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Women in combat… but who’s the enemy?

Currently, women cannot be employed in jobs that have the potential to expose them to direct combat, including field artillery, infantry, clearance divers and defence guards.  But female employees are permitted to serve on military operations supporting ADF combat elements.  And the Rudd Government is looking at further relaxing these restrictions.

Personally I thought that most combat these days was carried out by computer driven missiles and back office intelligence systems.  But apparently this aint necessarily so, since at every opportunity the ADF continues to rule out women serving in infantry roles.

Now I know what you’re thinking: “why would woman want to hold a combat role, anyway?”  And coming from a corporate background where the greatest occupational hazard is a paper cut or RSI, I see your point.  But consider for a minute the parallels we could draw between the corporate landscape and a defence role:  in both of them, you’ll have more promotional opportunities if you’re prepared to be in the line of fire.  In the ADF, a combat role is “not the only way (to climb the ladder). You can become a chief of service, but a combat role certainly assists,” a spokesman for Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon said earlier this year.

It’s a bit like saying a frontline sales role, or line management position with P&L responsibility “certainly assists” in landing a C-level role in corporate.  Ask any headhunter, and they’ll tell you straight up that it doesn’t assist; it’s a prerequisite.

So if you’re a female in the defence force, does the logic follow that opening up the combat roles will help you in your career progression.  It would seem a logical conclusion.  Except for assertions made by the chief of the Defence Force, Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston, at an internal defence force leadership conference last month that “despite most of the restrictions on women having been progressively lifted over the past 20 years – and with more women now serving at senior ranks and in command positions than ever before – nothing much has changed in overall participation rates”.  He said that “research indicates the two main reasons women in the ADF don’t access these policies are: unsympathetic responses from commanders who are unwilling to allow women in their units to work part-time, job share or take extended leave; and the perceived negative impact on a woman’s career if she takes advantage of these policies.”

Sound familiar?  It’s certainly not a new scenario to many civilian workplaces.  But that doesn’t mean it’s one we should tolerate.  Given the Defence Force is one of the most traditional and male dominated employers of all (women make up only 13% of the full-time force), wouldn’t it benefit even more from retaining the experience of its female workers and promoting them to leadership ranks?  Surely, women bring a different skill set and strengths to these roles than their male counterparts – which is a good thing when you’re looking to keep the peace instead of heading into battle at every opportunity.

And if so, what could each of us do to support the cause?  To start with, we could get behind the argument and assert that women are just as capable as men of performing almost every role we’ve ever been offered.  The defence situation is no different.  Female athletes and Olympians are going from strength to strength throughout the world.  Are we seriously to believe women aren’t strong enough or fit enough to perform in combat roles?

It’s easy to ignore headlines like this one, thinking “it really hasn’t got much to do with me”.  Yet in reality, this has everything to do with every working woman who’s passionate about advancing her career.  It’s a battle we must all fight on every front, together and united.


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