What the research says: gender, culture and other forms of diversity in national security

Male and female symbols posted on a wall.

Gender and other inequalities remain pervasive in national security. The under-representation of women, First Nations peoples and other minorities is just the tip of the iceberg. Ongoing inequalities and bias affect everything from security clearances, to pay, workforce segregation, the types of roles and opportunities available, harassment, micro-aggressions and leadership and forward decision-making. This ultimately impacts the strength and agility of Australian national security.

The status of women and minority groups in national security

After the past two years of national conversation and attention around COVID-19 backsliding for social minorities, Black and Indigenous Lives Matter, and the Jenkins Review into parliament, it is timely to understand the statistics around women and minorities’ representation in national security. As Lowy found in 2019, “while there have been notable trailblazers, the pace of change has been slow and uneven across the [international relations] sector”.

In 2020-21, women only comprised 19.7 per cent of the ADF workforce, representing a marginal increase of only 4.1 percentage points since 2012-2013 – the first year the Women in the ADF reports were released. Admittedly, this is higher than the global average where women represented 11.4 per cent of militaries in 2020. Yet, it is still estimated it will take an average of 155 years to gain parity in the military, which is deeply concerning.

Whilst women fare slightly better in policing, comprising 23.3 per cent of global police forces in 2020, in Australia major issues exist in securing the pipeline, rendering recent gains for equality unsustainable. In fact, in 2018, whilst women represented 32 per cent of the ‘sworn’ AFP senior executive service, they represented only 23.6 per cent of the overall agency – a number that has dipped to 22 per cent in 2021. Women’s representation has decreased, and pipeline issues remain.

The story isn’t so different in diplomacy, where progress is uneven. Whilst women’s representation in Australian diplomatic leadership is at an all-time high, decades of underfunding and DFAT’s decreased international footprint have resulted in a diplomatic “glass cliff”. Indeed, while women now have equal or near-equal representation in leadership, the institution they represent is shrinking. This places women in a difficult position, as their ability to gain leadership is restricted by the precarity of their positions.

Combining these trends with evidence that women in international affairs are more likely to be posted to lower status countries and in lower prestige positions, our gains for women’s representation in some areas of foreign policy and national security do not represent the end of the inequality story.

The kinds of women, men and other genders in national security also matter – where are the women of colour? Where are the LGBTIQ+ folk? Where are the First Nations national security experts? Are they in leadership or siloed in lower levels? Do they dominate in deputy positions, secretarial roles, and HR, and are they more absent in operational areas? How often are they sought for advice? Are they given credit? Opportunities? What kinds? We still have a long way to go – not just to do these groups justice in fulfilling the representational demands of our democracy, but to ensure we are in the best strategic position we can be too.

Indeed, our lack of diversity is a critical security threat. Already, the cyber security workforce has a shortfall of 2.7 million workers this year, with some estimating that figure will balloon to 3.5 million. Understaffing is just one effect of the deficit of women, culturally diverse, and other communities in national security.

Challenges at the threshold to national security

There are many reasons why national security has a diversity problem. Challenges include discrimination, an inflexible twenty-four seven work culture, wage inequality, high levels of sexual harassment, a lack of role models, and a glass ceiling (women over-represented in lower levels and under-represented in higher levels). Historical legacies of exclusion also play their part in workforce cultures that reinforce defence and national security archetypes and masculinised ideal forms of leadership and achievement. “Vertical” occupational segregation means more women and minorities at entry level and lower job classifications. “Horizontal” segregation also exists, resulting in the siloing of women and minorities out of operational areas and often into areas like human resourcing or ‘softer’ areas of national security policy.

Security clearances are also a problem. Historically, vetting processes have had significant gender, class and racial implications. For instance, in the UK, women were often vetted through their connections to powerful men – the idea being, while they may betray the state, they would never betray their family. This distrust of women has damaging implications.

Additionally, traditional methods of recruitment, security vetting and background checks factored heavily into explicit and implicit discrimination, particularly for those from non-Oxbridge backgrounds. Latent racism and monoculturalism prevailed, with the result of anyone not ‘white, straight and male’ often receiving lower-level clearances. In cases, the revocation of clearances or ongoing clearance maintenance processes has been used against minority individuals.

Ultimately, whilst security vetting processes are simultaneously based on legitimate processes for assessing potential national security threats, they are also sites of values interpretation such as loyalty, maturity, and trustworthiness. This may invite bias or lead to illegitimate processes of exclusion. This is particularly relevant given wider latent racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia, as well as many minority groups’ past experience with security and intelligence agencies – as a subject of surveillance for instance, or affected by discriminatory colonial government policies and practices.

Additionally, in the field of STEM (part of the natsec pipeline), Cech conducted the largest quantitative study of privilege to find that white, heterosexual, able-bodied men (WHAM) are uniquely privileged. Only a small amount of the differences in harassment experiences, professional respect, and career opportunities “can be explained by variation between WHAM and non-WHAM in human capital, job characteristics, work effort, family responsibilities, and the other factors”. The rest of the variation (81.1% for harassment experiences, 83.3% for professional respect, and 59.0% for career opportunities) are benefits accompanying WAHM status that cannot be attributed to differential job and work characteristics.

