How Women have Changed the International Security Agenda
The appointment of women to senior diplomatic and security positions in the Indo-Pacific is on the rise.
Australia, Timor-Leste, Indonesia, New Zealand and Samoa now all have women foreign ministers, with Australia’s former Foreign Minister, Marise Payne, also having served as the country’s first women Defence Minister. The number of women appointed to senior ambassadorial roles, and as leaders in national security establishments, is also growing.
The increasing number of women in these leadership roles marks an encouraging, and long overdue, change to a landscape traditionally dominated by men. This is bringing with it a fundamental shift in the dynamics and culture of international and regional engagement, and decision making.
As Australian Ambassador to Vietnam from 2019 – 2022, and as a diplomat serving in regional and United Nations posts over the course of my career, I have been proud to play my part in this process of shifting the dial towards a more gender-focused, inclusive approach to international diplomacy and security.
Shaping the international agenda
The increased representation of women has occurred in parallel with the growing focus on gender related issues across foreign policy and international security over the past two decades.
A key foundation of this change occurred in 2000 with the adoption of UN Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security. This resolution put the spotlight on gender equality and equity aspects of the UNSC’s agenda by formally acknowledging that women and girls were disproportionately affected by armed conflict. It called for a gender perspective in peace negotiations and peacekeeping operations and asked UN Member States to increase women’s participation in negotiations and conflict resolution efforts.
More than twenty years after the adoption of UNSC Resolution 1325, the women, peace and security agenda has become an accepted part of international discussion on conflict prevention and resolution, and a core element of international peacekeeping and peacebuilding operations.
Australia has been proud to work alongside our regional partners to support the mainstreaming of the women, peace and security agenda, as a key pillar of our engagement and partnership.
Vietnam has also been a significant player on women, peace and security issues. As President of the UNSC in 2009, during its first term as a non-permanent Security Council member, Vietnam held an Open Debate on women, peace and security. Vietnam subsequently sponsored the passage of resolution 1889, the first UNSC resolution to highlight the needs and rights of women and girls in post-conflict situations
Women, peace and security also featured prominently in Vietnam’s ASEAN Chair year in 2021 and its recently concluded second term on the UNSC (2020-2021). In December 2020, on the 20th anniversary of UNSC Resolution 1325, Vietnam hosted a UN High-Level Conference on women, peace and security. The Conference issued the “Hanoi Commitment to Action” which committed co-sponsors to further strengthen women’s representation and leadership in peacekeeping, continue mainstreaming and funding the women, peace and security agenda and to promote the role of women in addressing new and emerging challenges.
Australia has worked with Vietnam through bilateral, regional and multilateral channels to advance our shared interests in women, peace and security. In November 2021, Australia and Vietnam co-chaired the Second ASEAN-Australia Women, Peace and Security Dialogue at which former Foreign Minister Payne, underlined Australia’s support for women, peace and security-related activities under the ASEAN-Australia Political Security Partnership.
The benefits of women in senior diplomatic roles
As the 2015 UN Global Study on Resolution 1325 stated, women’s role in security is undeniable – the role of women in brokering peace means that it is more likely to be long lasting. Similarly, women’s contribution to broader diplomatic engagement across all fields brings a more diverse set of perspectives and strengths which add depth and richness to insights, engagement and influence.
When women see other women leading the conversation in any field, it inspires them to do the same, and to aim high. Moreover, more diverse representation in diplomatic missions helps to expand networks and open new doors, allowing us to identify the full range of issues and pressures affecting the security, social and economic landscape in our partner countries. And this makes for more effective diplomacy. While all diplomats bring their personal strengths to the role, in my observation, women diplomats are able to get below the surface in previously uncharted areas, away from discussions that may have traditionally taken place on the golf course or over a beer.
This has been particularly important during the COVID-19 pandemic. Australia has focused part of its support for COVID recovery, including in Vietnam, on the pandemic’s disproportionate impacts on women and girls. Our networks with women’s shelters, domestic violence support groups and relevant partner agencies have enabled us to engage with those most affected, and target assistance to where it is most needed.
In my own career in foreign affairs, I have observed that including more women in Australian delegations can influence counterpart attendance, prompting an increased number of women to be invited to events, and to be offered speaking time in an agenda. When this pattern is repeated by us and others, it plays a part in normalising women’s presence and contribution.
We have come a long way in terms of women’s diplomatic representation since I joined the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) in 1990. At the time there were very few senior women diplomats and only four serving women Ambassadors or Heads of Post in our global network. While there was change in the wind, with more women entering the diplomatic service, the institutional and cultural barriers to their progression to senior levels were still alive and well.
This situation began to change in the 2000s as the junior women who joined around the same time as me began to rise through the ranks, but it was not until 2015 that DFAT took decisive action to promote women in leadership. That year saw the launch of the Women in Leadership Strategy, which identified many of the tangible and intangible barriers to women’s progress and introduced practical solutions to address these.
One powerful element of the Strategy was the introduction of the “if not, why not” principle. This tackled the unspoken assumptions that women were not suited for particular roles, and reflected flexible practices which allow all employees to request working arrangements that suit their personal circumstances. Managers making decisions on such issues were asked to consider “why not” if women (or men) were not being put forward or supported for these opportunities, or were not being supported for flexible work arrangements. It was not long before this concept took hold, driving a change in culture and attitude.
