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This all-male debate lacks depth

By Stephanie Fahey - posted Wednesday, 20 April 2005

Every evening the family living room is filled with news of international security, terrorism and defence but in Australia, women's voices on these issues are silent - or perhaps being silenced? Whatever one may think of the views of Condoleezza Rice or Madeleine Albright, the US has propelled women into influential positions in which they display keen interest and capacity. So where are their Australian counterparts?

At least half the staff and students studying international relations are women. Following the gender policy reforms in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in the 1960s, and much later in the Defence Force, the gender imbalance has improved but few women are accepted into high-profile positions or engage in public commentary on international security - seemingly one of the last bastions of male dominance. Who are the established public commentators and who reinforces their monopoly?

The Lowy Institute for International Policy now rivals the Australian Strategic Policy Institute on defence issues. Lowy experts appear regularly in the media, but none is a woman.


Looking at its board of directors, senior staff, researchers, speakers and international collaborators, it is difficult to find a woman actively contributing to the debates. Its international advisory board has an American woman member, and of the 16 professional staff and visitors, the only woman is Martine Letts, a former diplomat with expertise in arms control, but as a deputy director she is yet to contribute to policy debates.

At the inaugural conference of the Lowy Institute in 2003, the program included not one woman. At last week's Sturdee Symposium on Australian Grand Strategy, co-hosted by the Lowy Institute, Senator Marise Payne did chair a session, although no women made it to the symposium dinner.

The Australian Strategic Policy Institute is a little better, with one woman board member, Jocelyn Newman, and one researcher, Dr Ellie Wainwright.

Not many would argue that women should be excluded because they are women, although some still argue that women have nothing to contribute because their perspectives and policy recommendations are indistinguishable from those of men and so it is unnecessary to include them or, even worse, what women have to contribute is inferior and therefore should not be entertained.

Thirty years ago debates were rehearsed and won regarding women's rights to hold senior and influential positions and their capacity to enrich and diversify the workplace, so why is the defence and international security arena in Australia so myopic in relation to gender participation? Those in positions to orchestrate change acknowledge the imbalance but demonstrate no obvious commitment to change.

The debates in defence and international security in Australia are already too narrowly defined and the recent, largely semantic, differences of interpretation of the Defence of Australia doctrine point to how shallow the ground has become. Women can enliven discussions in conflict management, foreign policy and peace building, just as they have in many other debates.


Groups of women subscribe less readily than men to the myth of the efficiency of violence; women tend to expose the "underbelly of war" by focusing on basic needs such as food and health security; they tend to be preoccupied with the bigger picture - the consequences - while some men maintain personal agendas of power. Initiatives powered by women usually emphasise inclusion, participation, consensus building, dialogue and sustainable elements crucial in international security.

Women do make a difference to the debates - so if women are not in positions to contribute, then a positive contribution from Australia's think tank community would be to actively mentor young women instead of perpetuating a male apathy which engenders resentment and ultimately confrontation.

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First published in the Sydney Morning Herald on April 19, 2005.

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About the Author

Professor Stephanie Fahey is director of the Research Institute for Asia and the Pacific, Sydney University and chairwoman of the National Committee of Women in International Security Australia.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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