Women in Australia’s International Affairs

Melissa Conley Tyler

This piece originally appeared in Australian Outlook.

Decades after formal barriers were removed, women remain demonstrably underrepresented in senior positions in Australia’s international affairs. A number of barriers remain which women and men should work together to overcome.

While women have been entering the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in equal numbers since 1985, they remain underrepresented in senior positions. In June 2012, less than a third of Australia’s ambassadors and high commissioners posted abroad were women and women accounted for only 26 percent of the DFAT’s Senior Executive Service. Similar results can be seen in think tanks, academia, non-profits and other sectors.

In a recent article “Is international affairs too ‘hard’ for women? Explaining the missing women in Australia’s international affairs” I and my co-authors Emily Blizzard and Bridget Cranelook at some of the explanations for this. There is no evidence that women are less motivated or lack interest in international affairs. The problem instead is that the career pipeline is ‘leaky’: women tend to disappear before they reach senior levels.

Explaining the Missing Women

A range of work culture and practical considerations currently make it hard for many women to achieve senior positions. There are four factors which help explain the scarcity of senior women in Australia’s international affairs: the legacy of direct discrimination, continuing indirect discrimination, lack of support for family responsibilities and socially-constructed gender norms. These will have greater or lesser impact in different sectors within the field.

While it will continue to diminish over time, the legacy of now-abolished direct discrimination is still a factor. Until 1966 women were prohibited from continuing to work in the Australian public service once married. As a consequence, women who today would have acquired the necessary seniority, experience and qualifications to occupy senior positions were lost to the field. This also affected women who entered the workforce in subsequent years and found themselves in male-dominated environments with very few female role models.

Indirect discrimination also remains a factor, such as when formal or informal networks of senior managers who share group characteristics create an exclusionary culture. Male-dominated networks can mean that women struggle to gain promotions commensurate with their talents, qualifications, experience and seniority.

Another factor is women’s often disproportionate share of family responsibilities and the lack of support to combine these with work. The absence of a culture of equal parental leave, affordable childcare and flexible working hours for senior positions disadvantages women in the workplace. Given that the majority of women would choose to balance family and work if possible, their absence from senior levels of international affairs suggests that there are institutional barriers that prevent them from doing so. Women face challenges when returning from maternity leave such as difficulties re-establishing their former professional networks and negative attitudes towards working mothers.

Finally, women are affected by socially-constructed gender norms which create exclusionary expectations and stereotypes that can be so deeply embedded as to be unconscious. In international relations discourse, masculinity is conventionally associated with power, autonomy, rationality and the public space while femininity is associated with weakness, dependence, emotionality, the private sphere and a nurturing role. These constructions can create expectations about the work a woman should do and how she should behave which may limit her career progression. Alison Broinowski refers to this as a “glass curtain” with more women in ‘human rights, development, peace and culture’ on one side and more men in ‘wars and intelligence on the other’.

Strategies for Overcoming Barriers

The good news is that there are a number of women who have progressed to senior positions and made strong contributions to Australia’s international affairs. These women have been pioneers in their field, often being the first woman or sometimes the first Australian to have occupied such a position.

The article presents the careers of three women – Professor Emeritus Helen Hughes AO FAIIA, Her Excellency Ms Penny Wensley AO and Professor Hilary Charlesworth FAIIA – as illuminating examples not only to show the barriers these women encountered, but also the strategies that they implemented in their journey to the top positions in their field. These include actively looking for progressive working and learning environments, finding strong mentors, speaking out against impediments to gender equality (such as the lack of childcare), taking advantage of opportunities for professional development and maintaining a keen interest in the field of international affairs.Women can make the most of their opportunities for advancement by utilising a range of these strategies.

However institutional change is also necessary to remove remaining obstacles. Employers should ask whether their hiring, workplace and promotion policies are truly gender-neutral or whether they provide a hidden advantage to male employees or disadvantage to female employees. Men can take responsibility to help change cultures which encourage or condone barriers that impede women’s professional advancement.

It is a joint task for women and men involved in Australia’s international affairs to remove obstacles to gender balance so that both are able to contribute their fullest to the field.

Melissa Conley Tyler is the National Executive Director of the Australian Institute of International Affairs.

