When I was first appointed to the job as Minister for Defence Science and Personnel in 2007, one of the first things we started to think about was gender equality and the role of women not only in the ADF, but also across the broader public service. And the way in which women were being treated, both in terms of employment categories and the jobs that were available to them. And we certainly came to the conclusion in the office, and Dianne Harris was there, that we needed to see change, significant change.
So in 2008, we embarked on a series of roundtables across the country talking to women in defence, women in uniform, about their view of the Defence Force, about their view of the workplace, about a view of their lives in the defence community. It was a salutary exercise in my view, but very educative.
Dianne will forgive me for saying this, she told me the story of her daughter, who wanted to enlist. She wanted to join the special forces, but that wasn’t possible.
A little while after, we had these roundtables, they were well attended, we had them in the major cities and across the country and we learnt a great deal. That, I think lead to the establishment by the then Chief of the Defence Force of a Women’s Reference Group, to advise him and the senior leadership on issues affecting women in defence.
During 2008, I had an interesting opportunity to be at HMAS Cerberus for a graduation. We’d been discussing how we can actually break open all trades in the Defence Force to women. We got to the graduation ceremony and the top graduate was in fact a young female sailor.
I went up to her at the end of the ceremony, to congratulate her, and I asked her what trade she wanted to be in. She could have chosen one of 200 or more. She said “I want to be a clearance diver, but I won’t be able to.” I said “but wait, because I think that will happen.” And what we’ve seen since is a hell of a lot of work being done by the leadership in Defence, across both the civilian side of the house and most especially by the three Services.
The former CDF, former chiefs of the Navy, Army and Air Force, their senior staff, the senior sailors, soldiers, airmen and women and the current CDF and the Service Chiefs have grabbed with both hands the need for us to do things differently.
Now 2007-08 you may recall, or maybe not.. was a period when we had difficulty recruiting people, and I came to this partly from a recruitment angle.
Our separation rates were high, our recruitment and retention rates were low. Pre the global financial crisis, and it just seemed to me to be blatantly obvious that if you’re ignoring 50 per cent of the population, then you’re doing yourself a disservice. So what we wanted to do was actually address that inequity and say what we need is to attract the best people from across the workforce, from across the community, from across the population.
We needed to provide a vehicle through which we could attract more women into the Defence community. Interestingly and I wasn’t aware when I first started this job, that DSTO had been working on physical employment standards with the University of Wollongong.
I started to think, ‘well how does this work?’ and then a little while later we see that this work with DSTO and the University of Wollongong actually changed the way we do business.
I want to pay tribute to the Defence Leadership, because I know we had, and you’ll forgive me for saying this, but we’ve had a lot of bad press over the last couple of years. Not the least of which has been about some pretty average behaviour by some people and despite that bad press, change has come about because of the drive of the leadership. That has made a significant difference to the world of the defence community.
We’ve seen cultural change is what we are about, we all know that. But if you think about where we have come from, just over the last little while, then you have to say we’ve made tremendous strides.
We now have the development of an ADF Recruitment of Women Strategy. A significant advancement from where we were. We have the development of an Army flexible work program, we have flexibility of paid parental leave. We’ve seen changes to ADF carers leave from 5 to 10 days a year and the availability of childcare services, defence families services and the defence families helpline.
These are significant changes and despite the budget pressures on us all, these changes have been made. They have made a significant and material difference for our ability to attract women into the Defence Force and to keep them there. I met a young woman yesterday, on HMAS Melbourne, a senior sailor. Who I said “Why are you doing this job? Why are you here?” and she said “actually I was previously in the Navy for 9 years, I left and had a child five years ago and now I’m back in the Navy.” That is the sort of thing which is a really good message.
Now when we started this discussion about opening all trades to women, no gender bias in our selection processes, basically providing for the ability to apply for a job being based entirely on your capacity to do the work as required for that particular job and for your aptitude for the work. Now when we first started out, there was a view among some, not a view that I accepted, but a view that we’d get some opposition from the broader community. That the idea of having women in combat would be something to be opposed by the general community. So I started socialising it through the community, through RSL conferences expecting a negative reaction. It never came.
So well before the announcements were made about women in combat, about roles opening to women, we’d been having this conversation with the broader community, defence community. So I wasn’t surprised at the end when the announcement was made there was hardly a trickle of opposition.
And where has it led us to? It has led us to the point now where we have Physical Employment Standards applying across the board and for all trades, for all the combat trades. I was at 1 Brigade over the weekend, and for PT sessions three times a week, normal PT on Monday/Wednesday and Friday morning PES training. Getting people trained for their jobs.
When you think about it there are a lot of people who might have thought at the beginning that this is all about some way of masquerading, disguising that we didn’t want women to get into these jobs. The fact is that with Physical Employment Standards, many men won’t get the job, because they won’t pass the PES test, a lot of women will.
I got an email last year, from a year 10 student in Darwin, a congratulatory email and I’m summarising, saying congratulations on making the decision to open all trades to women. When I was in Darwin three weeks ago, for the February 19 anniversary of the Bombing of Darwin, this young woman came up to me and said “Mr Snowdon, I’m the young woman, the girl who sent you that email.” She had some young mates with her and I said “Thank you , that was very nice of you.” I said “What do you want to do?” To which she said “I want to be an infantry officer.”
Now she as about that high. I said “That’s tough work?” But she said “That is what I want to do.” So I introduced her to the Commander of 1 Brigade and we’ll just see what comes of that.
Now she’s in year 11, and part of what she does is raise money for charity, riding a pushbike from Darwin to Alice Springs that’s 1,500 kilometres. She’s driven and if she wants to become an infantry officer, she’ll get there. Just as I know that that young woman I met at Cerberus in 2008, if she still wants to be a clearance diver, well she can get there and that is what it is about. Opening up opportunities for all in the community.
Thank you for your presence and I’m sure what will come from this conference will be informative and I hope we can develop further our policies on gender equity and the Defence Force.