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Cracking the Glass Ceiling is Simply Not Good Enough


The full participation of women in national security is not only an issue of equality: it is vital to Australia’s capabilities and prosperity. Systemic and cultural changes are needed immediately to achieve this goal. Mere progress is not enough.

The National Security College at the Australian National University recently hosted the inaugural Women and National Security Conference. The conference explored the role of women in the national security sphere. Participants fiercely advocated for enhancing female participation through the incorporation of gender as a core element of policy and decisionmaking, rather than a “fluffy add-on”.

Minister for Defence Marise Payne kicked off the conference by outlining the efforts the Australian government is taking to enhance female participation in national security. She framed the participation of women in terms not of social justice but of its benefits to the national interest. Women make up 51 per cent of the population; these women must be engaged if the country is to make use of the country’s best talents. Increasing female participation is therefore a capability issue.

Professor Valerie Hudson presented myriad empirical evidence that states with more gender equality are more prosperous. She powerfully argued for the incorporation of gender into the realist approach to international relations. Incorporating the gender approach is essential at all levels to enhancing national security. Australia is moving toward this model by piloting gender advisor training courses and employing advisors on most missions overseas. The advisors’ purpose is to mainstream gender analysis and ensure that female perspectives are considered to create well-rounded policy.

Labor MP Gai Brodtmann chaired a session with Secretary of the Attorney-General’s Department Chris Moraitis and Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Frances Adamson. Moraitis recapped the progress women in national security had made and said “the glass ceiling is cracking”. Adamson ditched her notes to respond to Moraits’s comments: progress is good, but it is “not good enough.” She challenged all the women in the room to occupy a position never held by a woman, within the coming five years.  She again affirmed that it is “not good enough” for Australia to only have two female ministers. Women should be aiming not only to enter the national security and foreign policy realms, but to lead them. Adamson also encouraged women towards the end of their careers to support younger women in reaching these positions, whether it be words of encouragement or a tap on the shoulder to remind a woman she is good enough to apply for a leadership position.

On day two, Air Chief Marshal Mark Binskin discussed the importance of women in the military and the different perspectives and capabilities they bring to the table—and to the battlefield. He argued that structural changes were necessary to obtain and maintain women in national security, including flexible working arrangements.

AIIA National Executive Director Melissa Conley Tyler challenged a panel of female professionals from both public and private sectors to explore how women can achieve senior leadership positions. Deputy Australian Public Service Commissioner Stephanie Foster agreed that structural changes have been somewhat successful, but systemic, cultural change is essential for women to reach top leadership positions. Supportive work cultures must be established for women to feel empowered to take on leadership roles. Former Ambassador Penny Wensley shared anecdotes of her own encounters with cultural barriers to women and provided advice for young women entering the national security and foreign policy space today.

The conference was lacking in one thing: men. Respondents noticed how unusual it was to see a majority of women at a national security conference. This, in itself, reflected the need for acknowledgment of and advocacy for women in national security. With the closing of the conference, the National Security College announced they will be hosting the conference again next year due to the immense success of this year’s conference. However, they aim to encourage more male participants, ideally reaching an equal participation rate.  Male participation in advocating for gender equality is just as important as female participation. It is vital that male leaders understand and value female perspectives in order for work cultures to change. Of course, it is significant for women to empower women, but as men continue to dominate organisational leadership, it is essential that men, too, empower their female colleagues.

The National Security College can be proud of the conference’s success. Participants left feeling proud of Australia’s leadership in the fight for gender equality. More importantly, they left hungry for more: for more action, for more change and for more diversity.

Claudia Russo is an intern at the AIIA National Office.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.

Published April 8, 2017

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