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Gender balance national security. Are we there yet?

Women can play a powerful role in preventing conflict and building peace, but despite some recent progress, women are under-represented in leadership positions in Australia’s national security agencies. Widyan Fares speaks to two senior women in national security about bringing a gender perspective into Australia’s peace and security efforts.

Room for improvement 

Australia’s National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security stresses the importance of women’s equal and full participation as active agents in the prevention and resolution of conflicts, peace-building and peacekeeping.

While progress has been made since the action plan was launched in 2012, the plan is due to expire next year, and women working in the sector claim more can be done to promote the role of women in national security.

Katherine Jones, Deputy Secretary of National Security and Emergency Management at the Australian Government Attorney-General’s Department, told The Point Magazine that the people who work in national security need to better reflect the communities they are trying to protect. 

“I think there certainly has been a shift. I think and I feel very passionately about this, because the work that we do in the national security space is for the benefit of the community and the protection of the community, and if we’re going to engage with the community and produce laws, policies and programs that are an appropriate response, we in the national security area, the people who are working in national security, need to reflect the community.”

“On one level that’s about making sure that there is a balance in terms of gender representation, and women should be involved in all types of roles in national security and, secondly, it’s about cultural diversity, and we need to ensure that we are attracting people from a range of backgrounds, culturally, ethnically and with a range of skill sets.”

Better representation leads to better outcomes 

Jones said while there has been significant improvement in her department, she wants to see more women in leadership roles in all areas of national security. She said men must be part of the solution, but women have the power to pave their own way.

“I don’t like this idea of thinking about men having to make way for women. I like to think of it in different ways and women, I think, do need to be the agents of their own development… So it’s not about men helping women out. I think all men can play a role in recognising that we will get better outcomes, better policy outcomes, better program outcomes and law enforcement outcomes if we have a high performing and diverse workforce that reflects the broad nature of Australian society… It’s about a recognition that if you want genuine equality at all levels of your organisation then men need to be part of the solution and they need to be onboard supporting women into roles.” 

“I don’t like this idea of thinking about men having to make way for women. I like to think of it in different ways and women, I think, do need to be the agents of their own development…"

– Katherine Jones, Deputy Secretary of National Security and Emergency Management at the Australian Government Attorney-General’s Department

The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) has been working at assessing good practices in the field of participation of women in national security to aid governments to effectively integrate gender into policies, practices and measures.

“A security sector that overlooks half of the population cannot be efficient, nor can it be particularly effective in promoting and protecting human rights,” the OSCE has stated.

Upbringing key to workplace confidence

Federal Agent Jeanette Boland heads up the Community Liaison Team in Sydney for the Australian Federal Police (AFP), a role that involves engaging with a diverse range of community and government stakeholders. Boland believes the way women are brought up is a key factor contributing to their workplace confidence.  

“I was a bit of a tom boy and very sporty which meant I could hold my own with the boys from a very early age. But I do think that girls are brought up to be good and to comply and many of us have carried that behaviour into our adult life. I really believe that is a significant factor for why women in their early careers don't rock the boat, don't apply for promotion until they are competent. Often it is when women are older that you really speak the truth.”

Boland said, as a woman in the AFP, it has taken years for people both within and outside the agency to take her position seriously.

“Recently a very conservative priest referred to me as a policeman. When I responded, 'Father I think the term is officer, police officer', he tried to talk his way out of it by referring to something to do with Adam and Eve, and I responded 'nice try Father'. I made him laugh but I made a point. Little by little we move along a different path toward one where women are the voice of authority and that it is not unusual.”

Boland said that men do dominate in her line of work, but that doesn’t mean women can’t have a lasting impact. 

“In the multi-faith arena men do tend to dominate, but they have no option but to deal with me, as I have the authority of my organisation behind me, and that is why it is important for government organisations to ensure women have a presence, otherwise they will only deal with men. I will continue to be a voice in this space and to create change where I can.”  

Boland told The Point Magazine women have a significant role to play in national security and countering violent extremism.

“The input of women in countering violent extremism is an untapped wealth of knowledge, respect, patience, dignity and curiosity and passion, the women's network is a powerful beast. I don't understand how you expect to achieve more when you are under-represented.  But it takes a strong and confident woman to work in this space, it can be a hot house for alpha males.”

Boland said that more female participation would help improve levels of trust between community and police and facilitate an improved working relationship.

“I recently asked someone why they made the effort to engage with me when they wouldn't do that with others, and the response was that I listened, I was genuine. It is a trait/quality that all my team hold. I do not take criticism personally and my response to things is 'is this in the best interest of the community', and if the answer is ‘yes’ then that is the course of action we take.”

The Point

Women can play a powerful role in preventing conflict and building peace, but despite some recent progress, women are under-represented in leadership positions in Australia’s national security agencies.

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