This quantifiable privilege operates as a “premium” attached to WHAM identity. This privilege results in WHAM’s higher likelihood to experience social inclusion, respect, and rewards. WHAM privilege has significant ramifications on the accessibility of spaces like national security for women, First Nations, culturally diverse, LGBTIQ+ and people with disability, as well as their on-going support, promotion, opportunity, and inclusion.

Progressing through the ranks

When it comes to progression, the challenges do not stop. We know that in international posts or other high-level positions, women and minority groups remain least represented. Women have never represented an Australian ambassador posted to Washington DC, and Australia only appointed its first female head in London for the first time in 2022 – and in an acting role at that. The story for international defence attachés is similar. Additionally, we are yet to see a female chief of defence force or chief of any of the service lines. The US – generally a little quicker at hitting these milestones than Australia – only swore in its first female military chief in 2022. This same pattern is found in crisis situations – think back to the first National COVID-19 Commission, where women represented only two out of nine commissioners, with little ethnic diversity evidenced.

In Defence, women do tend to spend slightly less time at rank before promotion, and although not all women who are eligible are going for promotion, it is relatively comparable with the proportion of men who go for promotion. Yet, the low level of representation, particularly in operations and key critical positions needed for career progression, remain an issue. Additionally, the up-take of flextime and other workplace conditions is often dependent on the sign-off of individual managers, rendering much well-meaning policy effectively useless.

Whilst better representation is reported in intelligence, the lack of data and transparency does hinder knowledge of on-going challenges that remain, as well as our ability to learn from what is working – and how it might be applied elsewhere. These data gaps are a major opportunity for government-academic collaboration, to enable the national security and intelligence community to deliver the most credible, dynamic, and adaptive decision-making using the best talent available.

The lack of diversity in national security is a security risk

Ultimately, there are two sides to the coin. Our lack of diversity is a critical security risk, particularly given the range and nature of emerging security threats facing our country and our region. The opportunity that diversity enables, however, is equally (if not more) significant. As Funderburke argues, “Diversity can give us an asymmetric advantage if we leverage it. This is not a call for quotas… This is a call for trailblazers.”

The UK’s Mission Critical report outlines five key reasons diversity matters, including:

• performance

• recruitment

• innovation (including reducing groupthink)

• understanding and

• trust.

A diverse national security workforce is likely to be viewed more favourably by domestic constituencies, and more credibly in the eyes of regional and global stakeholders and interlocutors. Diversity reduces our risk for gender and other forms of ‘blindness’, which narrows our understanding of how to respond to existing and emerging security threats.

Diversity is also important to lessening the impact of shared, common biases, as Callum notes, “piercing through the ethnocentric fog that shrouds most analyses”. Diversity allows an expansion of the range of potential hypotheses under consideration, as well as solutions and policy (and other) interventions pursued. This is increasingly important, as rising security challenges including COVID-19, climate change, cyber, energy security, bio-warfare, and right-wing misogynist or white nationalist extremism, require dynamic and adaptive decision-making.

Key insights and recommendations

As a start to the conversation, there are a few forward steps the national security community can pursue.

• The progress to date does not mean that inequalities are “solved”. On-going evaluation of the national security sector as a workplace is critical. Inequalities often evolve, meaning that the challenges preventing women and minorities from fully participating and excelling in national security may change. This has major ramifications on workforce pipeline and talent retention.

• Data partnerships and transparency around diversity issues are critical to help effectively address the national security gender, racial, neurodiversity and other workforce gaps. Opportunities for further research and policy advice will not only help to mitigate the major security risk the lack of diversity represents, but forge strong relationships to support the sector to develop robust analyses and strong solutions.

• Diversity issues don’t stop at public sector national security agencies. Universities, think tanks, and private sector advisors must ensure they incorporate diverse actors and perspectives in their policy advice and research agendas. Public sector agencies should require the same diversity from its collaborators as they require internally.

Ultimately, the national security sector is not alone in battling these challenges. However, the sector is amongst the worst-performing sectors of government and challenges do not appear to be going away.

This has major ramifications on Australia’s ability to advance its national interest and safeguard its sovereignty. Without diversity, whose national interest is protected? And whose sovereignty is safeguarded?

The national security sector risks paternalism without representation within its ranks - replicating colonial practices of one elite community charged with protecting the interests of numerous under-represented communities. This is not the twenty-first century Australia we should be striving for, yet there is still time to fulfill the values we uphold. The time to act is now.

2022 Fulbright Scholar and Overall Outstanding Young Alumnus for 2020, Dr Elise Stephenson is a researcher with extensive experience across diplomacy, national security, government, entrepreneurship, and diversity and inclusion. She is Gender, Space & National Security Fellow at the National Security College, and Research Fellow of the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership, ANU.

Elise joined Gai Brodtmann and Meg Tapia on the Women in National Security podcast to discuss the latest research on equality and diversity in national security. You can listen to it here.

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