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Review into the Treatment of Women in the Australian Defence Force

Discrimination Sex Discrimination

Review into the Treatment of Women in the Australian Defence Force

by Elizabeth Broderick
Sex Discrimination
Australian Human Rights

Australian Human Rights Commission
22 August 2012

Good morning.

Let me start by acknowledging the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation on whose land we meet and pay my respects to their elders past and present.

In April last year, I was asked by the Minister for Defence to conduct an independent Review into the Treatment of Women - both in the Australian Defence Force Academy, or ADFA, and in the broader Australian Defence Force - on behalf of the Australian Human Rights Commission.

Assisted by the Review Panel (panel members Sam Mostyn, Damian Powell, Mark Ney and Marian Baird) I spent over a year immersed in the unique environment of our nation’s defence force, privileged to hear and witness first-hand the dedication of its personnel.

The Report on the first phase of this Review, which dealt with an examination of ADFA, was tabled in Parliament on 3 November 2011.

Tabled in federal Parliament today is our Report on the second phase of the Review dealing with the treatment of women across the entire ADF – across Navy, Army and Air Force.

Our Review was broad ranging and comprehensive and I will talk about our methodology in a moment.  But first let me emphasize a few things that our Review was not.

As you know, this Review came about as part of the response to the Skype incident at ADFA last year.

However, we did not focus on that particular incident, nor make findings into any other individual incidents or complaints.

Our Review was not an historical examination of the ADF over the last few decades.

And, perhaps most importantly, the Review was not merely a desktop analysis of policies and processes or other written material. 

What our Review did do was examine the current culture of the ADF and the impact that it has on women - that is, the culture as it exists today.

In doing so, we were determined to speak to as many ADF personnel as possible, as well as to others with military experience. 

I am pleased to say that we heard much that is positive about the ADF. In particular, we heard from very loyal individuals who had a deep commitment to serve their country proudly.

In consulting as widely as possible:

  • We visited 36 military bases in Australia and 6 in deployed environments, including two forward operating bases outside the wire in Afghanistan.
  • We spoke to over 2,000 people in bases across Australia, East Timor, the United Arab Emirates and Afghanistan.

In summary, we spoke with personnel from almost every rank and occupation, as well as Reservists and people who had discharged from the military.

Importantly, we also spoke to members individually and confidentially. The stories these members told – many positive, but some deeply personal and distressing -  many told for the first time - shaped much of the Review’s thinking and approach.

It was important that the Chiefs of each Service also heard these stories - not from me but from individuals who loved the ADF as much as they did and for whom service had come at an unacceptable personal cost.  I facilitated one on one meetings for these members with the Chiefs.  Without exception, the Chiefs were quick to act – both for the individual concerned and, where systemic failures were identified, for the organisation as a whole.

I thank all those who shared their stories for their incredible courage. Their contribution to the Review has been invaluable. 

Apart from this qualitative research, we developed two surveys to inform our findings.   We surveyed over 6,000 ADF personnel.

For the first time, data exists that compares the prevalence of sexual harassment in the ADF to other Australian workplaces and I’ll talk about this in a minute.

The Review also examined the experience of overseas militaries struggling with similar challenges.
What did we seek to achieve? Specifically, we wanted to answer the following questions:

  • How inclusive is the ADF of women?
  • How are women perceived in the ADF?
  • Is the ADF recruiting sufficient numbers of women? Do they have the same opportunity as men to rise through the ranks?
  • Does the current ADF culture support a member’s ability to balance career and family? 
  • Finally, does sex discrimination, sexual harassment and sexual abuse exist? 

Obviously, gender equality and diversity are important in their own right, but increasing women’s representation is also about lifting the capability of any organisation. Here are six facts as this relates to the ADF:

Fact 1: Numbers in the 17 – 24 age group – the ADF’s traditional recruiting pool - have flat lined, with increased competition for this talent from other sectors, particularly resources. 

Fact 2: The ADF has only achieved a 1% increase in the recruitment of women over the last 10 years, and 2% over the last 20.

