Julie Bishop on gender in international affairs: ’The women have the answers’

The Hon Julie Bishop speaks at The Face of the Nation book launch
The Hon Julie Bishop speaks at The Face of the Nation book launch

The leaders and policymakers representing Australia overseas have traditionally been male. While that is changing, barriers to gender equality in international affairs remain.

Hannah Dixon

ANU Reporter Deputy Editor

The decision to appoint prominent businesswoman, Sam Mostyn as Australia’s next Governor General was met with backlash from some conservative sections of the media. The Australian ran headlines calling her appointment a "cushy job for the wokest of women" , stating that if her "chromosomes were XY she wouldn’t have been considered for the role".

In a polarised political and media environment, the question of who gets to represent Australia has weight.

Speaking at an event shortly after the announcement, Chancellor of The Australian National University (ANU) The Hon Julie Bishop, highlighted these characterisations as an unfair part of being a female leader.

"It’s unfair, it’s not true," Ms Bishop said. "She’s an extraordinarily accomplished leader, [a] pioneer.

"She worked with me as she was the President of the Australian Council for International Development and I found her to be obviously whip smart.

"She knows the critics all come out from under the rocks and she knows what people are going to say. But she’s had that all’her life, as female leaders and female game changers often do.

"And I think she will rise above it and prove her critics wrong."

The disproportionally negative reactions to women in leadership is also the subject of a new book by Dr Elise Stephenson from the ANU Global Institute for Women’s Leadership on who gets to represent Australia on the world stage.

Stephenson says that The face of the nation: gendered institutions in international affairs was inspired by her realisation that though we can name high-profile women in positions of power, 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".

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

The Hon Julie Bishop

Gender statistics show that Australia’s international agencies are faring better than large amounts of the world - with 58 per cent of all’our diplomats are women, for example - but barriers to equality remain.

"Although we are now seeing places like DFAT [the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade] reach parity or near parity when it comes to women’s representation, we know that across all’of our international affairs institutions we just can’t rest when we get representation," Stephenson said.

"We know that we’ve got lagging representation in Defence and policing. We know that international affairs is increasingly securitised, which also has gendered ramifications. We know that international representation still often relies on having a wife-at-home-to-help model and that we’re still waiting on a woman to occupy some of our most prestigious top posts, like Washington DC or London."

Stephenson said that while Australia has gained greater gender representation in diplomacy, analysis demonstrates that Australia’s diplomatic funding and footprint has shrunk. Meanwhile, funding for "the more securitised and militarised parts" of international affairs is comparatively higher - and also least represented by women.

"Really, the essence of my finding here was that women’s roles in leadership are ultimately constrained by the status of the institution in which they occupy - women still face a glass cliff," Stephenson said.

Stephenson added that constraints in gender representation and equality impact the diversity of opinions and affect who determines what is in the national interest.

"We know that gender representation in international affairs is correlated with everything from lower levels of interstate violence to higher levels of collaboration and consensus, and better ability to negotiate with our core international partners," Stephenson said.

"It’s also about legitimacy. Does Australia have legitimacy to represent their people, its people and its interests on an international stage?"

Ms Bishop added that she had seen this play out 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, conflict - whatever it is - you get a better outcome," Ms Bishop said.

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

"I remember when there was a civil war breaking out in the Solomon Islands and the men, because of all’of the Solomon Island parliament at that stage were male, were inside working out how they were going to resolve the civil war.

"Meanwhile, the women were excluded and were outside experiencing it, they were the ones who had the answers."

Dr Elise Stephenson’s The face of the nation is available to order here.