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Good morning, everyone, and it’s fabulous to see so many amazing women and the occasional bloke in the room here today to join us. Steven, many thanks for that very kind introduction and also for IPAA for hosting this event here today.
But first of all, I acknowledge the Ngunnawal people, the traditional owners of the land on which we’re having this wonderful meeting today, and I pay my respects to their elders past and present. But also as Minister for Defence, I acknowledge the service of all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island men and women who have served with such distinction in our defence forces.
It’s great to be here, and thank you all for coming and thank you for the invitation to give this address today. As the issues we face today in our economy, our work, and our lives become more complex and become more nuanced, so too do the issues affecting gender equality. Firstly, I’d like to pause today to take a moment to reflect on the recent violent deaths of Hannah Clarke and her three beautiful children. For as long as women and children are being harmed and killed by those who are supposed to love and support them and protect them, we have not achieved gender equality. Together, all of us here in this room as leaders, and as a society, we must confront this issue in our homes, in our workplaces and also in our communities.
In all of our roles we must tackle the big issues and the questions for the broader good, inevitably we are all influenced and shaped by our own experiences across a career and a lifetime, and including on gender. So let me share with you firstly a few personal observations. For me, during my professional career, I spent many, many years steering clear of discussions about gender. I wanted my performance to speak for itself. In hindsight, I clearly believed that if I, and other women, worked hard enough, didn’t rock the boat and fitted into our workplaces, we’d all be promoted on merit. But to backtrack a few decades – I enlisted in the Army Reserves at 19 years of age and there was no-one more surprised than my parents when I graduated as Second Lieutenant Reynolds into the Royal Australian Corps of Transport. And when I look back, I realise it was hard. But I was determined to stick it out – and I did. I learned just how resilient I am. But I also, at such a young age, learned how to lead.
And towards the end of my 29-year career in the Army Reserves, I spent five years at Russell Offices as a Colonel and then as a Brigadier. That time gave me incredibly valuable insights into the Department of Defence, across the three Services and the public sector, and also gave me the opportunity to work on three very large reform programs within Army. Many of you will be aware of the cultural challenges that Defence confronted post what is now called the ‘Skype incident’, which prompted the Broderick Review into the Treatment of Women in the ADF. I was part of a focus group run by Elizabeth Broderick, who as most of you all know was the Sex Discrimination Commissioner at the time. So in this focus group – I was there with senior female colleagues from across the three Services.
The focus group was supposed to be an opportunity for us to share with Elizabeth our experiences as women within Defence. But I will never ever forget that day and that experience ’cause as I sat in that room, it became so clear to me that so few of these amazing women even wanted to be there at all – one actually said, “I don’t want to talk about being a woman, I don’t even want to be seen as a woman, I do not want to even be seen as a woman.” And those comments just really shook me. And I started to reflect on what had we done as an organisation where women felt so uncomfortable acknowledging their very gender? And it started me on a process of thinking and really deep reflection. And I came to the realisation – a question, I guess: What was wrong with leading and succeeding as a woman – and succeeding because you’re a woman, not succeeding in spite of being a woman? And I reflected, well of course women are likely to lead a bit differently from men – because let’s face it, we’re different, and that is something to be celebrated and not talked down. And why don’t we as an organisation and as a society embrace that difference as a strength and an opportunity, rather than one to inadvertently curb our potential? This epiphany for me, in hindsight, was hiding in plain sight. But it showed me that women could – and do – make decisions differently and lead differently.
And not only then did I realise that that was actually okay – I saw that women could do things differently in Defence and in politics, and often do them better. But it also made me start to question my own leadership style. I came to the realisation along the way that I had unknowingly adopted behaviours that didn’t really reflect who I truly was or who I actually wanted to be – and that my voice had, in the process, been inadvertently stifled. Through this very challenging process of self-assessment, I – actually for me, quite wonderfully – started to find my own voice and confidence in myself that I could lead as a woman which, over time, I found extraordinarily liberating to be myself. And I’ve got no doubt that I’m a better Senator for it and that I’m a better Minister for it today.
The realisation I came to may seem very small and may seem very obvious to some in this room, but when, for a very, very long time, especially in an environment like Defence and politics, in the absence of visible female leaders, a certain type of male leader stereotype has been reinforced, has been promoted, and has been deferred to, there was little imagination or courage for any other possibilities.
We are all learning more and more that organisations that embrace all forms of diversity and inclusion outperform those that don’t. The evidence is overwhelming.
So let’s have a look at Defence and Defence’s records. The first thing to say is that gender equality and women’s empowerment in Defence are critical to our nation’s security and to our global security. Part of this is an understanding of the particular challenges facing women and girls all around the world. We know they experience the worst in conflict. Their experience is devastatingly unique and disproportionate. If Australia is truly to be the world leader on women, peace and security that I know – and I’m sure all of you in this room know that it can be, it’s a journey that has to begin here at home.
