The Australian army needs more women, said Lieutenant General David Morrison, chief of the Australian army, in a Wheeler Centre event last week. He’s committed himself to increasing the quota of women from 10% to 12% during his term – which means hiring an extra 600 women over the next two years.
‘We’ll have to change the way we recognise merit, have flexible workforce arrangements and a whole range of other initiatives to say to Australian women, We’ve got a job for you.’
It’s a sensitive time for the army, with a damning report finding a systemic culture of sexual abuse of boys in the forces, from the 1950s to as late as the 1980s. The report also found that adult men and women had suffered ‘horrific’ abuse, continuing to the 21st century.
Over 1000 people had come forward with allegations following last year’s Skype sex scandal, where a female cadet was filmed having consensual sex without her knowledge, and the video distributed among her colleagues. The report deemed 775 to be ‘plausible allegations’ requiring further investigation. Defence minister Stephen Smith is considering a Royal Commission.
Sally Warhaft, host of the event, said it was ‘an interesting time’ to be encouraging more women to join the armed forces, in the context of the sexual abuse allegations. The report deemed women particularly vulnerable.
Lieutenant General Morrison said that having more women in the forces is part of the solution – more women means more chance of a woman standing up and pointing out unacceptable behaviour. The other thing that needs to happen, he said, is that the defence force needs to be more responsive to people coming forward and reporting abuse.
‘I think in the past we have been either slow to react or not as supportive of those individuals as we should have been and that is most unfortunate.’
‘I’m quite certain there are cultural issues within the Australian Army that must be addressed,’ said Lieutenant General Morrison.
‘If you create myths and eulogise your past, there is a section of your organisation who can then take all the wrong lessons from that. They can believe that the reasons we were successful in various situations and battles in our past is that we were tougher than anyone else. And that “tough” means we’ve got to exclude anyone we – or this small clique – consider weak or unacceptable.’
He said that not only does the army need to employ more women, but it also needs to have a more diverse ethnic workforce, better reflecting the Australian population.
This week, it was announced that combat roles in the defence force will be opened up to women from next year, speeding up what was to be a five-year process of transition. Starting in 2013, women already in the military will be able to apply for all jobs previously closed to them, including infantry and special forces. There is no timeline yet on when these jobs will be open to women from the general population.
Australia will join Canada, Israel and New Zealand. in allowing women to serve in all military roles.
Lieutenant General Morrison was enthusiastic about the idea of employing women for any role they wished to take in the army, including combat.
‘There is no gender impediment in terms of pulling a trigger, in terms of taking a life: delivering sanctioned legal violence,’ he told the Fifth Estate audience. ‘I think debate around that, honestly, is meaningless. Women will perform as they are required to should they be placed in that position.’
Greg Sheridan, foreign editor of the Australian, argued against the idea of women in combat roles. ‘There’s an argument modern ideology has with reality where reality is always going to win,’ he said.
‘Just as recently as when I was an undergraduate in the 1970s, mainstream feminism position was that women were inherently less violent than men … The world would be better if run by women, the feminist argument went, because they were gentler. I agree with that.’
Lieutenant General Morrison respectfully disagreed.
‘When I first joined the army in 1979, the thought of serving with openly gay and lesbian servicepeople in your armed forces was an anathema,’ he said. ‘It was to be pushed aside. It wasn’t don’t ask don’t tell, it was don’t tell. Even if we ask, don’t tell. And that’s quite different now.’
‘It would be illogical to say that a member of the gay or lesbian community couldn’t do everything required of them as a member of the defence force, because they already are. It’s the same with women.’
‘This will take time,’ he concluded.
The full podcast for this session of The Fifth Estate is available for download here.
The Fifth Estate is a fortnightly series of forums on news and current affairs, hosted by Sally Warhaft. Watch our website for details.
The next Fifth Estate, Insider Insights with Maxine McKew, will be held next Tuesday 25 june at 6.15pm.
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