Chapter 9: International Trends and Lessons:
A Review of Practices in Comparable Militaries 1
Momentum exists for greater inclusion of women in Defence Forces across the globe and for greater recognition of diversity, but progress is yet to be fully evaluated. There is a striking similarity in the themes and recommendations emanating from the different militaries examined, including a focus on:
promoting a broad understanding of diversity as an operational imperative and core defence value
conducting ongoing assessment and monitoring to evaluate progress
avoiding one-size-fits-all approaches, particularly in contexts that have already achieved a significant representation of women
ensuring adequate resourcing to drive cultural change.
The Review’s examination of comparable international militaries reveals a continuing echo of the themes and challenges currently faced by the ADF, in turn confirming the Review’s findings that certain broad principles need to be observed in order to achieve meaningful change. The ADF is not alone in requiring change, with many militaries around the world attempting to increase women’s representation and progression to senior ranks. This Chapter identifies trends and lessons from international Services that may assist the ADF as it works towards being a first class employer for both male and female personnel.
Certainly, the ADF is itself recognised internationally as having taken the lead on many relevant practices – an increased emphasis on employee work-life balance and consolidation of equity programs being just two examples.1 Nevertheless, challenges continue to exist in realising the ADF’s potential as a first class employer in this regard, with similar obstacles facing Defence Services around the globe. Like the ADF, international Defence Forces have grappled with the formal integration of women into their ranks, some more successfully than others. Most have made parallel strides and faced similar setbacks as they recognise that establishing formal equality of opportunity does not necessarily lead to equality of outcomes.
The Review has focussed its examination on those Services which bear most cultural and historical similarity to the ADF, such as the United States Armed Forces, the UK Armed Forces, the Canadian Forces (CF) and New Zealand Defence Forces (NZDF); as well as on the Defence Forces of the Netherlands, Norway and, to a lesser extent Sweden, as examples of nations that have made particularly strong commitments to the participation of women in both civilian and defence environments.
While this Chapter does not attempt an exhaustive analysis, it touches briefly on some of the common challenges facing these defence forces, before moving to a discussion of possible solutions.
9.1An elusive critical mass
The absence of a critical mass of women in any defence arena remains, in itself, a significant impediment to career progression. A variety of evidence exists to support the idea that women act more distinctively once their numbers reach a given threshold.2 Certainly, literature examined by the Review suggests that the greater the presence of women as Defence personnel – both in terms of the breadth of the roles they occupy, as well as their presence in leadership positions – the more likely their acceptance by male colleagues.
Equally, literature suggests that the smaller the representation of women in any particular Service, occupation or unit, the more reluctant other women will be to join. This is not simply for reasons of camaraderie, but because female personnel do not want to attract attention as the ‘token’ woman nor function under the heightened scrutiny that seems to accompany this novelty status.
As one study in the US context confirmed, the lack of a significant number means that an ‘average’ or more generalised view of women is unachievable. Women therefore tend to be perceived in terms of the performance of the small number present – judged by the conduct of their only other female colleague, or pitted in opposition to them. In other words, ‘one woman sets the reputation for all…’3
Further, without identifiable female role models, women question their potential to reach senior positions and therefore the value of investing in a defence career. This means that the absence of women can be self-perpetuating, as can their presence. Certainly, the Review’s discussions with US defence representatives confirm this – the absence of women in senior ranks of less traditional occupations such as mine clearance diving for example, slows the assignment of further numbers of women into these units.4
All of the Services examined had put efforts into increasing the number of women within their ranks. While figures tend to vary depending on what elements of each Service are included, currently the Canadian Forces (CF) are nominated throughout international literature as a benchmark, with an overall representation of women totalling around 15.1%.5 CF representatives told the Review, however, that numbers are stagnating, with the CF putting a new emphasis on recruiting.6 The NZDF, albeit a smaller force, has a representation of 16.3%.7 Similarly, women comprise around 14.5% of total US forces8 while, in contrast, the UK, Netherlands, Norway and Sweden remain at single digit percentages.9 As the Review has found, though, total representation is not always an indication of overall commitment to women’s inclusion, nor of the opportunities available to women once they arrive.