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Women in the Australian Defence Force

Discrimination Sex Discrimination

Thank you Gerard for your warm introduction. It is indeed a pleasure to be here this evening to speak to you about Women in the Australian Defence Force.

Before I begin I want to acknowledge the traditional owners on whose land we meet tonight, the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation, and to pay my respects to their elders past and present.

The road that has brought me here today has been a fascinating one - one I have found incredibly rewarding. I had been Sex Discrimination Commissioner for three and a half years before I was asked to formally conduct a Review into the Treatment of Women at the Australian Defence Force Academy (ADFA) and in the Australian Defence Force (ADF).  

I knew the task would not be easy. Indeed it felt overwhelming. 

The challenge was to work with the ADF to transform the most hyper masculine culture in Australia – the warrior culture - into a more inclusive culture – one that did not lose the essence of warrior but one in which both men and women served as equal partners. 

Whilst I was very familiar with issues of discrimination, women in leadership, flexible work, sexual abuse and harassment, I was a novice when it came to all things Defence and military.

So in commencing the Review I made it an imperative that my team and I would learn as much about Defence and each of the individual Services as we possibly could.  It seemed to me that we would not be useful unless we did just that.

For the past 2 and half years we have immersed ourselves in all things Defence.

To date, we have visited around 60 military establishments, including the Forward Operating Bases in Afghanistan, we have sailed on warships and in submarines, flown in black hawks and driven in tanks. We have spoken to over 3000 ADF members, analysed reams of documents from the ADF on policies and practices and conducted surveys throughout Defence with thousands of members on issues around leadership, work and family, career progression, discrimination, sexual harassment and sexual abuse.  
Whilst I do not claim to know everything there is to know about ADF culture and micro cultures, I believe that my experience over the last 2 and a half years has placed me in a good position to observe the areas where that culture is positive and effective and the areas where improvements could be made – for individuals and for the ADF as a whole.

Our research has been rigorous and robust. Our findings are based on thorough analysis of quantitative and qualitative data. 

I want to say that the work I have done and continue to do with the ADF has been both a priority and a privilege.

This work has been a priority because the equal treatment of women should be at the core of all Australian workplaces. As one of Australia’s largest employers and an important source of employee training and development, what happens in relation to the ADF matters.

And it has been a privilege to engage with the unique nature of our defence force - to hear, first hand, of the fierce commitment members have to service and their determination to perform at their best for the security and wellbeing of the nation. During the course of my work I have met in the ADF, some of the most impressive people I have ever encountered – men and women across each service, Navy, Army, and Air Force, and across all ranks.

And just last month I participated in the Talisman Sabre exercise, the joint US/Australian military training exercise where I again observed up close the professionalism, diligence and enthusiasm of our Australian forces.

When I first began the Review, I was told by some observers that the leaders within the ADF would be insular and not accommodating to an outsider charged with reviewing their processes and practices.

This could not have been further from the truth. The Chief of the Defence Force, the Vice Chief and each of the Service Chiefs have given my team and me unprecedented access to their bases and their personnel. They have responded to our many requests with expediency and addressed immediate issues of concern that I raised with them swiftly and where appropriate, sensitively.

So, today I want to talk to you about the equal treatment of women in the ADF – why the ADF needs to care about this issue and how cultural change can be achieved. I also want to share with you my experiences with the Senior Leaders of the Defence Force – how they came to see change as critical and what they are now doing to progress change.

As a Human Rights Commissioner I believe that all people should be treated equally, including in their work place. I am sure you all agree with that.

Everyone has the right to be treated with dignity and respect and to be given equal opportunities to develop and advance in their careers.

This message was a relatively easy and clear one to take to the ADF senior leadership.

But there are two other key reasons as to why the Australian community should care about the equal treatment of women in Australia’s military: cost and capability.

