Tuesday 17 Jul 2018 | 12:27 | SYDNEY
Tuesday 17 Jul 2018 | 12:27 | SYDNEY

Women in (every) uniform


Rodger Shanahan


27 September 2011 15:41

The announcement by Defence Minister Stephen Smith opening up all ADF employment streams to women may upset some of the 'not in my day' brigade, but in reality it will likely have minimal impact on the ADF.

Forget the faux arguments based on cultural issues, gender bias, group cohesion or even 'women's issues'. Impediments to widespread female participation are really attitudinal and biomechanical. The weights that today's infantry soldiers have to hump around are enormous, so physical strength and endurance are pre–requisites. That is not to say that women don't possess them, just that the average male is more likely to possess them, which makes workforce planning pretty straightforward. And in a large workforce that is an advantage.

To ensure that the opening up of employment opportunities is done in an orderly manner and is based on good research (by DSTO and the University of Wollongong), the implementation is to be staged over five years. Somewhat fortuitously, that takes us past the exit date of combat forces from Afghanistan, so the media frenzy that accompanies the first female infantry soldier deployed on operations will likely be somewhat delayed.

Opening up these roles is hardly ground–breaking internationally, as several countries including Canada, NZ and Denmark did it years ago. And while numbers are hard to come by, the take–up rate of infantry positions by females who are deemed suitable physically and mentally has not been great.

If the role of the infantry does not appeal to all men who join the army, at least the same attitude is going to be expected among female recruits. Add to this the physical screening that is likely to take place for female applicants and the need to allocate to trade vacancies where they exist. The pool of available female recruits is likely to be quite small and it then becomes an issue of how keen they are to become an infantry soldier or artillery gunner as opposed to an intelligence analyst or UAV operator.

I would wager that the experience of the ADF will mirror that of the other countries that have opened up all the trades — not a great deal of gender transformation will occur. In ten years' time the 1st Battalion Royal Australian Regiment on parade will look much as it does today. Not because it hasn't been opened up to women but because most women are likely to look to do other jobs in the ADF. 

In any case, the nature of modern counterinsurgency warfare with its emphasis on combined arms teams means that serving on the 'front line' is different to what it may have been in the past. Women are already exposed to dangerous situations regardless of their corps.

The Canadians have had two women killed in action in Afghanistan, neither of whom were infantry. Trooper Karine Blais from the armoured corps was killed by a roadside bomb, while Captain Nichola Goddard was an artillery forward observer killed when her vehicle was struck by rocket propelled grenades. The Danes have lost one female infantry soldier in Afghanistan (PTE Sophie Bruun — a member of the staff platoon) to an IED strike.

By contrast, neither the UK nor the US allow women to join infantry units and yet in Iraq the UK lost four women to enemy action (one RAF aircrew, two intelligence corps and one nursing corps soldier) and two in Afghanistan (one intelligence corps and one logistics corps). The US lost 30 111 women in Iraq and three 31 so far in Afghanistan. (Eds. - Updated figures).

For those who will tut–tut today's announcement for all types of manufactured reasons, women in combat roles and their death from enemy action have been a reality over the past decade. They are not going to race to the recruiting office to join as a result of today's announcement, just as they haven't in other militaries that have gone down this path. As we have seen, there are already plenty of other trades in the army that allow you to make the ultimate sacrifice.

Photo courtesy of the Defence Department.