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Toxic Masculinity and Gender Equity in the Australian Defence Force

If the intentions of senior military leadership are not so self-aggrandising and opportunistic, then they are at least ignorant of the underlying dynamics and complexities of gender equality in an environment as unique as the military.

· 8 min read
Toxic Masculinity and Gender Equity in the Australian Defence Force

The Australian Defence Force (ADF) is comprised of the three military services: the Royal Australian Navy, the Australian Army, and the Royal Australian Air Force, all of which have been subject to increasing criticism in recent years for being dominated by straight white men. This, it is alleged, makes them, ipso facto, a petri dish for ‘toxic masculinity.’ That allegation has been lent apparent weight by the reporting of multiple gender-related scandals including the ADFA sex scandalJedi Council, various hazing ritualsdeath symbols, and HMAS Success, to name a few.

Some of this criticism has been so strident that past and present military leaders have had no choice but to commission reports and inquiries into standards and practices within the ADF, and to implement various culture change initiatives including Pathway to ChangeNew Generation NavyAdaptive Army, and New HorizonAll of these initiatives place significant emphasis on greater integration of women into the respective services but offer limited reasoning other than catch-phrases like ‘diversity,’ ‘equity,’ and ‘modernising.’

All three services are now working toward a target of female representation by 2023. The Navy and Air Force are working toward 25 percent, and the Army is working toward 15 percent. The progress toward these targets, among other commentary on gender issues in the ADF, is detailed in the annual “Women in the ADF” report.

Over recent years, Australian media outlets have highlighted issues with the ADF’s methods of achieving these quotas. As of this writing, the Defence Force Recruitment website advertises female-only incentives including the choice of where to work, when to enlist, shorter initial minimum periods of service, as well as preparation courses. A reduction in the initial minimum period of service makes applicable servicewomen eligible for the Australian Defence Medal years sooner than their male counterparts, and this has provoked resentment among veterans.

Additionally, various Defence Force Recruitment employees have reported receiving directives to prioritise female candidates over males, as well as closing off some jobs entirely for male candidates. The “Women in the ADF” report for 2016-2017 includes data that could support these claims—the average recruitment period for female candidates is reported to be considerably shorter than for their male counterparts in almost every measured category. Past defence chiefs have also boasted of the stern punishment administered to ADF personnel who contravene directives to rigorously implement these quotas.

Concerns with preferential treatment do not end at the recruitment process. Fitness standards for service personnel also differ according to gender, as well as service and age. This means equally-aged men and women in each service are expected to attain different standards of fitness. This, in itself, represents a challenge since both genders complete fitness tests together and are therefore directly exposed to this double-standard from their first day of service. In spite of this policy, many servicewomen elect to continue their fitness assessment to the same level as their male colleagues which is one small contribution to reducing the cultural divide.

The rejection of preferential treatment in the ADF is not just isolated to annual fitness tests. In fact, the 2012 “Review into the Treatment of Women in the Australian Defence Force” led by then-Australian Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick includes the following passage:

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. This is most likely in part to avoid the backlash that inevitably trails any treatment perceived as ‘preferential’…

Despite acknowledging this, many of Broderick’s recommendations included gender-specific initiatives that risk being perceived as further preferential treatment, driving a greater wedge between male and female ADF personnel. Perhaps the most troubling recommendation is the targeted recruitment and transfer of women to male-dominated professions that have less female uptake. In practise, this risks techniques akin to coaxing in the recruitment process if these roles are not the preferred choice of female candidates.

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The issue of coaxing candidates into certain roles during the recruitment process are often raised by both male and female personnel who find themselves in roles they would not have chosen but for the influence of recruiters, particularly if their first selection was a lower recruitment priority. This leads to personnel seeking career transfers—which are often rejected—as early as their initial training. Misleading recruitment tactics were also revealed in the Searle v Commonwealth class-action lawsuit brought against the Royal Australian Navy. Accumulatively, these behaviours not only create significant costs to the taxpayer, but also damage the capability of individuals to perform their duties to the highest standard.

