In recent years, Australia has put an emphasis on bringing more women into its defence, foreign affairs and diplomacy ranks. But a new global index shows the country still has work to do to improve gender equality and promote women in security.
The recently released #SHEcurity Index measures women’s participation and representation in politics, diplomacy, military, police, international missions, and security, comparing data from more than 100 countries. It also discusses the inclusion of LGBT+ communities and people of colour.
Australia only features in the top 10 on one list. This is in the number of women in foreign affairs committees of national parliament – Australia has 50% of female representation (ranking seventh globally), albeit with a male chair.
This is a step in the right direction, but the representation of Australian women across other portfolios varies. The Lowy Institute finds women make up only a third of senior management in Australia’s intelligence agencies and the foreign affairs and defence departments.
By comparison, women make up two-thirds of foreign affairs committees in New Zealand’s parliament, with a female chair. New Zealand is also in the top ten countries in the #SHEcurity Index on number of female ambassadors.
In other fields, it’s hard to gauge how Australia compares with the rest of the world due to lack of data.
Australia provided most of the requested data to the first #SHEcurity index in 2019, but didn’t provide statistics in 2020 for many areas, including ambassadors, diplomatic services, foreign ministry staff, military, and police.
Australia’s commitment to women in defence and security
Statistics compiled by other organisations show that Australia has made progress in some areas, but not others.
At the highest level, Australia has made some major achievements in the past decade. After Julia Gillard became the country’s first female prime minister in 2010, Julie Bishop was named the first female foreign minister in 2013 and Marise Payne followed as the first female defence minister in 2015.
The Morrison government maintained this positive trend by appointing Payne to succeed Bishop as foreign minister, with Linda Reynolds now defence minister.
In April, Australia also renewed its commitment to support women in conflict and disaster zones with a new national action plan on women, peace and security. To enable this, Australia has pledged to increase the participation and leadership of women in the security and foreign policy sectors. However, no targets were set and no budget defined.
Data compiled by the Lowy Institute shows the number of women in the Australian diplomatic workforce has been steadily increasing since 2016. In 2021, 49 of the 118 Australian heads of mission abroad (such as ambassadors, consuls-general and high commissioners) are women, representing 40% of overall appointments.
The number of women in the military has also gone up, but hasn’t reached similar figures. The defence annual report for 2020-21 shows that women comprise just 19% of the Australian Defence Force and represent only 31 of 171 star-ranked officers.
A recent study by the Australian Civil-Military Centre reveals a consensus among women in the ADF about the need to create more opportunities for women to achieve career progression and ultimately rise to senior positions.
Australia is tracking better than other countries in this regard. According to the #SHEcurity Index, the ratio of women’s representation in militaries globally is at just 11.4%. Yet, the index estimates it will still take more than 50 years for Australia to reach gender equality in its military ranks.
The value of women’s participation
The benefits of increasing the numbers of women in foreign policy and security cannot be overstated.
Gender equality is not just about organisational balance and diversity in the workforce. The presence of women in traditionally male-dominated spheres, such as diplomacy and defence, can change leadership styles that prioritise force and aggression. It can also challenge organisational cultures that objectify women.
The inclusion of women also improves results. The representation of women in peace negotiations, for instance, has been shown to improve the durability of peace agreements after civil wars. Female soldiers are also needed in modern conflicts in which civilian women are increasingly targeted.
But to truly reap the benefits of gender equality in foreign policy and security, we must move beyond a focus on women’s participation alone.
We must also address the factors that prevent their full engagement and progression to positions of power. This includes confronting entrenched sexism in these sectors, including deficiencies in the promotion process for women, a lack of female mentors, and the disproportionate impact of child care on women.
We must also develop a stronger understanding of what security means for women of diverse races, sexualities and abilities, both domestically and abroad.
This involves addressing the root causes of conflict and non-traditional security threats, such as climate disasters, which disproportionately affect women and girls, and how to help women and girls recover from these crises.