Our ADF servicewomen have historically been under-represented. There were restrictions on where they could serve, what roles they could perform, and what they were allowed to contribute. For a long time, gender wasn’t a hot topic in the barracks, or in the mess or in the wardroom. And as I’ve mentioned, servicewomen weren’t talking about gender either. In the past few years though, I’m really delighted to see progress that Defence has made and that the representation of women in terms of numbers and also seniority has increased. But the challenge is more than that – it’s more than getting women through the door, it’s also attracting them in the door and keeping them. Major General Susan Coyle has just recently become the first female Commander, leading our operations in the Middle East – and let me tell you, she is doing an amazing job. Major General Cheryl Pearce, who I met last week, has likewise been a trailblazer, becoming Forces Commander of the United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus – and let me tell you, she is certainly shaking it up in a way it hasn’t been for decades. She’s only the second woman to command a peacekeeping mission in 70 years of the UN’s history.
The ADF does continue to break down the barriers to service. We reached a major milestone in 2013 – the year that all formal restrictions on women’s service were lifted.
So from then on, your ability to serve our nation in the ADF was determined not by gender, but by your ability to get the job done. And let me tell you, women in the military, like anywhere else, are more than capable of getting the job done. For all of our recent gains however, women still have shorter military careers than their male counterparts. And when these women leave service, we all lose. We lose their experience, their acumen and their perspectives. We lose their full potential as leaders, as commanders. So what can we all do in this room here today?
For the ADF, an important step is understanding further what makes many women decide to leave the ADF at certain points in their career. And as we all know, one of the main reasons common across many workplaces is taking time off to have a family. But no longer can we allow a woman to be penalised in her career simply for her choice to be a mother, while few fathers are still forced to make the same decision that mothers are. Defence, like all organisations, must ensure that dads are able, but also encouraged to share equally in parenting, so men and women have the same choices and same opportunities to contribute in all facets of their life.
Their best to their careers, to their families, and to their personal education and growth. And while I’m at it, let’s see more women stepping up alongside men in Defence to support and mentor other female colleagues. These are all important steps to retaining women and to retain their talent, and fostering a new generation of leadership in the ADF. Earlier on, I mentioned Australia’s leadership on women, peace and security. Getting a gender perspective into ADF operations matters not just for its own sake – because it gets results.
I think nowhere is this clearer than with our Defence gender advisors. These women and men are specially trained to provide gender perspectives on the planning and conduct of ADF operations. I could bombard you with facts and figures, but I think a real experience demonstrates far better than any words in just how effective this capability can be. This particular story begins in Iraq in the fight against Daesh. While deployed on Operation Inherent Resolve, an ADF gender advisor noticed a problem brewing. She saw that senior soldiers in the Iraqi Security Forces were marrying the widows of their fallen comrades. Why was this happening? She dug deeper.
Our advisor found that many women were facing huge delays in receiving their war widow pensions. Without financial support, their outlook was bleak. By marrying the widows in their community, the soldiers were providing financial support to grieving families who lost everything. But this situation wasn’t sustainable. Families and communities were being strained by the growing burden with little compensation. There was growing discontent in the ranks. The soldiers felt like they weren’t being supported by the government they were fighting for. The situation was threatening to boil over. So our single gender advisor stepped in. She briefed her chain of command on the situation and, eventually, the Iraqi government itself. They developed a simple, yet extremely elegant solution get more people into administration.
The new administrative roles were filled first by wounded soldiers and then by women. Processing times for pensions dropped dramatically. Widows became more independent. Soldiers were relieved of the social obligation to care for their fallen comrades’ families. Communities became less constrained. With payments flowing, there was more trust in the government to provide for the families of their soldiers and their comrades. This actually led to an increase in recruitment for Security Forces because many Iraqi men then saw that if anything happened to them, their wives and their families would be looked after. Men were actually empowered because women were made more secure. And what’s more, the increase in women in government roles gave them a direct role in coordinating the fight against Daesh. And all of this was possible because a single Aussie gender advisor was able to see the problem in ways others hadn’t and helped craft the right solution.
This story, I believe, captures beautifully how Defence can be a leader in women, peace and security. Friends, this year’s theme – ‘Generation Equality’ – is a powerful theme. It reminds all of us in this room of the responsibility we have to successive generations of men and women and boys and girls. As we saw in Iraq: when we empower and engage women, everybody benefits.
In conclusion, I believe we need to talk more about, and articulate far more efficiently and effectively, how women lead, and how we harness this ability. What are the qualities and attributes women bring to the head of the table and out in the fields? What are our skills in increasingly complex environments? How can we ensure that male and female leaders work together to maximise the advantage and value of a diverse gender mix?
I’m very keen to explore these questions here with you today, and what better day I think is there to throw those questions out? Maybe you don’t agree with the questions. Maybe there are far better questions. And what do we usefully do as leaders, all of us in this room, with our answers? How do we in this room recognise and realise Generation Equality?