The Strategy has seen a dramatic increase in the proportion of women leaders in DFAT, and an impressive increase in women representing Australia abroad at the most senior levels. In 2016, women accounted for 25 per cent of Australia’s Heads of Mission or Post. Within the past six years, this has nearly doubled, and at the time of writing, there are 44 female Heads of Mission or post around our diplomatic network. Today in DFAT diversity and inclusion are recognised as being key to successful leadership.
Australian women are now a very visible presence in the international diplomatic network. In the Indo-Pacific we have female Heads of Missions in Indonesia, New Zealand, Republic of Korea, Thailand as well as an Ambassador-designate in the Philippines and a chargé d’Affaires in Myanmar. We have female DHOMs in India, Malaysia, Myanmar, New Zealand, Republic of Korea, Singapore, Tokyo and Thailand. An increasing number of women head up Australian agencies at our diplomatic missions including Defence, Home Affairs and the Australian Federal Police. The current, and both immediate former Secretaries of Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade are women. We are not the only country in the region to make progress, but our recent efforts are helping to change the complexion of diplomacy.
How to continue the momentum?
Building momentum towards stronger women’s representation in any field takes time, and concrete, practical actions. Maintaining momentum requires strong leadership and commitment, so that there is a permanent shift from a context where women are ‘first in their field’, and thereby a precarious novelty, to one where women are a secure and critical mass. The importance of role models, and a willingness by those who have already assumed leadership to talk about their experience and to support others to follow cannot be overstated.
Diversity in leadership and inclusive solutions have served us well over recent years as we continue to grapple with a range of security issues beyond traditional defence, particularly the health pandemic and climate change. Such events are threatening our region’s prosperity and stability. Peace is more lasting, stability more likely and economies stronger when women and girls are treated equitably, and their contributions recognised. We are also more resilient to shocks such as COVID and climate events.
There are clear advantages in continuing to promote women leaders in diplomacy, defence and security. Australia has found a willing partner in Vietnam. Learning from Australia’s own women in leadership journey, we are working with Vietnam on its journey – championing Vietnam to get to their ‘firsts’ and for this to then become the norm.
Australia now spends close to 22 per cent of our annual development cooperation assistance in Vietnam on initiatives specifically designed to tackle gender inequalities. This is alongside integrating gender equality into our aid investments where the main objective is not gender equality, but where these investments present opportunity to address gender issues during implementation.
In support of women in diplomacy, in 2019, then Foreign Minister Payne, together with Vietnam’s then Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh, signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) on Women’s Empowerment in the Foreign Service. Under this MOU, the Embassy facilitated a joint forum and training program on women’s empowerment in the digital age specifically for Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry. This provided an opportunity for senior women DFAT officials to share their experiences of leadership with Vietnam’s senior women leaders in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as well as provide training for junior Vietnamese diplomats in understanding gender norms. Planning for similar engagements is already underway.
Our efforts to support Vietnam’s women in leadership, as well as those aspiring to leadership, extend across our development program, from our Australia Awards Scholarships, for which women now make up 65-75 per cent of awardees, to the multiple leadership programs we are running for mid-ranking and senior political and public servants. We are also supporting women led and owned businesses, with a focus on ethnic minority women, to access market opportunities and build their leadership skills.
Beyond our development program, Australia’s support for women, peace and security has guided our support to Vietnam’s ambition to scale up its contribution to international peacekeeping efforts. This includes Australia’s support to Vietnam to achieve its objectives for greater representation of women in its peacekeeping ranks. For its Level 2 Field Hospital in South Sudan (part of UNMISS), which Australia supports through the provision of strategic airlift, Vietnam has increased its representation of women peacekeepers from 15.9 per cent to 21 per cent in 3 years, with a target of 25 per cent by 2025.
There is a strong relationship between the Gender, Peace and Security team at Australia’s Peace Operations Training Centre in Canberra and Vietnam’s Department of Peacekeeping Operations, including a seconded Vietnamese officer to Australia. Australia also provides gender awareness training to Vietnamese military officers through our Defence Cooperation Program.
The ability of Australia to ‘walk the talk’ on women’s leadership, by having women in senior roles, gives us more legitimacy to work with Vietnam and others in our region. Progress is encouraging and this needs to be celebrated and quickly cemented in place.
Women have been excluded from the diplomatic and security conversations at senior levels for too long. Globally, we need policies and solutions with adequate funding and implementation that engage all levels of communities and allow us the best chance of a secure, prosperous and stable region. Change is already underway, and the momentum is building in our own region and beyond. Young women entering the diplomatic and security fields in 2022 can confidently aspire to the most senior levels of leadership and the mantra “if not, why not” is alive and well in the minds of the next generation of diplomats.
Australia will continue to do what we can in our own diplomatic service, and across the region to support all countries to reach and then move beyond their “firsts” in diplomacy and other fields. Through our actions, and our advocacy, we will continue to play our part in building a region where equitable and diverse gender representation at senior levels in international diplomacy is normalised. Our entire region stands to benefit.
Robyn Mudie is First Assistant Secretary in the Southeast Asia Regional Division, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and former Ambassador to Vietnam Australia’s former ambassador to Vietnam. She was most recently the founding Executive Director of the Diplomatic Academy. She has previously served overseas as Australian High Commissioner to Sri Lanka and Maldives; Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations (Geneva); First Secretary, UN Permanent Mission, New York; and Second Secretary, Hanoi. In Canberra Ms Mudie has served as Assistant Secretary, Public Diplomacy Branch; Assistant Secretary, Information Resources Branch; and Director, Strategic Policy Section.