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.