Gender Dependent Behavior and Anti-Female Cultures within the Australian Defence Force
The Australian public has seen a rise in the number of females joining the Australian Defence Force (ADF) within the past decade. In 2008, women represented 10 per cent of the Australian military. In 2018, the percentage of women employed by The Australian Defence Force was recorded at 17 per cent.
Due to the rise in female involvement within the ADF, public concerns regarding gender equality in the military have escalated. Media coverage of gender-related scandals occurring in the ADF gives weight to the gender inequality accusations and concerns.
One of the most publicly broadcast defence scandals in the past decade was the secret filming of a young female cadet officer at the Australian Defence Force Academy (ADFA) in 2011. A female cadet officer, known only as Kate, allegedly agreed to a casual sexual encounter with peer cadet, Daniel MacDonald. Kate was unaware of the fact that MacDonald was recording their sexual encounter live via Skype which was being broadcast to a group of ADFA male cadets.
Kate approached the Australian media in April 2011 with the hopes to seek justice and equality for women in the armed forces. Days after sharing her story with the nation, Kate stated, “Other people started coming forward with their stories. This is a lot bigger than just me!”
The 2011 ADFA sex scandal sparked a review conducted by the Sex Discrimination Commissioner. It was recommended to increase gender targets and harshen punishments for leaders who fail to crack down on abuse and sexual harassment.
In 2012, Kate stated in an interview with the Sunday Morning Herald, “Considering the current culture within the Defence, I think we still have a really long way to go before I would feel confident in being able to say, ‘Yes, it’s a good career choice for females.”
Seven years later, there is undeniable evidence that the ADF is implementing strategies to reduce gender dependant treatment, promote equality and diminish sexual abuse and/or harassment.
Policy on Equity and Diversity is one such strategy the ADF has administered in order to maintain gender equality. Every ADF member is required to familiarise and understand the policy on equity and diversity and uphold appropriate behaviours accordingly. The ADF additionally implemented strict fraternisation rules within all military training establishments. The Department of Defence states, ‘The ADF is committed to providing an environment free from discrimination, harassment, sexual offences and other unacceptable sexual behaviour’.
The ban on all trainee fraternisation is enforced to reduce sexual assaults and maintain an environment free from harassment and discrimination. The ‘no frat’ rule further protects members’ capabilities as sexual relationships can affect an individual’s performance in the workplace, lower morale and undermine the operational capability of a unit.
Based on recent trends, the participation of females within the ADF has increased by almost four per cent in the past twelve months. The consistent increase of female defence members allows for the assumption that the strategies which have been applied since the 2011 ADFA sex scandal are positive and constructive. Gender dependant treatment within the ADF has seen a recent considerable improvement, however, gender inequality still lingers.
Luke Graham, a reporter for Quillette recently highlighted the remains of toxic masculinity within the ADF. Despite repeated attempts by senior military officers to employ gender equality, ongoing investigations of officers and non-commissioned officers (NCO) have exposed ‘anti-female behaviours. Such behaviours have brought the ADF nothing but disrepute and have let down the Australian public. Furthermore, the conduction of these behaviours has disrespected those whose past service won the respect of the Australian nation.
After conducting an interview with a female Royal Australian Airforce (RAAF) member, indications of toxic masculinity within the ADF are verified. This member expressed concerns about the constant sexualisation of women, particularly by higher-ranking defence members.
Throughout the interview, member F1 revealed two occasions where she was singled out based on her gender. Member F1 attended a renowned military exercise, Talisman Sabre in 2017. Member F1 was performing a hamstring stretch after finishing a personal fitness session. She was abruptly approached by her male chain of command and was spoken firmly with regarding the length of her gym shorts which he deemed inappropriate.
“I was wearing an average length pair of running shorts, the ones with built-in underwear. Most people wouldn’t think that what I was wearing was inappropriate however my chain of command implied that they were provocative, especially when exercising certain stretches.”
