Women in the ADF

Historically, the role of women in the military has been a polemic issue, despite the significant contribution and sacrifice women have made in numerous conflicts. In Australia, the process over time of integrating women into what are considered ‘non-traditional’ military roles is explored in a 2015 Parliamentary Library Summer Research Scholarship paper Women in the ADF: six decades of policy change (1950 to 2011). This research paper highlights the changes to defence policy over the last 60 years that have allowed women to pursue military careers and discusses how policies towards women in the civilian workforce have influenced change for women in the armed forces. In the post-World War II era, women served in auxiliary services in ‘traditional’ roles such as nursing, clerks, typists and cooks. Fast forward to the present where women command major combatant ships and land-based operations, and pilot military aircraft.

The evolution of cultural change in the Australian Defence Force (ADF) eventually led to the 2011 decision to remove restrictions on the employment of women in combat roles.  More recently, the appointment in September 2015 of Australia’s first female Defence Minister, Senator Marise Payne, boosts the ADF’s cultural evolution as the opportunities for women in the military gradually become mainstream. However, as the paper emphasises, controversy tends to ensue every time more opportunities are made available for women to serve in the military. Permitting women into combat roles was certainly no different. With each policy shift a certain level of cultural change within the organisation has been needed. The current changes to employment opportunities are being managed via an implementation plan (June 2012).

The implementation process is being measured through regular reporting mechanisms such as the Women in the ADF reports that accompany Defence Annual Reports. The first Women in the ADF report released in 2012–13 showed that women represented 14.4 per cent of the permanent workforce (8,086 women and 48,086 men). The second report (2013–14) indicated that number had risen to 15 per cent (8,568 women and 48,468 men). By 30 June 2015, women made up 15.3 per cent (8,806 women and 48,598 men) of permanent ADF personnel.

The categories in which women are employed have varied over the past six decades, although, according to the latest Women in the ADF (2014–15) report, the health sector remains the largest occupational group. The proportion of women in non-traditional work categories such as combat and security; engineering, technical and construction; and aviation is, in most cases, below 15 per cent. The number of women on key decision making bodies has experienced very little growth since 2013–14: from 13.9 to 14.5 per cent. The slowly increasing percentage of women serving in the ADF is probably due to both internal (e.g. more flexible work arrangements) and external factors (e.g. civilian workforce pressures).

It is too soon to tell whether lifting restrictions on women serving in combat roles is likely to have any impact on workforce numbers. In June 2014, the Chief of the Defence Force General David Hurley, advised a Senate Committee that 66 women had applied for ‘front-line’ roles since in-service transfers commenced in January 2013. Of these, 63 were undergoing training or were already performing in those roles: 48 of whom had transferred from Reserves and 15 of whom were permanent ADF members. Direct entry applications will be available in January 2016.

The recent Defence White Paper community consultation process considered public perceptions about the ADF and the report noted that the ‘long-term benefits for defence capability’ included recruiting and retaining women in the ADF. The report also cited the ongoing need to eliminate ‘sex discrimination, sexual harassment and sexual abuse in the ADF’ to encourage greater recruitment and retention of women.

These and many other related issues were discussed at the June 2015 NATO conference on the integration of women into the armed forces. The Australian model for creating a more diverse military was recognised as a ‘case study for best practice’. In his keynote address at the NATO conference, former Chief of the Australian Army Lieutenant General David Morrison (Rtd) emphasised the important contribution women make to operational capability:

Peace and security applies equally to men and women the world over, and it is absolutely inescapable that military organisations work better, more efficiently, and are more capable if they use all of the talent that is on offer in 100 per cent of the world’s population. And yet, almost every army in the world is making abject use of the talent that rests within 51 per cent of the population—women.

The conference looked at the findings and recommendations of the June 2015 report, UNSCR 1325 Reload, which examined gender perspectives on military recruitment, retention and operations (UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security was adopted in October 2000). Out of 28 NATO countries, seven restrict the employment of women in combat and submarines.

For the first time, the recent Japan-Australia 2+2 Ministers meeting joint communiqué included a paragraph reaffirming both countries’ commitment to UNSCR 1325, and the combined Australia-US military exercise Talisman Sabre (TS15) included a women, peace and security component in the 2015 exercise. As Wing Commander Louise DesJardins (TS15 Gender Advisor) commented, we ‘need to ensure that the women, peace and security perspective eventually becomes business as usual in all our peace and security activities.’


Flagpost is a blog on current issues of interest to members of the Australian Parliament

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