Decrypting diversity in Australia’s intelligence community

Thursday 7 December 2023

Under its terms of reference, one of the tasks of the 2024 independent review of Australia’s national intelligence community is to consider whether the NIC’s workforce decision-making reflects ‘a sufficiently strategic response to current and future workforce challenges’. This represents a critical moment to raise longstanding issues about the degree to which our national intelligence agencies represent our nation.

Independent reviews of the NIC have been conducted regularly since the 2004 Flood Review—in 2011, 2017 and now 2024—to ensure oversight and establish the strategic direction for Australia’s national security sector. However, NIC reviews are yet to comprehensively apply a gender or diversity lens to this important work. The 2024 review therefore presents an opportunity to address the diversity challenges that continue to diminish the NIC’s operational effectiveness.

Many indicators paint the NIC as a community invested in diversity and inclusion. Everything from the appointment of Penny Wong as the third consecutive woman to be minister for foreign affairs, to the leadership of Rachel Noble of the Australian Signals Directorate and Kerri Hartland of the Australian Secret Intelligence Service, and even general comments by leaders in the NIC about the relevance of diversity to the national security community attest to this.

However, while public interest in diversity evidently exists, it is challenging to gauge the extent to which this translates into the representation, leadership, and experiences of women and minority individuals working in the NIC. One-off accounts, decades old biographies, and the occasionally released workforce statistic or targeted recruitment round does little to convince us that the NIC represents Australia, or that well-recognised workplace issues, particularly in light of Respect at Work, are being effectively dealt with.

Uncovering the state of diversity in the community and whether rhetorical commitments translate into experience is therefore critical, and transparency is a vital first step towards this.

Foresight is central to Australia’s national security sector, creating a competitive advantage over our adversaries. Critically, a diverse intelligence community significantly contributes to this foresight, impacting everything from reducing groupthink to stronger performing teams and improved work cultures. For instance, research on the US intelligence community argues that diversity limits unpredictability by forecasting multiple futures and lessens the impact of shared biases. More recently, the RAND Corporation has highlighted that factors like cultural diversity and neurodiversity can strengthen national security organisations.

Yet women and minoritised groups are still under-represented in the NIC and analysis of publicly available data highlights progress in recent years has stagnated. Our situation also pales in comparison to US counterparts, with the US Office of the Director of National Intelligence publishing annual demographic reports on everything from gender to ethnicity and disability across 19 intelligence agencies. This goes beyond basic statistics to report on leadership, security clearance application and success rates, representation across types of work, professional development, scholarships, and student opportunities.

Australia’s reporting transparency on workforce demographics lags significantly behind our major ally. Some NIC agencies, like Defence, report data annually through women in the ADF reports. Others, like Home Affairs, report data through their annual reports. However, a large swathe of the NIC, including agencies, publicly reports little to no data on workforce demographics at all. This is a problem.

In our research on diversity in the NIC, approaches to diversity and inclusion were inconsistent among agencies. While some agencies had robust flexible work arrangements, they had no publicly available sexual harassment policies. A lack of transparency in even viewing critical workplace policies around these topics may inhibit the sector’s ability to recruit new talent and provide little public oversight of the support it does provide to employees.

Although the Protective Security Policy Framework outlines how official information can be shared, it and other frameworks are noticeably silent on under what circumstances employment data can be reported. That hampers access to vital information on diversity, equity and social inclusion in the NIC.

Elsewhere, we have argued that mechanisms such as security classifications can create an environment of obscurity and non-transparency. A classification halo-effect limits what is and can be known about people’s experiences in intelligence, where even non-classified information may be withheld from the public. This includes everything from demographic diversity in recruitment to retention, leadership and representation, harassment, power, resourcing and more.

The lack of transparency on this issue is not just out of line with our key alliance and AUKUS partners’ practices and the rest of federal government, it is also out of line with the evidence on what can help drive greater workforce diversity. This includes a greater degree of transparency needed to appeal to a wide range of prospective employees in an increasingly tight talent market, and in lieu of little other material being made public on what working in the NIC involves.

We argue that Australians ‘need to know’ that our national security sector is operating in its best capacity, is representative and ethical. Public trust in Australia’s government institutions is declining and transparency regarding diversity, equity and social inclusion is an area which could improve Australians’ perception of the NIC. While there is certainly a strong need for secrecy in most areas of the NIC’s work, diversity is an area where there can and should be greater openness.

Prominent figures in the NIC share this sentiment. Noble has said our spy agencies cannot continue to operate in the shadows. Similarly, ASIO director general Mike Burgess describes the importance of transparency and its usefulness for recruitment. These statements support the view that transparency is integral to the NIC’s operation.

With the review underway, it’s critical that the NIC reviews what it can—and must—do about diversity. Transparent data on NIC workforce diversity should be made publicly in some form.

Additionally, in light of AUKUS, there’s a need to understand US and UK vetting frameworks to ensure alignment on diversity and inclusion goals and targets.

In Australia’s increasingly complex security environment it’s apparent that a lack of diversity threatens national security. To meet the nation’s needs and protect its interests, it’s imperative that workplace diversity and inclusion is at the forefront of the review.

The 2024 independent review is the first such review co-led by a woman. Let’s hope this representation flows through in gender and diversity-responsive recommendations that the NIC clearly needs.

This article was written by Matilda Merry and Elise Stephenson and was originally published in the ASPI Strategist. Matilda Merry is an undergraduate student at the Australian National University studying a double bachelor’s degree in international relations and international security studies. She is also an intern at the ANU’s Global Institute for Women’s Leadership (GIWL). Elise Stephenson is deputy director of GIWL and an affiliate of the ANU’s National Security College and the Griffith Asia Institute, and a Fulbright fellow at the University of Washington.

Updated:  22 December 2023/Responsible Officer:  Institute Director/Page Contact:  CASS Marketing & Communications