Removing gender restrictions on combat roles has not solved the issue of low recruitment and retention levels of women in the Australian defence force, or incidents of harassment, according to new research.
Since September 2011, women have been able to apply to work in any positions in the ADF, including combat roles.
Dr Megan MacKenzie of the University of Sydney has investigated women and combat in Australia and other countries, and is the author of Beyond the Band of Brothers: the US Military and the Myth that Women Can’t Fight.
Women make up 14% of the ADF – a number that has fluctuated very little over the last decade, MacKenzie said. They are also underrepresented in senior positions, just 6% of “star ranks” and 8% of warrant officers.
MacKenzie said the ADF had more than doubled its spending on recruitment to around $140m in 2011, with one of its key objectives being the recruitment of more women. It predicated a generational shift as recruitment ads from the past five years began including women.
In the past school girls only saw themselves working on planes as flight attendants, but were now being invited by the Australian airforce to use flight simulators, she said.
Women were also more likely to leave the services than men, with the ADF acknowledging retention of women was affected by factors such as lack of flexible and part-time work options, lack of locational stability, harassment and lack of mentoring and support for women.
“Just opening the door doesn’t solve some of these broader gender issues,” MacKenzie said, though she added it was an important first step. “If the ADF want to tackle those issues, there has to be separate strategies.”
One in four women and one in ten men experienced sexual harassment in the ADF in the five years preceding 2012. An internal survey concluded that around three quarters of respondents who had experienced unacceptable behaviour of a sexual nature did not make a complaint or report.
MacKenzie expected a shift in data after the establishment of a sexual misconduct prevention and response office in 2013, and said it remained too early to draw out any trends. Reporting was a vital component of building a bigger picture around the “spectrum” of sexual harassment, from “low level” such as verbal comments, to physical sexual assault.
The ADF was dominated by a “particularly masculine culture” with a strong emphasis on mateship, MacKenzie said. “The thing about not dobbing on your mates is that it can be unhealthy when it comes to sexual harassment”, with not reporting harassment seen as men “condoning” the behaviour.
She named leadership as key to cultural change, particularly in a highly hierarchical organisation such as the military. Members otherwise reluctant to change get on board because they have been ordered to.
“There’s nothing more powerful than someone at the top of a chain of commands, expressing a very strong message about what will and won’t be tolerated,” she said.
In 2013 the former chief of army Lieutenant General David Morrison, who retired in May, posted a strongly worded video message, responding to an ADF scandal in which a male cadet broadcast a video of consensual sex with a female cadet.
He condemned sexism in the force and said: “If you become aware of any individual degrading another, then show moral courage and take a stand against it … the standard you walk past, is the standard you accept.”
MacKenzie said the video, which has had over 1.6m views, made waves in military circles around the world and showed to the world the ADF was “no longer an institution that protects its own unacceptable behaviours”.
She added it was vital military institutions employ a zero tolerance approach to harassment and see that play out in prosecutions.
Three years of comprehensive reporting by sex discrimination commissioner Elizabeth Broderick were also a turning point in how the ADF “thinks and reacts to gender”. It brought to the organisation concrete data and evidence from which policy changes could be based and left them with “no more excuses”.
A 2014 review into the treatment of women in the ADF also noted services “must be vigilant against a backlash directed at women as a result of the cultural change process”. Reform was being seen by some as giving women “special treatment”, as leading to a “lowering of standards” and of “undermining merit” in the promotion process.
Awareness around the relationship between reform and operational effectiveness must be enhanced, the report stated.
MacKenzie said Australia had paid close attention to neighbouring New Zealand, where the first women to enter combat roles were “splashed across the news” and as a result faced harassment and teasing from peers. “Like it or not, the defence force isn’t ready to celebrate women in that way,” she said.
“The ADF recognised that and tried to integrate women slowly and quietly. They will probably celebrate their achievements once there is a critical mass, which is probably a sensible strategy.”