Where are the women in Australia’s China debate?

Australia has a gender problem in international affairs demonstrated not only in government leadership, but also in related discourse. With Sino-Australia relations in the spotlight due to COVID-19 and increased tensions in the bilateral relationship, it is vital that we examine the debate through a gendered lens. Australia’s China debate reflects broader diversity issues within international relations, which remains a space dominated by Anglo-Saxon men.

Research by Jasmine-Kim Westendorf and Bec Strating reveals that there are more women than men enrolled in international affairs-related degrees. Furthermore, six out of eight women hold the position of Head of School of Political and Social Sciences at Group of Eight leading universities in Australia. However, a Lowy Institute report shows that overwhelmingly women remain impeded by unconscious bias and discrimination. Women in international affairs are often ‘siloed into “soft policy” or corporate areas and out of key operational roles needed for career progression’. That is, international relations as a discipline is not gendered, but pathways for leadership in the field are.

Gender in Australia’s China Debate

Our research examines the representation of women in editorial positions, online events, as podcast hosts and specifically in the Australia-China debate. Australia’s international affairs and China debate occurs in these domains.

Editors of publications by think tanks, universities and other organisations are still mostly white and male. This includes but is not limited to: the Lowy Institute’s Interpreter, East Asia Forum, Australian Foreign Affairs and Asia Society’s Monthly Briefing. In comparison, the Melbourne Asia Review has a female managing editor (Cathy Harper), the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) has a female senior editor (Larissa Joseph) and the University of Melbourne’s Pursuit is led by a female editor, Imogen Crump. The Australian National University also has women represented across its editorial boards including Lydia Papandrea as managing editor of Asia and the Pacific Policy Studies, Ashlee Betteridge as co-editor for DevPolicy and Jane Golley and Yun Jiang as two of the three editors of this China Story Blog. The Conversation performs particularly well on gender diversity: women comprise 62 percent of its editorial board and 62 percent of editors.

Looking at mainstream media, the managing director of the ABC (David Anderson) and SBS (James Taylor) are both men. However, the editorial teams of both ABC and SBS have a fairly equal representation of men and women. The Age/The Sydney Morning Herald and the Guardian Australia all have female editors (Gay Alcorn is the first female editor at The Age). While The Australian has a female editor (Michelle Gunn), 71 percent of the editorial board are men. Men also hold most key positions in the editorial team of the Australian Financial Review.

When examining data on Australian mainstream print media, a 2016 Women’s Leadership Institute study found that women only accounted for 25 percent of citations on international affairs and 16 percent on China. Across all print media, 9 percent of analysts are women and 17 percent of commentary analyses were from women. This reveals that men are being asked to provide commentary and analysis on international affairs and China overwhelmingly more than women.

Podcasts and online events are doing better than the media in terms of gender diversity. Of the 12 international relations podcasts in Australia – four that focus specifically on Asia – 50 percent have at least one permanent female host. This does not include two of the Australia National University’s podcasts (DevPolicy Talks and Policy Forum Pod), which alternates hosts for each episode.

Data on both online and in-person events on Asia-Australia relations in August and September show that Asia-focused think tanks or those led by predominantly female teams had more (or at least an equal number of) female guests and moderators. Asia Society stands out as having the highest female participation, with over 75 percent. The Lowy Institute, United States Studies Centre and the Perth USAsia Centre fell under 50 percent. Asialink, Australian Institute of International Affairs, ASPI and La Trobe Asia all had over 50 percent women (although ASPI’s Strategic Vision series only had around 30 percent).

Since 2019, Q&A (Australia’s weekly current affairs show) has seen women comprise 45 percent of panelists on China-related episodes. The common format is five weekly guests including two women. Of the nine episodes, only twice was there three women on the panel. This data does not include the male host. Additionally, panellists such as Penny Wong and Vicky Xiuzhong Xu have appeared more than once.

Lowy Institute data shows that change in the international relations (IR) sector has been slow, falling behind other sectors in Australia. The presence of female trailblazers, like Marise Payne and Penny Wong, may lead some to become complacent rather than proactive on gender diversity. While there has been progress in representation within some agencies like the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, gender equality has yet to be achieved in international affairs. Despite some progress, ASPI research shows that female leaders in Australia continue to face discrimination, harassment and sexism. But gender equality is more than just a few trailblazers and it is also more than equal numbers. Australian lawyer and gender equality advocate, Jane Alver, puts it well: ‘Now we must ask, which women and which voices are we not properly celebrating, recognising and representing?’.

The Future of Australia’s China Debate

This year has seen escalating tensions in the Australia-China bilateral relationship, as Australia finds itself caught between the ongoing war of words between the United States and China. Deteriorating Australia-China relations have been exacerbated by Australia’s bid for an independent inquiry into the current pandemic.

The past few months has seen Australia’s China debate increasingly move to online platforms due to COVID-19 restrictions. This coincided with the increasing polarisation of Australia’s China debate, with many relying on Twitter to discuss the bilateral relationship in 280 characters or less. In a recent study by Plan International, 65 percent of young women in Australia reported being harassed or bullied online, compared to the 58 percent global average. Not only does Australia have a diversity problem in international affairs, but women face more online harassment than men. This may discourage emerging researchers, academics and others from contributing to Australian-China discourse, thus stifling the diversity of voices in these debates.

The coming months and years will be pivotal in shaping Australia-China relations, which at present remain tense and unstable, in part due to uncertainty surrounding what a post-COVID world might look like. For cooperation to succeed between the two countries, Australia must formulate a realistic China policy that addresses both the opportunities and challenges that China presents. Further, there must be an increase in diversity of voices in the Australia-China debate. Diversity matters not just because it is ‘nice to have’ – it is important because it increases diplomatic effectiveness. A more gender- and culturally-diverse workforce will increase the talent pool of the IR sector and allow it to better reflect Australian society and promote Australia’s national – rather than male-specific – interests.