Fact 3: 80% of the ADF are men who speak English at home. Yet, males who speak English at home represent less than 40% of the general Australian population. This means that the ADF has not capitalised on demographic shifts in the Australian population and remains “frozen” at its 1990 demographic.

Fact 4: Many people leave for reasons that are within the control of the ADF, including lack of flexible work arrangements. Given that defence talent is developed from the ground up, when someone leaves after 10 years, it is not possible to do what most civilian organisations do and laterally recruit to fill that position. The average cost of losing a member is $580,000 to $680,000, whilst the cost of recruiting a new member has tripled.

Fact 5: Modern warfare requires new and different abilities, such as technological skill, rather than simply manual or physical strength.

Fact 6: Sexual harassment and abuse exists today in the ADF.  It ruins lives, divides teams and damages operational effectiveness.

These facts provide a compelling case for change.

In our report, we have described the issues, summarised our findings and made 21 recommendations in a number of key areas.  I will focus on only a few.

Combining a military career with family:

We found that for many women in the ADF, the choice was stark - either ADF or family.  In the star ranks (the most senior ranks in the ADF), the contrast between men and women who have children is telling – almost 90% of the men have children compared to just over 20% of women. These figures speak to the difficulty that women with caring responsibility encounter in building their military careers.

In 2012, no person should have to choose between these things.

As a result:

  • We recommend that each service identify those positions where full time work is the only sensible model, ensuring that all other roles are identified as potentially available in flexible work arrangements.  This is not to suggest that flexible work arrangements would be possible in deployed environments, on long exercises or for some sea time activities.
  • We recommend that flexibility is built into a currently rigid career model, including expectations about when personnel will, or should, reach what are known as ‘career gates’.

Women’s participation, recruitment and retention:

Increasing the number of women will help to improve the treatment of women in the ADF, but it will also require new models of recruitment.  Therefore:

  • We recommend a “try before you buy” option based on principles similar to the successful gap year program.
  • We recommend a “recruit to area” model, where some women and men are recruited directly from the area where they will be posted for a set period, at least initially.  This will give greater stability for families.

We also recommend that each Service Chief commit to a public target for the number of women to be recruited into their service.

In relation to women in combat, we recommend that individual leaders and teams are handpicked to support the smooth transition of women into combat roles.

Further, we recommend that there be no less than two women in each work section of ten or less, with the grouping of women within a category to achieve as close to a critical mass as possible.

Diversity of leadership

You can’t be what you can’t see, so just as crucial to increasing the number of women in any organisation is also increasing the number in leadership positions. 

Women are particularly underrepresented in leadership positions in the ADF, with less than 5% of all star, or senior officer, ranks and less than 8% of all senior non-commissioned officers.

This situation will not simply fix itself over time.

Rigid career structures and acute occupational segregation impede women’s progression.

We do not believe a ‘trickle up’ strategy, by which women over time will naturally filter up, will address the stark imbalances between the number of men and women in leadership positions.

We recommend the ADF broaden the roles from which leaders are drawn. Impressive leadership requires a set of skills in its own right.  Strong ADF leaders should come from a range of ADF occupations not just the combat corps.

Targets and differential treatment

A small number of our recommendations incorporate the use of targets.  Many personnel – particularly women - were adamant that gender equality would only come from identical treatment.

We do not agree. 

Obviously, identical treatment works if a level playing field exists. Where it does not, however, identical treatment can lead to greater inequality, especially where existing policies and practices are assumed to be neutral but, in fact, are grounded in a ‘male norm’.  In these areas, we have made recommendations, including the use of targets, to level the playing field. 

Targets do not undermine merit. 

As one senior female ADF leader advised:

..quotas and merit are not mutually exclusive ideas…We all need to get over it.  The reality is that every woman who goes to the short list at a promotion board has merit anyway.

Exclusion and sexual assault

The Review understands that, by its nature, the ADF is a workplace involving inherent risks.

