In the battle for equality, women have had a historic win, with the Defence Force finally opening up combat roles for females.

“If an individual woman has got the physical, mental and psychological capacity to do a job, then if they can do the job on merit, pass the same standards that a man passes, qualify in the same way a man does, then she should not be excluded,” said Defence Minister Stephen Smith, as he announced the changes yesterday.

Over the next five years, all ranks — including special elite forces and front-line positions — will now be open to women. Currently women can work only in 93% of defence jobs. Just 4.5% of senior military ranks are held by females, although women make up 18.5% of the Defence Force.

Smith said he hoped the change would see more women in senior military roles. “We’ve seen over the years a slow, but nonetheless progressive increase in the number of women in senior positions. But this change will effectively enable into the future women to fall for consideration for all of the positions including the highest.”

The changes will have the biggest effect in the army, which has the largest number of combat roles.

The fast-tracking of the women on the front-line issue came after criticisms the Defence Department mishandled an incident earlier this year when an 18-year-old cadet was filmed without her consent having s-x with another cadet, with the act broadcast via Skype to other cadets who were watching. Smith announced that women would be allowed on the front line  in April, but now the issue has the full support of Defence officials.

Neil James, from the Australian Defence Association, said he was disappointed Smith didn’t want for a review currently under way by the Defence Science and Technology Organisation before implementing the changes. “It’s a pity he didn’t wait until the science is in,” said James. “He should have waited for the report so the public debate would be more logical.”

Troy Shepherd at The Punch goes through all the current myths and stereotypes about women on the front line, knocking each argument on its head:

Women will endanger troops because men will take their eyes off the prize, lose sight of the mission, if a woman is in danger. Gallantry will be our downfall.

Then the Force needs to choose different men, or train them better on how to prioritise.

Women will be more at risk of r-pe.

Leaving the house increases your risk of r-pe. They’re grown ups. If there are extra risks, tell them. Many activities carry extra risks. Good on you for being so caring, so chivalrous. If it’s your daughter, your wife, have that conversation on a personal level. Don’t presume to tell all women it’s too nasty out there for them. That way lies chastity belts. Work out the risks and do the best you can to reduce them.”

Meanwhile, a new report, commissioned by the Committee for Economic Development of Australia, found that “subliminal and intangible discrimination is holding women back in the workforce and helping to entrench the nation’s gender pay gap,” reports Ruth Williams in The Sydney Morning Herald.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey