Published by the Faculty of Business, Government and Law, University of Canberra


Research and Stories through a Gendered Lens

Intersectional feminism and diversity in secret institutions

Oct 27, 2023 | Career, Diversity, Military, Intelligence, Leadership, LGBTIAQ+, Gender, Work, Feature

Written by Elise Stephenson

This blog post was first published by The Australian Women’s and Gender Studies Association (AWGSA), the leading organization representing researchers, academics, and students in the fields of Women’s Studies and Gender Studies in Australia. Read the original here. 

Feminist research is increasingly intersectional, yet the way in which intersecting aspects of identity – like gender, race, and sexuality – are experienced in secret institutions is less understood. It’s also multiply problematic, with challenges layered and obscured by the lack of transparency.

Over the last three years, my colleague Professor Susan Harris Rimmer and I have spent time researching the impact and experiences of diverse groups in the intelligence sector. Spanning a broad spectrum of institutions, the intelligence community (IC) is at the forefront of everything from tactical and strategic intelligence to criminal intelligence, domestic and international intelligence, civilian and military intelligence, and strategic assessments on political, economic and social threats to security. Think: spies and analysts, counterterrorism, espionage, and foreign interference.

Secret institutions like in the IC both replicate challenges in other forms of government and the private sector while (re)producing unique constraining environments minoritized groups.

Yet, the intelligence sector is not the only one experiencing these same trends. Broader national security institutions or general government agencies can often be highly secretive and obscured by layers of classification, as can religious institutions, secret societies, and cults.

There are a few compounding factors when it comes to understanding women and minoritized groups’ representation and experiences, not to mention impact, in secret institutions. From our study of the IC, mechanisms such as security classifications can create an environment of obscurity and non-transparency, where even non-classified information may be withheld from the public gaze. This contributes to a classification halo-effect which limits what is and can be known about people’s experiences in intelligence – from recruitment to retention, leadership and representation, harassment, power, resourcing and more.

It can also take decades for data to declassify and even then, some parts can remain classified. Moreover, the gendered rules and experiences of intelligence were seldom written down – so declassification may not reveal much if data and experiences were not documented. Challenges in sourcing accurate and timely data therefore skews our understanding of how diverse people experience secret institutions, favouring historical analyses, one-off biographies, and the odd popular work of fiction that does little to help institutions know what is and is not working.

How this lack of transparency ultimately impacts organisations and individuals is threefold: it can amplify inequalities; obscure progress and regression; and impede accountability.

It can also ultimately impact on organisational operability, and in the case of the IC and national security institutions at least, result in critical vulnerabilities stemming from an inability to understand and create diverse, inclusive, and strong teams. These impacts include everything from narrow threat detection and threat analysis gaps to excessive groupthink, not to mention high ‘churn’ rates and loss of retention which ultimately costs organisations and fails to support individuals.

Australia’s new Workplace Gender Equality Amendment (Closing the Gender Pay Gap) Bill provides one way to think about the impact transparency can have on reducing inequalities. Honing in on the issue of the gender pay gap, the Amendment is designed to allow the Workplace Gender Equality Agency to publish the gender pay gaps of organisations over 100 staff in size.

Transparency is seen to encourage better accountability to employers and stakeholders, as well as potentially promoting competition between employers to improve their workplace conditions relative to their peers. It also helps individuals know what they are signing up for when they join an organisation or industry.

Another way to think about (a lack of) transparency is its impact on research: what is – and can be – known about diversity in these sectors. Methodologies for researching the IC for instance are not well-established, mostly relying on decades-old datasets, biographical accounts (where available), and ‘insiders’ who can give insights to the true state of affairs. Insider accounts can be particularly beneficial for research.

Yet, they remain challenging to achieve in practice due to ethical approval processes (which may be additionally demanding, particularly in researching national security institutions), high levels of secrecy, a lack of transparency, the prevalence of backlash, and a lack of whistleblower protections. Depending on the secret institution in question, there may be additional barriers that impede understanding, and therefore action around problematic trends. This can be an aim of some secret institutions in itself – to cover up, obfuscate, and ultimately remain unchanged.

Ultimately, government in particular requires a social license to operate. In Australia, this relies on accountability and transparency to establish and maintain trust between institutions and constituents.  As Professor Susan Harris Rimmer and I argue in our research, these institutions often have access to huge resources, hold significant and very special privileges, immunities, and duties under the law, and carry significant status in state societies.

Whilst I remain hopeful that institutions take it upon themselves to revisit just how much – or how little – is known about diversity in secret institutions, it is also critical that citizens and constituents advocate for their own right to know. Gone are the days of operating in a black box. Understanding, researching and building practices and policies for diversity is critical across all institutions – secret or not.

  • Picture at top is a stock illustration. Source: Adobe Stock

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Dr Elise Stephenson is Deputy Director of The Global Institute for Women's Leadership  at the Australian National University , and Gender, Space and National Security Fellow of the National Security College, both at the Australian National University. Elise is a 2022 Fulbright Scholar, one of Google's 50 Outstanding LGBTIQ+ Leaders, and a researcher and strategist who works on topics surrounding gender, sexuality, leadership, international affairs, and entrepreneurship.

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