Defence gets serious on gender equality

In the past 15 years Jennifer Wittwer has seen ground-breaking change toward women's equality in the Australian military

Conflicts around the world take a toll on local populations, particularly women and children, undermining regional and global stability. There is growing recognition that government decision-making, diplomatic efforts or military responses have too often excluded the participation and contribution of women in preventing and resolving these conflicts.

Women are all too often viewed solely as victims and not as leaders or agents of change.

Culturally, historically and traditionally, armed forces involved in conflict are portrayed as male warriors. Men stormed the beaches of Gallipoli and Dunkirk, were gassed in the Somme, patrolled the jungles of Vietnam, and fought and died in Afghanistan. 

A coffee table book published last year documents the contribution Australian troops made in combat and reconstruction in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, the book featured only one photograph of an Australian military woman. This is despite the fact that during that conflict, women commanded multi-national bases, signal squadrons, rotary wing groups, logistics units, had tactical command and control of the airspace, and acted as most senior national commander of Australian Defence Force (ADF) support elements and embedded ADF personnel. In other operations women have commanded major war ships, combat support services, intelligence detachments, and signals squadrons.

Women are all too often viewed solely as victims



The purpose and intent of the book is commendable, but it misrepresents and marginalises the important role of military women in peace and security efforts. It perpetuates the myth that only men serve in conflict while symbolising the ongoing challenges we face in achieving gender equality in armed forces. This raises an important question: is the “system” therefore failing women?

On the face of it, one might think that gender equality and women’s rights have no place in the often brutal, hyper-masculine world of the battlefield or even military peace operations. Indeed, stories of sexual abuse and misconduct towards women in the Australian Defence Force (ADF) colours that perception. But as one of the 15.3 per cent of women in the ADF who have traversed the gender minefield of military service, I would argue that the “system” has changed over recent years as we have made positive changes to encourage a military that values gender equality.

Consider the message of gender equality championed by the recently retired chief of army, Lieutenant General David Morrison, for instance. At the 2014 Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Britain, Morrison labelled gender inequality in militaries a “global disgrace” and stated that armies that “value the male over the female … do nothing to distinguish the soldier from the brute”. He also said “an end to sexual violence in conflict cannot be achieved without fundamental reforms to how armies recruit, retain and employ women, and how they realise the improved military capability that is accrued through more effective gender and ethnic diversity.”

This focus on the importance of gender in peace operations and military affairs has been recognised through a number of United Nations Security Council resolutions on women, peace and security. Resolution 1325, adopted in 2000, was the first resolution to focus exclusively on women in armed conflict and recognise the link between women’s experience in armed conflicts, and maintaining levels of peace and security internationally. This and a further seven resolutions have created an international framework to implement a gender perspective in the conduct of peace operations. The resolutions aim to ensure the full and equal participation of women in conflict and in international peace and security efforts.

To successfully realise and embrace the ideals of resolution 1325 and related resolutions as well as international commitments, agreements and conventions on gender equality, we must ensure our own house is in order. That means we must ensure we take action to achieve greater equality, better representation of women, and improved access to education and training. As a veteran of close to 35 years in the ADF, I have seen far greater effort by the “system” to ensure full gender equality for women since 2000, than in my previous 19 years of service.

One way to counter systemic failures in armed forces is to address the low participation rates of women – an issue many militaries around the world are addressing right now. If we work to increase the participation of women in all aspects of conflict prevention, management and resolution; if we provide role models for women in non-traditional areas; if we promote gender equality through access to recruitment, promotion, career opportunities and senior leadership; more women will come.

In the ADF, significant effort has been, and is being, focused on increasing the recruitment of women. This is being achieved through implementation of the 2012 Review into the Treatment of Women in the Australian Defence Force, including specific recruitment campaigns, improving participation rates through enhanced career management, and special temporary measures and improved promotion pathways.

Significant effort has been focused on increasing the recruitment of women

The significant increase in the participation rate of women in the ADF from 13.8 per cent in 2012 to 15.3 per cent in 2015 overshadows the marginal participation increase of 1 per cent over the preceding 10-year period. In addition, the ADF has created targets for female participation by 2025 ranging from 15 per cent for army (currently at 12 per cent) to 25 per cent for navy and air force (currently at 18.9 per cent and 18.6 per cent respectively). Significantly, our participation rates for women deployed to operations overseas are commensurate with this overall participation rate.

There are no legal prohibitions on women serving in the ADF since the remaining gender restrictions on combat roles were removed by the government in 2011. A phased recruitment approach to traditionally male roles such as infantry and armoured corps, special forces, navy divers and air defence guards, has seen some women transfer from existing employment categories. From January 2016, new female recruits will be able to apply for entry to these roles. 

It doesn’t matter that only a handful of women have chosen to pursue the combat roles thus far; these changes are about ensuring equal access to all military roles by both men and women. By opening these roles to everyone, we can potentially increase the proportion of women’s participation in peace and security efforts and maximise the benefit this brings to operational effectiveness.

By doing so we are striving to achieve a gender equality that will make a difference in peace and security.

Originally produced by Guardian Australia Brand Partnerships to a brief agreed with and paid for by ANZ.




November 2015