I will talk about these 2 issues of cost and capability shortly but first let me give you some compelling statistics from my report:

  • Talent Pool – almost 80% of ADF personnel are men who speak English at home, a group that represents less than 40% of Australia’s population. The ADF has struggled to meet its recruiting targets for the past decade or so.  In some occupations, the ADF has struggled to fill 50% of available roles. 
  • In the last decade there has only be a 1% increase in the proportional representation of women joining the ADF.
  • Women comprise 13.9% of all ADF personnel (17.4% of all officers, and 12.6% of all other ranks).
  • Women make up approximately 18% of Navy, 10% of Army and 17% of Air Force. 
  • Women are under-represented across most areas of the ADF and vastly under-represented in senior leadership positions within the organisation.
  • Women make up less than 5% of star or general ranks, and less than 8% of warrant officers (these are the most senior non-commissioned officers).
  • One in four women and one in ten men experienced sexual harassment in the ADF in the last five years. Sexual harassment and sexual abuse are factors influencing people’s decision to discharge.  

Now let’s look at the question of cost and capability.

My Review found that ADF recruitment costs have tripled from $7000 per enlistment in 2001–2002 to almost $22,000 per enlistment in 2010-2011.

More and more roles that have traditionally been held by women in the ADF have become civilianized. Roles in administration and hospitality for instance have become less of an option for women entering the ADF as they have been contracted out. This has had some impact on the slow growth of women in the ADF, but unquestionably there are still many areas where there are few, if any, women.

The cost of investment in the average member is between $580-680,000, and for those highly qualified and skilled members, up to $2 million. So, unwanted departures are a huge cost for the ADF.  In fact, for 2011, the total cost of turnover for the ADF was estimated at $1.5 billion - up from an indicative figure of $1.1 billion in the previous year.

So it follows that strategies to reduce separation rates and to increase recruitment are critical to the ADF’s cost effectiveness.

But these strategies need to be targeted. They must ensure that members are not required to sacrifice their basic human rights such as their right to family and their right to a work environment free from sexual violence. Women (and men for that matter) will be attracted to a workforce that allows them to balance personal life with opportunities to advance their careers – a workplace that is inclusive - one which recognises their contributions.

And what about capability?  

Capability and operational effectiveness are critical to an effective, contemporary military.  This means that the ADF must use its personnel to build a workforce whose skills match the realities of modern warfare.

With an increasing focus on technology and problem solving, modern military workplaces are complex and evolving. They require new and additional skills and adaptability, rather than a reliance on manual or physical strength.  

Some commentators note this so called “changing battlefield”, observing that intelligence collecting and outreach to local populations, for instance – work where women are essential – will grow in importance, while remote work through technology becomes increasingly possible. i

Without a sustainable workforce strategy, one that embraces 100% of the talent - without a wider range of skills to engage in future theatres of war – cyber warfare, urban warfare, counter insurgency - over time our security forces will become less and less effective.  Today’s defence force demands a range of skills - adaptability, strategic thinking, working in small teams with minimal direction, remote work, intelligence gathering and outreach to local populations.

It requires both men and women.  And this is not just true for Australia but for other nations as well.

This changing mission and workplace are likely to create demand for new skills, strengths and perspectives, a reality which the ADF shares with other workforces.

As we all know and studies confirm - diverse and gender balanced teams perform better, particularly where innovation and problem-solving is important – anticipating risk more accurately, and delivering better outcomes.

The Review found that the low number and seniority of women could impact the ADF’s future capability and operational effectiveness. 

This is what our evidence showed:

  • Women are exiting the ADF at higher rates than men through the recruiting pipeline.
  • Women leave the ADF at particular stages in their careers. Our data showed that these attrition points align with times when women are seeking to establish a family, resulting in their desire for greater workforce flexibility and locational stability.
  • A significant proportion of women who take paid and unpaid maternity and parental leave separate from the ADF within 12 months of taking this leave.
  • The rigid rank and career structure of the ADF means that many women who return from leave reach what is called their “terminal rank ceiling” – they have missed out on a crucial promotional gateway to advance their career and must stay at their rank for the duration of their time in the military or they discharge.
  • And finally, women leave the military because of experiences of sexual harassment, bullying and sexual abuse and because of the unsatisfactory response they may have received from the ADF to these incidents.

