As Bernard Keane pointed out in yesterday’s Crikey, social conservative commentators have lost their biggest support in their opposition to ending restrictions on women serving in Australian defence forces: much of the defence establishment itself is now keen for such reform:

But the push to remove the limits on female soldiers is from the brass. Former Chief of the Defence Force Chris Barrie mocked the continuing restrictions on women in the Army when Combet raised the issue. The driver is the deep concern about attracting and retaining ADF personnel when the labour market is nearing full employment and the ADF has limited flexibility to lift remuneration to make itself more attractive.

That’s why there’s a fundamental connection between the ADFA scandal and Smith’s decision on opening up frontline roles. An Army that makes itself a female-unfriendly environment, that refuses to address misogyny or tolerates a locker-room mentality, that prevents women from excelling in their chosen profession, is making itself a deeply unattractive employer for not much less than half its potential employees.

Of course, there’s also an old-guard keen to prevent change, and it’s been very interesting seeing the media outlets on which they’ve been forced to rely to push their “women just can’t do it” line (maybe they think combat involves opening a lot of stereotypical jam jars?) – since it seems that practical minds at Defence now recognise the advantages, to them, of this sort of reform. As opposed to previously:

The issue two years ago split along ideological lines. Conservatives seem to have an innate distaste for the idea of women in combat roles. Liberal MP and former Army officer Stuart Robert criticised Combet and said women weren’t cut out for combat. Arch-reactionary Jim Wallace of the Australian Christian Lobby complained that woman would disrupt the “strong mateship” of the army because the “natural attraction we have between the s-xes would invariably lead to attractions.” Funny how it’s always about s-x for Wallace, though he wasn’t alone — the head of the RSL suggested combat roles might affect female fertility. Another Liberal MP Bob Baldwin, suggested women weren’t psychological ready for combat. Eva Cox, on the other hand, suggested critics of women in the Army grow up.

There’s some childish defence of discrimination in various tabloids this morning, but I’d like to draw readers’ attention to a piece published by The Australian by an insider on the sort of culture those opposing change are defending – and that they themselves must have personally observed.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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