Final barrier for women in Defence?


With a stroke of the Governor General’s pen, the end of legal gender-based role restrictions on women in the Australian Defence Force will soon be official.

Capping a seven-year effort to end gender restrictions in Defence, an omnibus bill passed both houses of parliament last week that included removing the existing Defence exemption in the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth).

In what the government is describing as an important moment of women’s workforce participation in the ADF, Australia will also withdraw its reservation on women serving in combat positions from the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women.

These may seem arcane technicalities — policy restrictions on employment categories were fully lifted in 2014 and restrictions on combat roles were lifted in 2016. However, the legal right to discriminate in the SDA allowed an ever-present threat that a future government could reinstate the ban without a parliamentary vote.

In September last year, the Defence opened the door to seeking a blanket exemption from the SDA in a statement to News Corp newspapers over the enrolment of two non-binary gender cadets at the Australian Defence Force Academy. The Mandarin understands no final decision has yet been made and the discussions are ongoing.

Bill sparked heated parliamentary debate

Ex-military MPs and senators have been split on ending the final gender barriers, mirroring the conversations still taking place inside the ADF.

Liberal Senator Linda Reynolds, the only female veteran in parliament, has been a strong supporter: “Yes, men and women are different, but hallelujah for that!” she told the Senate during the bill’s debate.

“We do things just as well because we’re women … not in spite of the fact that we are women”

“Throughout all of my career I’ve had to fight to show—as, I’m sure, has every woman in [politics]—that difference is not less; to demonstrate the fact that as women we can do things just as well as any man. We do things just as well because we’re women … not in spite of the fact that we are women.”

Reynolds said the qualities needed in the ADF are courage, loyalty, team work and leadership. “And all of those qualities are equally held by women as they are by men.”

Her colleagues, fellow former Army officers Senator Jim Molan and Andrew Hastie had expressed personal scepticism that women could be effective in close-combat roles. Molan later voted with the government, while in the lower house no division was called so Hastie’s vote was not recorded. Only three cross-bench Senators voted against the change: Fraser Anning, Cory Bernardi and David Leyonhjelm.

More women, but APS still leads

There are yet other ceilings to be cracked, other milestones to be achieved for women in Defence.

The department’s latest annual report shows Defence is making progress on its targets for female employment. By 2023, Defence is aiming for 25% in the Navy, 15% in the Army and 25% in the Air Force.

Currently women represent 17.9% of the permanent ADF:

  • 21.2% in the Navy,
  • 14.3% in the Army, and
  • 22.4% in the Air Force

Under the Defence Strategic Workforce Plan, women have risen to 30% of enlistments and, combined with retention efforts, this has resulted in 652 more women serving in the permanent ADF than 12 months earlier.

Public servants in Defence are now referred to as the fourth service of the portfolio following the ‘One Defence’ internal restructure, and it leads in workforce gender balance. In the latest annual report, Department of Defence secretary Greg Moriarty says the number of women in the APS increased from 41.8% to 42.4%, while the number of women in Executive Level positions increased by 266 from 7698 to 7964. At the Senior Executive Service (and equivalent), the number of women increased by four from 44 to 48.

The most senior woman in Defence is from the public service: Rebecca Skinner was officially appointed Associate Secretary last month. The next most senior woman is also public service: Justine Greig, Deputy Secretary Defence People.

There are 21 women across all uniform ‘star ranks’, around 15% of the 189 positions in total. No ADF women have yet reached the three-star ranks that head services, joint operations or the Vice-Chief of the Defence Force’s group (the notional APS counterpart would be a deputy secretary). In the 2017-18 period, three serving women held two-star rank:

  • Major General Simone Wilkie, Commander Australian Defence College (until January this year);
  • Air Vice Marshal Tracy Smart, Commander Joint Health and Surgeon General of the Australian Defence Force; and
  • Air Vice Marshal Cath Roberts, Head Aerospace Systems Division.

The number of women on Defence boards increased by 5.6% over the last year to 45.8%.

It’s not just combat that Defence sees women having a greater role. Women have also been deployed as leaders of peace and security measures, as well as the first ever gender advisor to the global coalition against Daesh.

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