These factors were a key part of the case for change which I presented to the Senior Leaders of the ADF. They realised that without an increased representation of women, the future sustainability of the ADF workforce would be compromised. They were eager for proposals for reform. The Chiefs of each service and the CDF have publically stated their commitment to a sustainable workforce strategy to ensure the future operational effectiveness of Australia’s military.

 “Women are essential to the sustainability and operational effectiveness of the ADF because they contribute to a diverse workforce which strengthens the ADF’s ability to be an effective, modern, relevant and high performing organisation”

Before I take you through some of the recently implemented reforms I’d just like to relate to you another important element in making the case for change to the Chiefs.

This had to do with the personal stories of women I spoke to during my visits to ADF bases. On many of these visits I had women approach me and my team to share their experiences which for the vast majority were positive and rewarding. However on occasion I heard deeply distressing stories - personal stories of sexual harassment, bullying and sexual assault. Most of these women had never disclosed these incidents before.

During some very distressing individual interviews it occurred to me that, while it was important for me to document these stories – it was even more important that those who had the power to change the system - powerful men - heard first-hand these personal narratives – so that they would both hear and feel the case for change.

Armed with this intent, and aided by courageous women with compelling stories, I arranged for each of the Chiefs of the Services (Navy, Army and Air Force) to spend time “standing in the shoes” of the most vulnerable – to listen deeply to people recounting their stories of life in the ADF - those for whom service had come at an unacceptable personal cost.

I flew in women from all across Australia, many with their mothers or other close personal support people, so that the Chiefs could hear and feel what extreme exclusion means; to know what it’s like to be on exercise for 2 months when no-one will speak to you because you are a woman; to understand the horrors of being sexually assaulted by your instructor, the very person you go to for advice; to hear what it’s like having to face your perpetrator every day at work even though you reported his assault to your superiors; to learn what it means to have your career ruined and your peers ostracise you because you had the courage to make a complaint. 

I needed the Chiefs, the very men with the power to create systemic change, to listen deeply, to understand and feel a personal commitment.

But would this work?  Military and emotion are not words that many would argue sit easily side by side.

I remember that first face to face session – the Service Chief sitting uncomfortably in his chair – the mother nervously escorting her daughter to the chair beside, a box of tissues in the middle.  Where to begin? And then that courageous young woman saying “Sir, I’m so nervous” and the Chief replying, “Believe me, I’m scared too.” 

In that moment I knew we had a chance at change.  It takes an authentic and compassionate military leader to admit that he fears what he’s about to be told. 

The Chiefs heard the pain of mothers – mothers who had encouraged their daughters into the Service – mothers who had believed fervently that the enemy lay outside the military not within.  As one mother said “I gave you the person I love most in the world and this is how you’ve treated her?”

And at the end to hear the Chief say “If I could stand in your shoes and take away your pain every day, I would choose to do that.  What happened to you should never have happened.  I am so deeply sorry.  I will do everything I can to make sure this never happens again.”

These sessions were the defining moments of the Review. And they made the case for change real and personal.

When my recommendations for reform were released in August last year the Chief of the Defence Force, the Vice Chief and the three Service Chiefs, accepted them all immediately.

Since then they have demonstrated a genuine, steadfast commitment to bring about cultural change in the three services. Army for instance has implemented a targeted strategy for recruiting more women – a try before you buy approach – that is already seeing results with more women signing up. Navy is working on strategies that will allow for greater flexibility for all its members, despite the challenges of sea time. Air Force is implementing temporary special measures for the personnel management of women in non-traditional employment roles. This is a bold but critical step given the often unfounded anxiety that comes with temporary special measures or targets.

Greater attention is now being given to women coming up for promotion, whose maternity leave or part time work would have previously made them an uncompetitive candidate for promotion. 