Systemic preferential treatment is just the tip of the iceberg. Additional complaints have been made off-the-record about preferential treatment in military discipline, manual labour and work tasks, training exercises, postings, and performance reviews that significantly influence promotions and career progression on a daily basis. Whether or not these perceptions and observations are accurate, the cultural challenge becomes more acute if male personnel suspect their female colleagues are not capable of performing to the standards men are expected to meet, even if this suspicion is a result of poorly managed affirmative action. Regardless of how powerful or influential senior military leaders perceive themselves to be, they cannot order their personnel to believe something that conflicts with their observations and values. Therefore, a more effective style of persuasion will be needed if affirmative action initiatives are to continue.

In 2015, the United States Marine Corps released a year-long study on the capability of a mixed-gender battalion. It was found that all-male units performed resoundingly better than mixed-gender units and highlighted a 1992 study which emphasised the importance and moral necessity of prioritising operational capabilities over accommodating the interests or desires of individuals and groups. This suggests that the road to gender equality has been far from ideal in the United States military as well.

There are many roles within military organisations besides frontline combat roles. There are also multiple careers within the Australian Defence Force that attract and retain a larger proportion of competent servicewomen, as has been acknowledged in ADF reports. Instead of fostering the genuine career objectives of these individuals during recruitment and throughout their career, it appears that senior military leaders and their advisors are more interested in short-term gains in public perception.

This serves the exact opposite purpose of working toward equality between males and females in the ADF, and instead resembles a game of political chess, in which young Australian recruits and cadets are exploited to serve the interests and reputations of senior military officers, who go on to post-military careers in public service, politics, and gender-diversity advisory which has even led to the occasional bestowal of awards like ‘Australian of the Year.’

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If the intentions of senior military leadership are not so self-aggrandising and opportunistic, then they are at least ignorant of the underlying dynamics and complexities of gender equality in an environment as unique as the military. This is certainly possible, due to the hierarchical and bureaucratic nature of most military organisations. It is easy for middle-management to directly obstruct the flow of information from lower ranks to higher ranks, particularly under the guise of discipline.

This control of information is reinforced by a policy that forbids members of the Australian Defence Force from making political statements, which was brought to light by the sacking of controversial Army Reserves Major, Bernard Gaynor. The resistance to contrarian viewpoints within ADF ranks was affirmed by multiple senior officers including General David Morrison who posted a video on the official Australian Army YouTube account with the following warning: “I will be ruthless in ridding the Army of people who cannot live up to its values.” After the release of this video, it was found that the scandal in question had been poorly investigated, and ruined the career of an officer subsequently found to be innocent.

What makes the ADF’s road to gender equality more complex is the advice from activists and interest groups with very limited understanding of military service and the complexity of communal living, highly arduous and dangerous working conditions, as well as the absolute need to have confidence in your peers. In these environments—whether they be at sea, on land, or in the air—conventional theories on gender equality may not be optimal. In fact, the military offers an illuminating case study of the limitations of implementing diversity quotas in extreme circumstances. In 2016, proposals to register female citizens of the United States for the military draft alongside their male peers split feminist groups.

Most significantly, there remains an ongoing expectation that personnel within military units abide by orders to conduct difficult tasks, including uniquely violent behaviour. Although the advance of technology has facilitated greater distances from enemy combatants in most cases, the underlying purpose of a defence force is to visit violence on those who would do its community harm. When considering this, the condemnation of masculine behaviour is contrary to the expectations placed on deployed personnel. This incongruity is unavoidably problematic and has led to the disenchantment of many combat veterans, particularly those who have served on the frontline.

Australians would do well to demand some answers from ADF leadership. What exactly do they intend for the Australian Defence Force? How will that impact the ADF’s capability and sovereignty in the future? And why does the ADF leadership persist with a policy of targeted preferential treatment of servicewomen which demonstrably worsens espirit-de-corps for males and females and fosters resentments and distrust in their lower ranks and the public alike? The answers to such questions will have consequential implications for ADF moral, ADF combat effectiveness, and national security.

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