Please enable javascript to access the full functionality of this site


Foreign Territory: Women in International Relations

By Danielle Cave

Danielle Cave was a lead author in a three-year study by the Lowy Institute for International Policy ‘Foreign territory: Women in international relations’ that revealed severe gender imbalances in Australia’s international relations sector - including Australia’s diplomatic, national security and intelligence community, despite the existence of some prominent trailblazers.

“Australia’s international relations sector — the departments and organisations that are responsible for conducting Australia’s international relations — has a severe gender imbalance in its workforce. While there have been notable trailblazers, the pace of change has been slow and uneven across the sector. Few of the most important diplomatic postings have ever been held by a woman. Women do not appear in the sector’s key policy-shaping activities. Significantly fewer women are rising to senior positions in the sector compared with the Australian public sector as a whole, international peers, and the corporate sector. The gender imbalance in the Australian Intelligence Community is particularly pronounced. It is important for the sector to address this imbalance. A more diverse workforce will not only better reflect Australian society, but make full use of the available talent pool. There is substantial evidence from the private sector that gender-balanced workforces are more effective, efficient, and innovative. Until the sector better represents Australian society it fails to use the best available talent to navigate Australia’s place in an increasingly complex world.

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:

  1. A vertical divide: men and women in the international relations sector experience different pathways to seniority, particularly in the intelligence community
  2. 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
  3. 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.

Read media coverage of the report in The Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian Financial Review, The Guardian and on ABC The World.