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Gender-equal: A new way of seeing the ADF

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COMMENTS

30 September 2011 11:34

Natalie Sambhi, an occasional Interpreter contributor, was featured in Wednesday's Fairfax press in relation to the government's decision to drop all restrictions on women serving in combat.

Rodger Shanahan observes that the decision to open all combat roles to women will have minimal impact on the ADF. In some ways, that is true: there will not be an influx of women gaining entry into the infantry and, irrespective of corps, women have already been exposed to danger on modern front lines. However, this is not about having more women in combat roles, it is about allowing women in combat roles and the impact this has on the ADF.

It is vital to stress that 'gender transformation' (as Shanahan terms it) in the ADF is not about numbers. A gender transformation is an institutional shift in mindset that allows the military to draw upon as many willing and able personnel to serve the national interest. While the 1st Battalion Royal Australian Regiment on parade may not look particularly different in future, how that battalion is held together and functions as part of a gender-equal ADF matters more. How this is achieved will require a commitment to fostering a cultural shift in the military.

A military is a complex system of individuals who, under particularly arduous conditions of combat, must be able to function effectively as a unit. The introduction of women in combat units will not destroy the military's effectiveness. It will, however, bring a range of psychological stressors to bear on the intra-soldier and sub-unit relations. This is one point of many that should give us pause to appraise the magnitude of impact on commanders.

In step with shifts in the military, we should also be aware of potential adjustments for political and bureaucratic leaders. The changing involvement, interests, and 'ownership' of frontline military service by Australian women could have ramifications for domestic political debates about the use of force. Strategic-level decision-makers are already reticent to deploy troops other than special forces to high risk combat zones like Afghanistan. Hopefully the prospect of more females in the infantry does not lead to even greater reluctance in this regard.

There are a multitude of organisational issues to grapple with. Defence is a large organisation, replete with inter-service rivalries, bureaucratic chains, and long approval processes. As it stands, the five years set down for implementation of this policy is aspirational. Implementation and cultural transition will likely take much longer. How we manage this transition will be testament to the professionalism and adaptability of our armed forces and civilian leaders.

Photo courtesy of the Department of Defence.

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