Australian Army opens combat positions to women

Yesterday, the Australian Army announced that it will become the third army in the world to allow women to fight in combat positions. The policy change is expected to be implemented within five years. The change is especially notable because it’s apparently the last thing standing between Australia and complete adherence to the UN convention on discrimination against women.

Defence Force officials are also hoping that allowing women to serve in more positions will result in an increase in the number of women in leadership positions. According to the Sydney Morning Herald, women make up 18.5% of the Australian Defence Force but just 4.5% of the senior ranks across the army, navy and air force. The SMH reports:

a former chief of army, Peter Leahy, now head of the National Security Institute at the University of Canberra, said it was logical that the opening up of all roles to women would increase their number at higher ranks.

“Traditionally, the senior officers, in the navy they tend to be ships’ captain, in the air force, fighter pilots, and the engineers, infantry and armour in the army,” General Leahy said. ”So women able to be employed in all of these positions is going to broaden their experience and increase the likelihood that they’ll be able to compete more for senior appointments.”

This has been coming for some time; the policy change was first publicly and seriously discussed in April of this year. At that time, you might recall, the Australian Defence Force Academy was in the news for various sexual assault cases. Most notably, one new cadet accused two of her fellow cadets – all of them fresh intakes at ADFA – of filming her without her knowledge while she had sex. Because the announcement of the combat roles policy change happened around the same time that this scandal broke, the former was called a “distraction.”

At the time, opposition leader Tony Abbott said that he was in favour of opening combat roles to women, but he “questioned the timing of the announcement.” At the time Abbott said, “this issue is unconnected with the ADFA issue and you wonder why the government has suddenly thrown this into the mix, it does seem like a government in search of a distraction.”

Which was just flat-out wrong. The two issues – sexual assaults among new cadets and the lack of women in roles that will lead to high-ranking positions – are entirely related. If new cadets don’t see any women in leadership, don’t see women doing the same jobs they’ll one day be doing, how can they possibly be expected to see women cadets as their peers? How can they see the women cadets around them as equals if, glancing up the ranks, they see that women are not equal in the Armed Forces?

No one’s expecting an overnight overhaul of how women are treated in the Australian military, of course. These things take time, and even if women flood the lower ranks of fighter pilots or engineers on the very first day they’re allowed to do so, it will take years for the leadership pipeline to fill with women, and for women to break into the upper ranks. But, with time, here’s hoping that this move leads to quantitative changes – more women in leadership – as well as qualitative ones – a shift in how women are viewed and treated by their male colleagues.

New York, NY

Chloe Angyal is a journalist and scholar of popular culture from Sydney, Australia. She joined the Feministing team in 2009. Her writing about politics and popular culture has been published in The Atlantic, The Guardian, New York magazine, Reuters, The LA Times and many other outlets in the US, Australia, UK, and France. She makes regular appearances on radio and television in the US and Australia. She has an AB in Sociology from Princeton University and a PhD in Arts and Media from the University of New South Wales. Her academic work focuses on Hollywood romantic comedies; her doctoral thesis was about how the genre depicts gender, sex, and power, and grew out of a series she wrote for Feministing, the Feministing Rom Com Review. Chloe is a Senior Facilitator at The OpEd Project and a Senior Advisor to The Harry Potter Alliance. You can read more of her writing at

Chloe Angyal is a journalist and scholar of popular culture from Sydney, Australia.

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Join the Conversation

  • nazza

    I appreciate gender equality, regardless of the source, but I also oppose the very existence of any country’s military. What makes me curious is what a critical mass of women in uniform would produce. Would there be major changes or only superficial ones?

    Is it offensive/sexist to assert that women might handle warfare differently than men? I’m merely curious.

  • a male

    If people are willing to take the risks, I see increased opportunity as a good thing. I do not question the ability of a female pilot, driver, or mechanic, or a woman with a gun. We accept female law enforcement officers, why not soldiers? If they make the cut, they make the cut, period. Just the other day I was wondering when women would be allowed to train to be Navy SEALS.

    On the ground, more women interacting with locals in foreign communities might result in less suspicion and resentment.

  • kirsty

    Things like this make me proud to be an Australian. It good to see that the old men that have been running our country for so long are finally beginning to open their eyes to women and to possibly of equality of the sexes. Also, to all the things that women can not only offer to the military which for so long as been a boys club, but also to other areas of the labour force.

    Many friends of mine that are in the military, who yes are males, oppose the decision to allow women in the front line. To quote them, ‘if there was 1 female soldier to save or 4 male soldiers, of course we’re going to rescue the female.’ This statement angers me. Why does their first thought go to that ‘women need to be saved’. Or does is this merely another instance of men being afraid their ‘manliness’ will be tainted if, and God forbid, a women was to save them?

    Nazza, I think that by assuming just because females are now being given the opportunity to service in the front things are going to change is very sexist. Do you expect the military to now alter procedures to fit more for females? I do think that some things might change, however this is a crucial area for women to gain some respect. For too long we have been seen as the silent, passive, weak, humans who live to serve males. Perhaps by having women on the front like men might start to take us seriously. We don’t need to be saved. We’re all on the same team, we just all need to work together.

  • a male

    Captain Barbara A. Wilson, USAF (Ret) has some inspiring stories to tell. The myths and fallacies section is particularly useful.

    and as many people know, the biggest risk to a woman’s safety is the men who were supposed to be doing the protecting.