This automated sexualisation of women which is prominent within the defence force is driving a wedge between male and female members, thus resulting in a discriminative culture. Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Elizabeth Broderick states that “ADF women strongly believe that when they are singled out it makes it harder for them to fit in.” Member F1 expressed similar beliefs.
“When I was on deployment, there were only a handful of other females. I was spending a lot of time with the males in my unit. There was a group of us that would sit and eat lunch together in the cafeteria on a daily basis. Only a few weeks into my deployment I was confronted by my chain of command and was requested to speak with my commanding officer. When I saw my CO, I was told that I was spending too much time with male colleagues and that my behaviours were regarded as inappropriate and borderline promiscuous,” she stated.
Member F1 continued to articulate the psychological implications these allegations had on her. “I shut down completely. I wasn’t doing anything wrong, just spending time with the people I worked with in publicly open spaces. It wasn’t like I was going behind closed doors with a number of male members.”
These behavioural accusations caused member F1 significant psychological impairment, lowering her morale and work capability.
“A few weeks after my initial conversation with the CO, I was called in again. He expressed concerns for my wellbeing as my social withdrawals and general demeanour were noticeable.
”I felt as if I was in backed into a corner. I was accused of being inappropriate when I was spending time with my workmates then I was being criticized for lack of social interaction.”
Member F1’s deployment experience reiterates the statement made by Elizabeth Broderick, “ADF women strongly believe that when they are singled out it makes it harder for them to fit in. Highly resistant to any initiative being directed solely at them, ADF women view identical – not differential – treatment as the path to delivering equality.”
Elizabeth Broderick stated in an interview with reporter Luke Graham that, “Motivations behind ADF women striving for identical treatment to their male counterparts is to avoid the backlash that inevitably trails unidentical treatment perceived as ‘preferential’."
Despite identical treatment of both men and women within the ADF being preferred, it is not practised. With the Department of Defence’s 2023 target of increasing female participation by 25 per cent for the Navy and Airforce and 15 per cent for the Army, we are seeing an increase in preferential treatment of women.
Defence Force Recruitment has employed female-only incentives in order to achieve the 2023 quota. Such incentives include the choice of where to work, when to enlist, shorter initial periods of service and the creation of preparation courses. Defence recruiting has gone as far as closing combat roles to male candidates in order to ‘fast track’ female participation. These recruiting strategies are employing gender-related issues for current serving members.
My own experience within the Defence Force is evidence that certain strategies which are employed to maintain gender equality are having the opposite effect. On the 7th of January 2018, I enlisted into the Australian Army to serve in the armoured cavalry corp. The time between my initial recruitment appointment and the day which I was offered a position within the Army was a mere six weeks. Unbeknown to me this was an incredibly rapid employment process. Throughout my time at recruits and initial employment training, I learnt that the majority of my male counterparts had been waiting upwards of 16 months for an available position.
This development caused noticeable gender dependant treatment, specifically at the school of armoured in Puckapunyal. The majority of the corporals at SOARMD viewed females as less capable and implied that females in the corps were a liability. This impression of females within the corps instigated the need for me to prove myself as a soldier regardless of my high achievements during recruits. To be categorised as unworthy due to my gender, despite consistently passing all-male fitness standards, felt like a huge slap in the face.
Cumulative comments from higher ranks reiterated the anti-female culture which existed within SOARMD.
“I used to love my job, going outfield, but you females have taken all the fun out of it. We used to hang off the turrets with our pants down and take a shit in the middle of a field. Now we can’t do anything like that. We used to say whatever the fuck we wanted to, but no, now we have to be ‘careful’ so we don’t offend any of you” (SOMARD CPL, Australian Army, 2018).
This loosely paraphrased comment was voiced by a school of armoured corporal to a small group of trainees, myself included. I was the only female in the room. The discussion continued and my level of comfortability diminished. Being a female in a unit that held such strong ‘anti-female beliefs certainly lowered my morale and general wellbeing. The directives to prioritise female candidates over males and close off specific jobs to males entirely is fuelling ‘anti-female cultures within the Army and other Defence services.
In 2018 a female member from the Australian Army reported that just six months into her ADF employment there was a serious sex scandal within her unit.
