGBTI community, prioritising diversity based on improved functionality and better representation. Yet sexism, racism and homophobia persist and the mould for the ideal international affairs representative is still based on the male civil servant, with a supportive wife and kids following behind.

Targets since 2015 have so far proved effective for DFAT in increasing the number of women in leadership. However, across the agencies, the best strategy is one that is consistent and that addresses underlying structural issues. As much as inclusion is a priority for DFAT secretary Frances Adamson, and was for former foreign minister Julie Bishop, it must continue to be a priority for the next leaders too.

With the 20-year anniversary of UNSCR 1325 just around the corner, it’s a good time to consider whether structures have changed enough to support women leading in international relations. Children, and the unwillingness of some male partners to follow their female spouses overseas due to career concerns, as well as stereotyping and cultural and structural factors, continue to be key barriers.

And while having more women in leadership roles speaks volumes for our international affairs, particularly given its history as largely white, heteronormative and male-dominated, it also speaks to the fact that we still haven’t achieved gender equality—equality of access to resources and opportunities, as well as freedom from discrimination, harassment and violence—in this sphere. It highlights that we’ve never had equal representation of women in international affairs. It’s hard to imagine the reverse ever being permissible, and so we must now ensure that the positive gains made in supporting women leaders in international affairs continue long into the future.

Note: Data in this article is sourced from unpublished raw datasets from the agencies, as well as publicly available datasets, and interviews with over 70 women leaders and associated individuals in the departments of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Defence and Home Affairs and the Australian Federal Police. This research comprises part of the author’s broader PhD study of women’s leadership in Australian international affairs.