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


Research and Stories through a Gendered Lens

Exploring gender equality in international affairs

Jun 11, 2024 | Commentary, Leadership, Equality, Gender, International, Career, Foreign Policy, Diversity, Military, Feature

Written by Sarah Grieb

The appointment of prominent businesswoman Sam Mostyn as Australia’s 28th Governor-General was met with backlash from some quarters of the media who questioned her suitability for the role and seemed to imply Mostyn was only selected for the position because of her gender.

While such a reaction is unfortunately not surprising it asks an incredibly important question: who gets to represent Australia and why are there still such negative reactions to women being in prominent leadership roles?

This question is at the centre of the new book, ‘The Face of the Nation: Gendered Institutions in International Affairs’ by Elsie Stephenson who takes a look at female representation in both the domestic and international political sphere.

Elise Stephenson is Deputy Director of the Australian National University Global Institute for Women’s Leadership and spent hundreds of hours interviewing prominent female political leaders and diplomats over the course of 30 years.

The image that a country portrays to the rest of the world often occurs through the various diplomats that come to foster relationships with other nations. However the people that make up these representative positions often aren’t accurate reflections of a country’s demographics.

When the US-based Australian embassy was asked to create a list of ‘true Australians’ that embodied values of respect, friendship and collaboration they issued a list made up of exclusively men who were predominantly older, white and heterosexual.

And this is certainly not an isolated incident with the realm of international diplomacy being guided by what Stephenson calls “the rules of masculinity.”

At an event hosted by the ANU last month, Stephenson spoke with former Foreign Affairs Minister and current Chancellor of the Australian National University about her research and the broader implications lack of gender diversity has on world affairs. (Watch the whole event in the video below.)

“Although we are all able to name several high-profile women in positions of power, they still remain a novelty in political spaces and come to face unique challenges compared to their male counterparts,” Stephenson said.

“There remains a lack of understanding of women’s pathways, their experiences, as well as some of the gender challenges that continue to exist and evolve.”

And while Stephenson notes that Australia’s international agencies fare better than many other countries – with 58% of all our diplomats being women – barriers to equality remain that go deeper than surface level numbers.

“Although we are now seeing places like DFAT reach parity or near parity when it comes to women’s representation, we know that across all of our international affairs’ institutions we can’t rest when we do get that representation,” she said.

Dr Elise Stephenson (left) sat down with Australia’s first female foreign minister, and Chancellor of the Australian National University, the Hon. Julie Bishop (centre) to discuss the lack of gender representation and diversity in international affairs. The event was facilitated by Professor Susan Harris-Rimmer (right). Picture: Supplied

Dr Elise Stephenson (left) sat down with Australia’s first female foreign minister, and Chancellor of the Australian National University, the Hon. Julie Bishop (centre) to discuss the lack of gender representation and diversity in international affairs. The event was facilitated by Professor Susan Harris-Rimmer (right). Picture: Supplied

One of the key findings of Stephenson’s research was that Australia is still significantly lacking in gender representation in the Defence and policing sphere which has ramifications for women due to the increasing securitisation of international affairs.

This only causes more issues for women’s representation as Australia’s diplomatic role in the world appears to be shrinking.

“What I found in essence was that women are only now gaining parity in diplomacy right at the point in time when Australian diplomacy has been at its lowest point…our international footprint is decreasing,” she said.

“This is particularly concerning because we often think of diplomacy as our first line of defence but when we see this underfunding and under-resourcing a lot of issues begin to emerge.”

“Women’s role in leadership is ultimately constrained by the status of the institution in which they occupy – women still face a glass cliff.”

Julie Bishop also heavily pressed on the reality that gender representation and equality greatly impact the diversity of opinions present in diplomatic engagements and political decisions, ultimately determining what Australia cares about.

“Normalising women in these positions is crucial,” Bishop said.

“I certainly observed the securitisation of our foreign policy and the rise of border force being built under male ministers and I can say that it goes against every fibre of my being to spend less money on diplomacy and more on defence.”

“As Australia’s first female foreign minister I remember walking through the halls of DFAT and seeing 37 men who all looked remarkably similar along the walls…from then on I saw it as my responsibility that if I was the first woman to take on a role I should do everything I can to make it easier for the next woman to follow me.”

Dr Elise Stephenson

Dr Elise Stephenson speaking at the event. Picture: Supplied

And the need for women in leadership roles is certainly crucial with gender representation in international affairs being correlated to everything from lower levels of interstate violence to higher levels of collaboration and consensus between core international partners.

Women even bring unique styles of leadership to crisis moments that in some instances outweigh the performances of male leaders.

In the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic there was much discussion about which countries performed better and the roles different state leaders played in reducing the spread of the virus.

One interesting pattern that emerged quite early on during the crisis was that female leaders were seen to have handled the health emergency remarkably well.

Countries led by women were found to have performed better than those led by men, especially in terms of death rates. Female-led nations locked down significantly earlier and more decisively than male-led countries .

Studies suggest that men are more likely to lead in a “task-oriented” way while women tend to lead in an “interpersonally-oriented” manner. As a result, women tend to adopt a more democratic style of leadership and even tend to have better communication skills than their male counterparts.

Women leaders also tend to place more emphasis on developing positive relationships with others and are less likely to avoid making decisions or exercising authority.

Referring back to the negative reactions to Sam Mostyn’s appointment as Governor General, Stephenson also spoke about the necessity to address the uptick in right-wing extremism and online misogyny in recent years.

“There are a lot of ways in which backlash occurs and it is a really classic way of delegitimising someone’s background and the fact that they could be in positions like this,” she said.

“We are well past the point of the myth of the meritocracy – it doesn’t exist.”

“Was she the best person? In this case absolutely. But we have to recognise the system of meritocracy was broken in the first place otherwise we would already have a far more diverse cohort represented in all forms of leadership.”

“And really, haven’t all of the men that have come before her only gotten the position because of their gender?”

Bishop added that she had seen the impacts the exclusion of women can have on a nation during her time as Australia’s first female foreign affairs minister.

“When women are part of the discussion on how we’re going to resolve a crisis…you simply get a better outcome,” she said.

“When women are excluded, there is a fundamental part missing.”

  • Picture at top: Julie Bishop speaking at the launch of ‘The Face of the Nation: Gendered Institutions in International Affairs’ by Elise Stephenson. Picture: Supplied

Sarah Grieb is studying a Bachelor of Communication and Media (Journalism)/Bachelor of Politics and International Relations at the University of Canberra. She is currently interning at BroadAgenda and works at ABC Canberra as a radio producer and Network Operations Assistant.

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