Lowy Institute

Debate: Women in international relations

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Sally Wilkinson writes (my thoughts follow):

On the weekend I was reading a few articles on The Interpreter. I was immediately struck by the banner. It has a photo of four men. Granted, the photo depicts very influential 20th century figures. But it also emanates an unfortunate symbolism. Seeing the photo tapped into my ongoing frustration at the fact that the majority of our public policy (and political) discourse is dominated and shaped by men.

So I proceeded to investigate the make-up of Lowy. Only four out of 26 bloggers are women; and one out of twelve board members. There is, unfortunately, nothing particularly unusual in that. I am not suggesting that your organisation is especially 'bad' or unique in this respect. Sadly, it is not. Your organisation is one of thousands to which I could be expressing similar thoughts. More...


A correspondent disagrees with my views about the lack of female participation on The Interpreter:

While there are many women with outstanding qualifications in international relations — and I look forward to reading more of their blogs — only a fraction of policy-makers, decision-makers and public commentators are women, particularly at the senior levels. Professional development and advancement has been limited until very recently and can still be an uphill push against entrenched senior views.

To use the Department of Foreign Affiars and Trade (DFAT) as an example, can I remind you that DFAT only got its first female deputy secretary in 1996, and that in 2008 there was still only one (out of five: DFAT Annual report 07-08). So the credence and weight given to senior female views or comments remains limited by simple virtue of their lack of numbers.

There is a further aspect to consider regarding women in foreign policy. More...


Susan Harris-Rimmer writes (my response follows):

May I say a hearty 'hear hear' to your riposter. Your first response was hardly designed to encourage women to sign up as a guest blogger. Except the ones that it slightly enraged, such as myself.

You are correct to point out that there is a gender imbalance in the broad international relations field. Some reflection on why that might be the case could be more interesting, rather than the end of the discussion. It especially applies to those areas of international relations at the 'hard' end such as international trade, defence, national security and diplomacy.

Your point on the diversity of opinion being important is well taken and well made, but perhaps taking outside advice on whether the blog does represent such variety would be more convincing than self-congratulation. More...


Amy King writes (my response follows):

Many thanks for encouraging the ongoing debate about gender imbalance with the international security blogosphere, and international relations generally.

I agree that 'positive discrimination' in the form of nicely-worded invitations to female contributors can appear patronising, and wholeheartedly agree that more women should take it upon themselves to contribute to the public debate. However, I take issue with the two explanations you have provided for the gender imbalance in international relations.

First, where is the evidence that 'relatively few women are interested in what Susan calls "hard" international relations issues, so they don't enter the field'? More...


Why are more men than women visible in international relations, especially as analysts and commentators? As noted by Amy, visibility is important: role models will be a factor in helping young people make a decision about what they choose to study. That said, and absent a burning sense of vocation, my guess is that young people will give at least equal weight to studying subjects which enhance their prospects for employment.

Still, it is puzzling that women in the developed world are not as visible in the international policy world as they are in other professions. Women have made some serious inroads in the law and medicine and in the world of business and board rooms, though even here the ratios are not something to boast about.

I suspect the answer lies in part in the way international policy is thought and written about. Read More

International security voices are still overwhelmingly male because the analytical frameworks have changed little since the time of ancient political theory and the conceptual frameworks favoured by women tend to be more focussed on conflict resolution, development and gender-based approaches.

If that is so, then there is a structural bias with respect to the way women think about security which does not suit the way the world is organised and analysed. A lot less public space is made for these kinds of approaches in the media, the think tank world and even in academia because security studies still tend to focus on the state as the basic unit, with war and peace between states and various muscular and less muscular versions of International Relations theory all linked to the great game being played out between great, emerging and waning powers.

Security scholars look at issues such as democracy, economic security, ideology, ethnicity and national identity as factors which impact on security within and between states. By and large that also corresponds to the way the world is organised. So the traditional tools of analysis seem a more secure platform from which to start than a gender- or rights-based approach which many states and their leaders will not understand and which may appear woolly or soft. 

In Australia, female scholars like Coral Bell are the exception that proves the rule, but it is not evident who her successors will be. And of course Coral Bell speaks in classic IR tongues. 

Here in the Lowy Institute we have a colleague who has often been heard to remark that they only way intractable international problems end up being resolved is through war. History suggests that the facts support his bleak conclusion. More recent evidence might, however, steer thinking in another direction. For an interesting take on the impact of the security of states and the security of women I refer you to an article (thanks Fergus Hanson for drawing my attention to this) published in the most recent edition of International Security which provides some great evidence-based food for thought about these issues.

As for the Institute itself, 34 of the 63 Lowy interns we have had so far are women. A number of them have been recruited into Defence and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, some have gone on to further academic study in international relations and some continue to work with us. So the basis is being laid for new female voices in this debate. 

We like to keep in touch with our Intern Alumni, and occasionally publicise what they have done since leaving the Institute. Here are just a couple of examples: Allison Spies (pictured here on duty in Afghanistan) is representing Australia in the Middle East. Fiona Cunningham is our latest intern to commence working part time with us on nuclear non-proliferation issues. I can highly recommend the paper she and I wrote for the International Commission on Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament (ICNND) on government-industry cooperation in managing nuclear proliferation risks (I am a member of the ICNND Advisory Board).