This is an abbreviated version of an article “Is international affairs too ‘hard’ for women? Explaining the missing women in Australia’s international affairs” published in the Australian Journal of International Affairs with co-authors Emily Blizzard and Bridget Crane.

Women and the Arab Spring



Hugo Slim wrote in 2003:  To make the case for civilian identity in war requires that we are able to expose the fallacy of a singular and absolutist view of human identity that recognizes a person as only one thing at any given time.*

Whilst Slim was referring to the targeting of civilians in war, this statement rings particularly true of the role of women in the current crisis in Syria and recent attack on Gaza.  The media reports the daily death tolls, never failing to mention ‘…many of whom were women and children’.   These mentions, usually at the end of a piece, risk conflating the helplessness of children with that of women.  It is frustrating because whilst women have special protection needs under conditions of conflict, listed by the UN as including the threat of physical and sexual violence, and lack of opportunity to participate in the peace process, they are far from passive victims.  It does not further the cause of rights for women when the media sets a one-dimensional of women’s role in conflict.

Continue reading “Women and the Arab Spring”

‘IRRESPONSIBLE REPORT’ on Women, Peace and Security making headlines


Source: The Guardian

Thanks to WILPF and Jacqui True for allowing us to cross-post.

On October 11, 2012 By Madeleine, click to see original post.

The Human Security Report Project just published their 2012 report on Human Security and it’s already creating quite a storm!

The first e-mails of the morning were from Australia where the papers had, I assume, the advantage of getting the report below before anyone else. It must have generated huge interest as we have been trying to download it all day but it is just not happening! They probably know what we would say!

Read the report.

So, lets be generous and not make judgments until we have had time to really analyse the evidence that the report contains which leads to the following conclusions:

1. There is no reliable evidence

  • to support assumptions that sexual violence in war is on the rise or
  • that rape is increasingly used as a weapon of war.

2. That sexual violence against males in war is largely ignored.

3. That female perpetration of sexual violence is ignored.

4. That there is a huge increase in domestic sexual violence in wartime which is far more pervasive than that perpetrated by combatants.

To be objective let us say this: data on any form of sexual violence in conflict is extremely difficult to obtain for obvious reasons. What we do know is that there is a substantial amount of documented evidence from the “old” conflicts of Bosnia, Kosovo and Rwanda that there was massive use of sexual violence, which has been adjudicated upon.

In the “new conflicts”, from Libya to Syria, there is sufficient information, even now, to assert that there has been a massive use of rape and sexual violence. So what does the following paragraph, taken from the report, mean?

“Although there are no reliable cross-national trend data on sexual violence in wartime, indirect evidence suggests that its incidence has declined worldwide over the past two decades. It is likely that conflict-related sexual violence decreased along with the decline in the number and deadliness of armed conflicts.”

What a massively wrong assumption!! What is “indirect evidence” when juxtaposed against the testimony and data collected from women, from hospitals et al?

I would agree on point 2. Male rape has been ignored because we are looking at all rapes from a patriarchal, heterosexual framework which ignores gender and misses the truth of rape as a violent act demonstrating power. And, as power relations are gendered it is the male who is normally the perpetrator and is likely to use sexual violence against anything that he wishes to assert his power over.

That largely deals with 2 and the assertion of women as perpetrators…. First, it’s much more nuanced and linked to gendered dynamics as the cases in Abu Ghraib showed, and second, it is superficial to ignore the power dynamics at play when women are involved….. and how many are we talking about here anyway?

And 4? Yes, there is evidence, for example from the DRC, that there is a massive increase in sexual violence in areas which are not actually in conflict. But all this does is show that there is indeed a continuum of violence and counters the assumption in the report that when conflicts end, conflict-related sexual violence generally also stops, or at the very least declines appreciably.

Much more research is needed on the issue of sexualized violence, its causes and how gender plays out in the analysis. We know a lot, we even know a little bit about why men, (and it is mainly men despite what some would like to believe), are able to commit the atrocities that are committed in their homes and in war zones. But we do not know enough and whilst it is good to have provocative studies and different views in the public domain, a report like this I find irresponsible.

It will find support amongst all the gainsayers who will grab onto anything in order to deny the reality of sexualised violence: who do not want to address the political economy, cultures of masculinity and religious fundamentalism of all kinds, which are at the root cause of most of it…. and they do not want to recognize it or address it as it would lesson the power that they enjoy.