A report published in 2019 by the Lowy Institute, Foreign territory: Women in international relations, found that there is a severe gender imbalance in the workforces of the departments and organisations that make up Australia’s international relations sector. The report found a distressingly low number of women held key diplomatic and senior postings, and that women played a negligible part in key policy shaping activities. Of the more than 33 white papers, reviews, and other major foreign and security policy-shaping documents produced in the last 50 years, none has been led by a woman.

So why does this matter? Because policies that promote equality make strategic sense and the more women engaged in policy making, the more equal those policies will be. At a recent International Women’s Day function Defence Minister Linda Reynolds noted that “organisations that embrace all forms of diversity and inclusion outperform those that don’t”.

But the presence of women doesn’t just improve performance, it also encourages organisations to do things differently.

Defence Minister Linda Reynolds on 2 March at a parade at Russell Offices Canberra for the Australian Army’s 119th birthday (Department of Defence) 

Research has shown that countries with more gender equity are more stable and display less aggression toward other states. In fact, gender equality is the single most reliable indicator for conflict prevention. Despite this fact, the majority of countries have “gender-blind” foreign policy. Such policies fail to take into account gendered discrimination, inequalities and violence, and lack of inclusion of women and other marginalised groups. The limited success of such policies has seen the emergence of feminist forms of foreign policy, described by Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom as “standing against the systematic and global subordination of women”. In order to meet the growing call for ethical and inclusive policy, Australia needs to reflect on its own foreign policy.

Successive Australian governments have acknowledged the importance of gender equality. Australia’s first female foreign minister, Julie Bishop, spoke about making gender equality central to global peace and security. To this end, Australia released a Gender equality and women’s empowerment strategy in 2016. Despite these efforts, Australia has struggled to translate rhetoric into action.

In an effort to better understand Australia’s role in promoting gender equality in the Asia Pacific, Women in International Security-Australia and the Asia-Pacific Centre for the Responsibility to Protect convened a workshop to assess Australia’s foreign policy. Participants drew upon Karin Aggestam, Annika Bergman Rosamond and Annica Kronsel’s work on ethical foreign policy, feminist theory and the “ethics of care” to assess how well a policy approach “embraces the stories and lived experiences of women and other marginalised groups at the receiving end of foreign policy conduct”. While Australia has made great strides in gender equality, there are many opportunities for Australia’s foreign policy to become more feminist, and therefore more efficient and effective in achieving Australia’s strategic goals.

A closer look reveals that Australian foreign policy is operating from a staunchly realist position, which casts policy objectives as a “zero-sum” game.

At first glance, the key objectives outlined in for 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper look good, with the emphasis on stability, resilience, and opportunity, whether for an “inclusive and prosperous Indo-Pacific region” or “ensuring Australians remain safe, secure and free in the face of threats”. However, a closer look reveals that Australian foreign policy is operating from a staunchly realist position, which casts policy objectives as a “zero-sum” game.

Australia’s national interests, particularly those of economic growth and state security, are cast as in competition with the interests of distant others in a “contested”, “uncertain”, and “dangerous” policy environment. While a degree of caution in policy is always prudent, looking at political space this way precludes opportunities for collaboration with Australia’s neighbours that might be more effective and sustainable in achieving Australia’s foreign policy goals.

This competitive approach to policy emphasises military solutions for addressing conflicting political priorities. The result is that non-military or “feminine” aspects of foreign policy, such as diplomacy, aid and poverty reduction, are subsumed by the rhetoric of national security. In fact, the 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper references national security almost three times as often as foreign policy. This approach to foreign policy makes it difficult for policy makers to craft and pursue policy that emphasises sustainable, ethical and justice-oriented approaches when the recipients of such policies are simultaneously seen as enemies and allies.

The workshop participants presented several ideas for helping Australia achieve a more feminist foreign policy. First and foremost, they identified the need for more women in the policy making process, generally and in leadership positions. Importantly, these women (and feminist men) should come from all parts of Australia, and from a diverse array of socio-economic and religious backgrounds. There also needs to be the inclusion of cross-sectorial experiences to ensure that foreign policy reflects more than just security perspectives.

Better communication between Australia and its near and regional neighbours is also key. The foreign policy objectives of many of Australia’s neighbours are opaque. While this may always be the case, deeper engagement with other countries in the Indo-Pacific as policies are being planned and implemented would allow Australian policy makers to pursue Australia’s political objectives more effectively by tailoring the aid and engagement so that it fulfils both Australia’s interests and supports those of recipient states. This would include engagement with civil society actors and might entail that Australia take a firmer policy stance in cases where vulnerable groups are being victimised by their own states.

These are just a few of the suggestions put forward by workshop participants on how Australia might move closer towards crafting a feminist foreign policy. In the long run, Australian policymakers need to address the underlying masculine structural and cultural constraints that exist in the processes of making and implementing foreign policy. There is a need to delve more deeply into the intersectional nature of foreign policy to understand how other priorities of the Australian government, particularly national security and economic growth, may negatively impact feminist foreign policy objectives.


A full summary of the workshops findings can be found in the recently published Women in International Security Policy Brief – The Value of a Feminist Foreign Policy.