Experiencing sexual misconduct, harassment, bullying, victimisation and sexual abuse, however, should never – be -  one of them.  The reality is that sexual harassment and abuse exists today in the ADF.

We found that members frequently did not report these incidents. They feared :

  • that they would be victimised,
  • that their career would be jeopardised,
  • that they would not be believed,
  • or that they would be subjected to a sometimes unresponsive chain of command investigation. 

Of course, this was not the experience of all members we met. Many members said that they had never been subjected to discrimination or harassment, and described the ADF as a supportive and inclusive employer.

But because of inadequate and inconsistent data collection and analysis, we found it difficult to obtain an accurate picture of the reported number of sexual harassment and abuse complaints, adding weight to the urgent case for change.

Our comparative sexual harassment prevalence survey found that sexual harassment rates for women in the ADF are comparable with the general community at around 25%. For men, they are around 10% which is lower than for the general community.

These figures are still too high for any workplace.

Coupled with the personal accounts provided by ADF members, this makes change to the way women are treated in the ADF an urgent priority.

We recommend a new approach to dealing with issues of sexual harassment, sex discrimination and sexual assault.

First, we recommend a dedicated unit dealing with sexual misconduct matters - headed by a senior member of the ADF or Defence Department reporting directly to the Chief of the Defence Force - it should be established as a priority. We have called it the Sexual Misconduct Prevention and Response Office or SEMPRO. Its key role is to make the system more responsive and to be a central point of data collection and analysis. We recommend that it be staffed by experts in the area who have experience in handling complaints of a sexual nature and dealing with sensitive personal issues.

Crucial to the new approach will be to give complainants the option of reporting harassment or sexual assault in a confidential manner by way of a restricted report – an option which is not available at present.

Under-reporting of sexual misconduct is a significant issue for the reasons I have already mentioned. Having an option to confidentially report an incident would give complainants access to relevant support and advocacy without having to go through the more public avenue of reporting through their chain of command.  Having said that, the Review continues to support a strengthened chain of command investigation process should the complainant wish to exercise this option. It’s about choice.

It has been acknowledged that a ‘restricted’ report does not hold perpetrators to account and is inconsistent with the maintenance and enforcement of Service discipline, potentially allowing sexual predators to continue to serve undetected.  The reality is of course that while there is significant under-reporting of sexual misconduct as is the case now, perpetrators already remain undetected and continue to serve.  

Our research into overseas militaries suggests that many complainants who initially make a confidential report and are given appropriate supports will subsequently find the courage and confidence to request a full investigation. 

In summary, SEMPRO will oversee an ADF wide prevention strategy, a rigorous data collection regime, a new restricted reporting regime and a strengthened chain of command investigation process.

Finally, let me say that everything I have mentioned today comes down to one thing – leadership.

Poor leadership allows unacceptable behaviour to take hold. Strong and confident leadership, supported by robust and transparent systems and practices, minimizes unacceptable behaviour, ensures team members are supported and that they function as a cohesive whole.

The reform agenda set out in our report requires strong leadership –it requires support from leaders at all levels, including middle management and non-commissioned officers. Their support is critical to communicate the case for change – to communicate that women are vital to the sustainability and capability of the ADF.

I’d like to conclude now by quoting a female soldier who told us - and I quote:

A lot of the problems we face, we all just shrug off as “oh that’s part of the military and it’s just the way it is”. 

She went on to say:

I would question whether it needs to be like that and whether it will stay like that forever.
As Australia’s Sex Discrimination Commissioner, I say to you - It is not just the way it is.
It does not have to stay like this.

The current obstacles facing women in the ADF can and must be addressed.

As varied as the voices who have contributed to this Review have been, ultimately, one ambition is shared by all. This is for a strong and unified ADF – one of which Australia can be justifiably proud.

Our recommendations contained in this report - lay out a path.

The commitment from the senior ADF leadership is there.

It is now for the ADF to make good on this ambition – to realise an organisation which, in return for their services to Australia, gives all of its members, irrespective of their gender, the opportunity to thrive.