All services are now also focussing on the supports needed for women in very male dominated areas.  They are working to ensure that whole teams and units, and not just the women themselves, are responsible for the success of these mixed gender strategies.

And the Chiefs also understand the importance of selected targets in a small number of areas – particularly in recruitment. A target or differential treatment not surprisingly, has been among the more controversial proposals I made to the ADF.

But I think one of the most innovative and bold reforms has been the establishment by the ADF of the Sexual Misconduct and Prevention Office or SeMPRO.

SeMPRO was perhaps our most significant recommendation - one immediately taken up by the ADF.

As I indicated earlier, during the Review’s interviews and focus groups  it became apparent to me and my team that victims of sexual assault and sexual misconduct were not reporting incidents and as such, not getting any support. 

The shame associated with being a victim of a sexually related matter, together with the very strong culture of not complaining in the defence force, meant that these victims were often dealing with terrible trauma silently and alone. 

As well as this we found that some who did report incidents were not getting the support they needed and were often re-traumatised by the system.

SeMPRO is designed to remedy these issues.

Launched in July, SeMPRO provides a safe, supportive and if necessary, confidential resource for military personal to disclose sexual misconduct and assault. Its victim-centric approach ensures that those who disclose are provided with the best possible advice and support available.

Critical to SeMPRO is the option for victims to report incidents confidentially or in an unrestricted way. An unrestricted report means that the chain of command is alerted to the incident and an investigation launched. A confidential or restricted report to

SeMPRO means that the chain of command does not need to be notified. The victim, nevertheless will get the support she or he needs. With that support they may then choose to move to an unrestricted report and elect to have an investigation.

SeMPRO is about ensuring what is best for the victim and minimizing the trauma.

It is headed by a one star general – giving it the status that it requires – and it is staffed by experts in trauma and counselling. 

It will empower those who have felt powerless, it will restore resilience and it will give confidence to those who have suffered trauma.

With my Review concluded in late 2012, I am now leading the audit into the implementation of the recommendations I made, as required by the terms of reference. Although it is still early days, progress has certainly been made in Defence across a number of areas.

There is a fierce commitment by all of the senior leaders to progress cultural change. They recognise the critical link between an increase in women’s representation and the future sustainability of the Defence Force – the capability issue. They accept that previous rates of attrition by both women and men cannot be endured in the current fiscal environment – the cost issue. The ADF leadership is committed to creating an environment that is optimal for, and takes full advantage of, the strengths of both men and women. 

This is how the three Chiefs saw it:

Chief of Army

“Army’s culture has tended to exclude women and some ethnic groups who are under-represented in our ranks. This will prove unsustainable with demographic change over the next few decades… Harnessing the full potential of our workforce is a capability issue rather than a diversity issue for me and I want to remove any artificial impediments to the best use of all of our people”. 

Chief of Navy

“Unacceptable behaviour towards women means our capability is degraded and our ability to achieve our mission is compromised”.

Chief of Air Force

“The true measure of an Air Force's capability is not its machines, but its people. People get the most out of the machines, not the other way around. If we are to maximise our current and future capabilities ….…we [must] have a diverse, competent and sustainable workforce that has an inclusive and safe work environment”.

But the enduring challenge is to ensure that the ADF’s commitment to cultural change is understood and accepted by all members within the organisation, most importantly by those at the mid ranking level. Those members at mid ranking level – at the sergeant and major levels - are the keepers of the culture. They have a direct influence on those they lead now and in the future. Their leadership and conduct shapes the attitudes and behaviours of others around them. The message for change must be carried far and wide.  It cannot be left to women alone. It requires men to get on board, to take action and to encourage their peers to do likewise.

Continuing the path of cultural reform will allow the ADF to enjoy a strong and sustainable future and secure a position as a first class, high performing organisation - an organisation which enables all its members to thrive.

i M Sheehan, The changing character of war (2007); S McLeod, ‘Robots are changing the face of war: analyst’, ABC News, 28 September 2010. At… (viewed 26 June 2012).
Elizabeth Broderick, Sex Discrimination Commissioner