Taking great strides in gender equality

As Australia grapples with gender equality and family violence, it could learn valuable lessons from the way the army went about changing the mindset of soldiers.

The appointment of Marise​ Payne as Australia's first female Defence Minister is a great step forward in advancing gender equality in Australia. However claims that her gender will greatly enhance Defence cultural reform efforts are naive and fail to recognise the significant progress Defence has made in recent years. 

Instead of being constantly derided as a chauvinist backwater, Defence should be seen as a model for positive culture change.  As Australia grapples with how to undertake massive social reform in terms of gender equality and family violence, it could learn valuable lessons from Defence, and particularly the army's efforts. 

While there are still vast improvements to be made, the army has achieved enormous success in a short period of time. This has included a major overhaul of the management of incidents and complaints, an increase in the participation of women in the army, improved employment strategies for women, the introduction of gender neutral physical employment standards and the removal of restrictions for women in combat. While some may argue that such reforms were long overdue the point is that they have been rapidly actioned​ and embedded across the service. 

As Senior Adviser to the former Chief of Army, Lieutenant General David Morrison, I was privileged to lead the army's response to the 2012 Defence Culture reviews. In 2014 I left the army to work in culture change within corporate and public sectors. I quickly realised that the army belonged to a small group of genuine cultural reformers who moved beyond the navel gazing of ceaseless theorising to generating actual change and benefits. This translation is desperately and rapidly needed in Australia's current efforts to improve gender equality and end family violence. 

Army reform was championed by the Chief of Army and driven by a proactive and determined leadership team. The army understood that leadership was critical in generating change but recognised that enduring success required buy-in from across the service. While there are numerous individuals staking their claim as the 'saviours' of Army and Defence, the truth is that reform was owned, driven and delivered primarily by the women and men across Defence in partnership with the Australian Human Rights Commission. 

Support from the commission was invaluable in shaping change for two primary reasons. Firstly, the provision of moral and social justice was their key motivator which placed people not profit at the heart of reform efforts. In addition, the Commission offered a breadth and depth of expertise that complemented existing army strengths.  Working together resulted in a robust, transparent and successful change agenda.

One of the most important decisions the army made early was to implement a dual approach to develop both an organisational culture with zero tolerance towards unacceptable behaviour, as well as an individual approach to equip army personnel with requisite knowledge and skills to support cultural change. This combination of organisational and individual responsibility provided a solid cultural foundation and was encapsulated in David Morrison's famous YouTube speech. 

While changing or influencing the mindset of individuals was seen as a relentless and perhaps impossible task it was approached with vigour from a person's arrival at army training facilities, through to annual induction programs and professional development. Cultural understanding was seen as an iterative process to be reinforced throughout a person's career, not just a singular module in mandatory training. The impact of such efforts will be seen over time but regardless it set the tone for what was considered acceptable and unacceptable behaviour in the army. 

A great distraction and impediment to change were the numerous profit driven organisations that promised 'world leading' cultural reform. Overwhelmingly most were preoccupied with reputational​ gain through alignment with a high profile national program. Rarely did they exhibit or take the time to understand the Defence environment and outputs reaped little, if any, value. There was very little currency in the ability of an illustrative flow chart housing five key words, a 'word map', fifty photos sourced from the Defence Image Library, and a narrative made up of trendy catch phrases and sentences copied from Defence reports to revolutionise Defence culture! 

By the time women and men enter the military they have been influenced by prevailing negative gender stereotypes and behaviours in Australian society.  Issues such as alcohol abuse, violence and the exploitation of power are rampant in the general community and constitute major causes of unacceptable behaviour in the military. Defence will continue to struggle with these behaviours until Australian society undergoes its own cultural shift in dealing with these problems more broadly and improving the treatment of women. 

However, Defence can help drive this shift as it offers a successful case study in committed, active change. It has proven that through strong leadership, meaningful engagement and genuine investment change can be swift and effective. 

Dr Corinne​ Manning is the Deputy Director Diversity & Inclusion at La Trobe University.

This article was originally published in The Age. Image: Shaun Gladwell