Amid the howls of outrage from the right-wing commentariat that diversity and gender policies in the Defence Force are hobbling the army, those actually in the armed forces paint a very different picture.

In an article in late February, right-wing columnist Miranda Devine quoted one disillusioned male former soldier upset over gender diversity changes within the army, with Devine calling it a “crackpot theory” for the Defence department to try to recruit more women into the Defence Force. 

“At a time when our Army is being called on to step up the war against Islamic State, the deleterious effect of social engineering is clear,” Devine opined. 

The News Corp columnist singled out Defence’s gender advisers as being part of the perceived problem with Defence. One of those advisers — Colonel Amanda Fielding, an officer with 25 years’ experience, and operational experience in Afghanistan, Iraq and East Timor — told the Women in National Security conference in Canberra on Tuesday the program to improve the gender diversity within Defence actually improved the army’s operational effectiveness.

“What it leads us to do is to gain a better understanding of our operating environment. It gives us a better idea of what the roles men, women, boys and girls are in whatever conflict area we are deployed to, and how the relations between those men, women, boys and girls impacts on our operating environment and how we work with the local population and the local security forces.”

Women are combatants and already commit terrorist and extremist acts in places like Afghanistan, she says, so it is important that women play a role in countering extremism and terrorism. Devine’s anonymous officer criticised women being able to choose where they are deployed and their ability to deploy with friends. But part of that comes down to safety. When Fielding was in Afghanistan, she introduced policies to ensure that more than one woman was deployed to units to increase their own security and protection within units.

She says women are vital both within the Australian forces and in the Afghan army, to combat some of the techniques the Taliban use to evade detection.

“It was incredibly important to have female searchers. And certainly the Taliban and other insurgent groups were taking advantage of the fact that there weren’t female searchers at checkpoints, that there weren’t females at border points,” Fielding said. “There were numerous reports — at least one a week — where a male would dress up in a burqa to try and move through a checkpoint with explosives. Once we started putting those females randomly on those checkpoints, we started seeing a positive mission effect.”

In the special police forces, the male Afghan soldiers are not permitted to speak to women in compounds they have raided. Fielding says that once women were included in the special police forces, they were able to get much more information out of the raids.

“As soon as women started participating in these raids — and these special forces women were specially trained, there is an entire platoon of them — they were actually able to go into these compounds and speak to these women and children and they discovered they were hiding numerous plans [and] caches of weapons,” she said.

“Disempowering and targeting women is a strategy of the Taliban, so what better way to counter the strategy by empowering women and including them in the security forces to enable those women to secure their own futures, and the futures of their families?”

In a speech at the start of the day, Defence Minister Marise Payne said servicewomen now made up 16.1% of the Australian Defence Force, and women made up 41% of Defence public servants and 40% of the Defence graduate program. There are currently 266 women serving overseas on ADF operations — 14% of the total deployed force — and 82 women in senior officer positions, up from 48 in February 2012.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey