‘Bastion of white men': Anzacs haunt Defence in culture reform


EXCLUSIVE: An independent report into the Department of Defence’s culture has found language has contributed to reinforcing and maintaining its homogenous “white male” make-up.

Dr Elizabeth Thomson

Dr Elizabeth Thomson

Exclusive language and idealised Anzac imagery promoted in the Department of Defence has contributed to the “bastion of white men” culture that hampers its public rehabilitation efforts, an independent report commissioned by the department and obtained by The Mandarin has found.

Following a series of damaging revelations in the media about institutionally condoned sexual harassment and treatment of women and other minorities in Defence, the department commissioned Dr Elizabeth Thomson — then an academic with the Defence Force School of Languages — to investigate the contributing sociolinguistic factors as it embarks on a project of cultural change towards heterogeneity.

Thomson’s Battling with Words report, due to be released next month, outlines the distinct workplace cultural traits of all four services — Navy, Army, Air Force and civilian public servants — that fostered an “us versus them” mentality and excluded anyone who doesn’t look, speak and act like those already heavily represented in the services. The report states:

“Implicit within the language practices of Defence are mechanisms that thwart diversity and greater social inclusion. Unless the language practices of the institution change in concert with other policy changes, sustainable cultural change is unlikely to result.”

Formal, officially endorsed language of leadership has constructed exclusive, ideal attributes and heroic identities around which personnel are expected to rally and bond. Each service heralds specific values, favouring those most critical for its mission: “honesty” for Navy, “courage” for Army, “capability” for Air Force, and “honesty and capability” for the APS. However, Thomson identified that public expression of values was primarily those of “the Anglo-Australian male soldier, renown for acts of courage in battle … is iconised as the ideal identity in the organisation”.

This officially promoted image has become normalised and excludes other roles, other kinds of people (women, first Australians, new Australians), other services (Navy, Air Force, APS) and other values: agility, accountability, commitment to service, dedication, ethical behaviour, excellence, honesty, honour, impartiality, initiative, innovation, integrity, loyalty, professionalism, respect and teamwork. Even the grammar and vocabulary used in the expression of values statements highlight exclusion rather than inclusion, Thomson says, with some dictating behaviours and others prescribing the identity to “be”.

“… diversity allows the organisation to mirror the community that it does business with, domestically and internationally.”

Defence needs to re-think its branding approach to one that can allow for promotion of a greater range of heroes and heroines from diverse backgrounds and roles in the organisation, Thomson says in the report seen by The Mandarin ahead of its official release. Senior leadership should call for and sponsor an organisation-wide discovery of “unsung heroes” and partner with the Australian War Memorial to include heroic figures from diverse backgrounds in permanent displays.

The status quo is not desirable or sustainable, Thomson warns, as the Defence demographic make-up no longer reflects the community it serves and risks undermining the population’s confidence in it.

Australian Bureau of Statistics figures have third-generation-plus Australians making up 53% of the population, compared to 86% in Defence. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people make up 1.4% of Defence, but 2.5% of Australia’s population.

Women account for 14% of the uniformed ADF, and 40.56% of the APS section of Defence. The Review of Employment Pathways for APS Women in Defence report found that women were under-represented in Defence compared to the APS overall (57.7%).

Further, Defence has recognised that this diversity gap is also a capability issue, which is to say “a force multiplier for mission success” as defined in the department’s Pathway to Change strategy. In addition to recruitment and retention advantages, Defence has begun to see organisation value in cultural diversity for its ability to “better adapt to change and to innovate”, especially as its core business shifts globally. Thomson’s report states:

“The challenge posed by this under-representation is well understood by Defence, with the Diversity and Inclusion Strategy targeting the following groups for priority attention — women, indigenous Australians, people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds (CALD), people with disabilities, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LBGTI) people, the mature-age and youth.

“Being seen to include the multicultural dimension of Australian society positions Defence as a good corporate citizen, enjoying the trust and confidence of the Australian public. It also has a commercial dimension in that diversity allows the organisation to mirror the community that it does business with, domestically and internationally.”

‘A few bad apples’

Defence has been dealing with allegations of historical and recent sexual abuse on a number of fronts. Earlier this month, Air Commodore Henrik Ehlers, director-general, cultural reviews response, told a Senate committee inquiry that there had been significant progress in misconduct prevention through the Sexual Misconduct, Prevention and Response Office. Gone is the language about “a few bad apples”, espoused even recently by prominent former ADF leaders.

Thomson takes aim at the old approach, but sees Defence now taking seriously that language and culture can create an “institutionally condoned” cover for such behaviour:

“Having a sense of how language operates provides a counter-argument for the commonly held view that unacceptable behaviour in Defence is due to ‘a few bad apples’. Unacceptable behaviour is not about a few individuals; rather, it is about institutionally-condoned cultural practices that individuals enact.”

Thomson spent 12 months on the study, including observing life on HMAS Success, which was the centre of the “cash for sex” ledger scandal. Defence does professionalism well, she says, but is taken aback by the unnerving directness and cliquishness from those same people:

“Coming from the university sector that is typically multicultural, multilingual and multinational, I was surprised to find that the organisation was also homogeneous. Defence felt like a bastion of white men. It struck me very early on that I was different and that it was going to be up to me to find my place in this organisation, to understand how it worked and how ‘others’ could fit in.”

Battling With Words is due to be released next month. The Mandarin will publish a link to the full report once it is launched.