A damning inquiry into the treatment of women in Australia’s military yesterday recommended quotas to increase female representation and the establishment of a unit to probe sexual misconduct.
Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick said her year-long review of the Australian Defence Force (ADF) uncovered “systemic, cultural and practical impediments to cultural change” regarding the status of women.
“Our overarching finding is that, despite progress over the last two decades, I am not confident that, in all the varied workplaces that comprise the ADF today, women can and will flourish,” she said.
Women currently comprise 13.8 percent of the ADF’s 81,000 full and part-time positions. Though relatively small, the Australian military is among the top 15 nations by defense expenditure.
The inquiry was set up following a series of sex scandals within the military, including an incident in which a male cadet having sex with a female colleague was broadcast via Skype to his classmates.
Broderick said the inquiry heard “deeply distressing” testimony from women who had experienced sexual harassment, discrimination and abuse, with “highly sexualized” behavior normalized in some workplaces.
“Members frequently stated that this behavior was ‘just part of the military and that’s the way it is,’” Broderick said.
“The deep distress and trauma experienced by the women who disclosed incidents makes change across the ADF in its treatment of women both critical and urgent,” she said.
Broderick found that 25.9 percent of women and 10.5 percent of men had been sexually harassed within the military — broadly in line with the civilian population.
However, a further 20.3 percent of women and 10.2 percent of men who denied being harassed went on to describe behavior that met the legal definition, she said, suggesting a “lack of awareness” about appropriate conduct.
She called for the establishment of a dedicated sexual misconduct prevention and response unit “as a priority” to speed up responses, provide victim support and oversee confidential reporting of incidents.
She also called for capable women to be targeted for promotion into senior positions, with just one top-ranked female in each of the navy and air force from their 52 and 53 top spots, and four of 71 in the army.
Australian Defence Minister Stephen Smith and ADF chief David Hurley indicated in-principle support for all 21 recommendations, but warned lasting change would take time.
“The type of deep and far-reaching cultural reform we are seeking will take time and a sustained effort from all defense staff over many years to achieve, but we are committed to tackling our cultural challenges at their source,” Hurley said.
Canberra formally opened frontline combat roles to women for the first time in September last year and Hurley said the first internal applicants would be taken next year.
However, Neil James, from the Australian Defence Association, warned there would be resistance to the idea, stating that only 3 percent of women on average were capable of passing the strict physical requirements.