“A group of trainees went out one weekend when an alleged rape occurred. The female trainee returned to base and confided in another trainee who reported the incident to our CO. The female trainee was sent to the hospital and underwent both psychological and physical medical assessments. The male was spoken with briefly on the Monday and was not contacted again for the remainder of the week. The female trainee spoke with police on multiple occasions, I am unsure of whether they spoke with the male trainee involved. A few weeks after the initial allegations, the female trainee was relocated. The conclusion was that the sexual intercourse was in fact consensual and that both trainees were under the influence of alcohol. The female trainee was in a heightened emotional state due to the troubles she was having in her marriage. We weren’t meant to know anything. I was only aware of all of this as I was friends with a trainee who was caught up in the debacle.”
Member F2 expressed feelings of resentment towards the ADF after the incident.
“There was nothing positive about the way the whole thing was handled. We were instructed not to discuss the situation. The female trainee was immediately isolated. The male trainee remained in his room in close proximity to other female trainees. The unit could have handled the situation a lot better. I understand that it’s a delicate situation but the response of the unit did not coincide with gender-equal treatment.”
“I believe there is a subconscious sexist culture within the ADF, what truly goes on inside of the defence force is not reported on,” stated a male RAAF member in his fourth year of service. After conducting an interview with member M1, preferential treatment is a trending commonality that has been deeply embedded within the ADF.
Member M1 specified, “When deployed overseas, female employees were allocated single rooms however male employees were assigned large share rooms.”
Such treatment deprives Defence culture of maintaining gender equality as it unconsciously encourages resentment between male and female service members.
“Women are spoken to differently in terms of discipline. Discipline and punishments for servicewomen who step out of line are noticeably ‘softer’ in comparison to the discipline and punishments servicemen receive.”
This treatment indifference may seem insignificant however it continues to support the maintenance of gender inequality and preserves the divide between men and women.
Member M1 further stated, “Females appear to be promoting a lot faster than males. It also seems as if they are favoured for exercises, deployments and courses.”
A current serving female from the Australian army spoke with me regarding gender dependant behaviours within her unit. Member F3 said that “In hopes to maintain/improve gender equality the army has really been focusing on ‘females in the army’, but to be honest I just feel as if they are putting an unnecessary spotlight on females in the army.”
Thus, barring further weight to Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick’s statement that “ADF women strongly believe that when they are singled out it makes it harder for them to fit in.”
A RAAF junior non-commissioned officer (JNCO) reported his frustrations about recent preferential treatment and gender dependant behaviours.
“There have been changes made within my mustering regarding members’ fitness standards. We originally had specialised fitness assessments and standards that were considerably harder than the rest of the Airforce. To make things easier for females joining my mustering they dropped our specialised fitness assessments and lowered the standard to the same as the rest of the Airforce.”
Member M2 concluded the interview by stating, “It shouldn’t matter what gender a person is or identifies by. The ADF should be employing the best person for that job. Fitness standards should be dependent on the mustering or corps expectations and type of work rather than being dependant on a member’s gender. At the end of the day, the ADF’s primary capability is warfighting, not abiding to the current social gender conflict.”
‘These discussed issues pose a large enough threat to the ADF’s workplace equity and reputation. Advice from social activists and interest groups with a very limited understanding of the ADF further complicate the road to gender equality. The new priority in the Australian Defence Force is gender diversity encouraged by activists. This initiative is potentially at the expense of the ADF’s warfighting capabilities.
The trending belief between professionals and serving members is that yes, there is the preferential treatment being given to women. Yes, there is a subconscious sexist culture that breeds the automated sexualisation of women. And yes, treatment within the ADF is dependent on your gender.
With the increase of public criticism from activists complaining about the ADF’s domination by straight white men, the ADF employed The Defence Gender Equality Action Plan in order to promote gender equality and respect. Gender inequality within the ADF is a serious issue that should be closely monitored, however; the Department of Defence’s primary target should always remain the protection of the country and the preservation of Australia’s national security.