In the wake of the latest Australian Defence Force Academy behaviour scandal, the federal government will eliminate discrimination on the front line by allowing female combat officers. So why did it take so long, what are the reasons against it, and which other countries successfully employ female front-line troops? Crikey sought some answers…

Where do women serve on the front line?

New Zealand, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Norway, Israel, Serbia, Sweden and Switzerland permit women to fill active combat roles. The United Kingdom and the United States let women serve in artillery roles, except in units with a dedicated infantry role.

Canada has a “no exclusion policy”, which means that women have the opportunity to work in any job in the Canadian Forces. Nonetheless, women only make up 15% of the defence ranks.

During the Israel War of Independence in 1948, women fought on the front line. After the war, they weren’t allowed into combat positions until the late 1990s, when they began to repopulate the air force. In fact, both men and women are conscripted but men for three years and women for just under two.

How does the US Army treat its women?

Women are not permitted to be part of ground combat units (including infantry or as special operations commandos). Since 2002, women have served nearly 170,000 tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But the front line is a moving proposition. Military sociologist Brenda Moore, of the University at Buffalo, said on National Public Radio that because the current conflicts in the Middle East are against a guerrilla insurgency, “the unpredictable nature of the attacks in this war blurs the distinction between front line and rear areas”.

How many women are in the Australian Defence Force (ADF)?

There are currently over 10,000 women enlisted in the ADF, either as full-time or part-time members. The ratio of women to men depends on the role of a particular unit — in some units, given the front line nature of its mission, there won’t be any women.

The current percentages of women in the ADF by service are:

  • Navy: about 18%
  • Army : about 12%
  • Air Force: about 17%.

What kinds of jobs are currently available to women in Australia?

In Australia, combat positions are open to women, “except those involving ‘Direct Combat Duties’.” These are defined as “duties requiring a person to commit, or participate directly in the commission of an act or violence against and armed adversary; and exposing a person to a high probability of direct physical contact with an armed adversary”.

The Direct Combat exclusion precludes the employment of women from the following types of units/positions:

  • Navy: Clearance diving teams
  • Army: Armour, artillery, combat engineers and infantry
  • Air Force: Airfield Defence Guards and Ground Defence Officers.

Do men and women have to do the same fitness tests?

Yes. Both men and women do the same fitness training and undergo annual tests. But the standards differ based on gender and age: “Test requirements will vary between services and women will have slightly adjusted requirements for the number of repetitions for a particular activity or running and walking times during the assessment.”

So why haven’t they served on the front line until now?

Crikey couldn’t establish an official reason for the ban. Former defence minister Joel Fitzgibbon said in an interview on Radio National in 2008 that women should not be allowed in front line combat because of physical abilities. But one Brigadier, Michael Krause, said in 2009 the “perception that women don’t have the physical strength or capability to go to war is wrong”.

The ANZAC Day Commemoration Committee’s paper — “Women in the Australian Defence Force: Do they have an Equal Role to Men?” — says that: “[T]he sociological, religious and political reasons that account for this [ban] are mixed… In 2001 an internal Defence Force report recommended that women be admitted to combat roles if they met the same capability standards required of men.”

Yesterday, Defence Minister Stephen Smith declared: “When it comes to women in the ADF, including in combat roles, an opportunity for women should be determined on the basis of physical and intellectual capacity, not on gender.”

How has the role of women in the ADF changed over time?

In 1975, the Defence Chiefs of Staff Committee agreed to set up a working party to examine and report on the role of women in the ADF. It recommended that women should be permitted to serve on active service but not in combat roles (which has withstood International Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women 1980 and Sex Discrimination Act 1984). By 1979, women were paid the same as men.

In 1985, the separate Women’s Services were abolished. The following year, the Defence Instruction on sexual harassment was released.

In June 1992, a new manual — “Unacceptable Sexual Behaviour by Members of the ADF” — was issued to personnel. This year also saw the “Review of the Employment of Women in Combat and Combat-Related Positions” submitted to the Chiefs of Staff Committee. It recommended combat positions be open to women, “except those involving “Direct Combat Duties”. General information booklets, including on sexual harassment have been published since then.

Two years ago, the federal government publicly announced considering removing these bans, and determining positions by physical capabilities, not by gender.

What is the ADF’s policy towards discrimination and harassment?

According to the DefenceJobs website: “The Australian Defence Force (ADF) is committed to promoting equality and diversity, both in the workplace, and in its management practices. An Equity Adviser Network supports Defence personnel at all levels to help maintain a working environment free of harassment and discrimination.”

CORRECTION: The original version of this story included reference to a ban on women serving in OBERON Class submarines. This was an error; these submarines were decommissioned.

Peter Fray

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