Choose to Challenge: Issuing ADF Leaders a Gender Challenge on International Women’s Day

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By Lyndsay Freeman for Propel Her

Women in the ADF are not living in a golden age. Despite gender restrictions for all roles being formally lifted, and the ADF launching the Total Workforce System which supports a contemporary and diverse workforce, the period of time following progress like this is the most challenging. And ADF women are feeling the brunt of this challenge.

Once barriers to women aren’t written in black and white within policy, they become invisible. Those without a gender perspective or leaders that do not seek out women’s voices and listen to their experiences will not be able to see these barriers or understand their effects on women. 

It is these focal areas that should be at the forefront of discussion around gender equality in the ADF, and this is what formed the basis of my IWD 2021 address to the Corps of Midshipman and Officer Cadets at the Australian Defence Force Academy (ADFA) on 3 Mar 21. Standing in an auditorium of green, white and blue uniforms, adorned in my medals and Royal Australian Corps of Transport badge, I saw value in introducing who I am, holistically:

‘I am a feminist, I am a mother, I am a humanitarian, I am a co-founder, I am an over-thinker, and I am passionate about gender equality and women’s empowerment in the ADF, in Australia and across the globe.’

International Women’s Day is a time to step back, reflect, and critically assess where we are at personally and within our organisation with progressing gender equality. It is a time to have the hard and confronting conversations, and choose to pick up the momentum to propel forward.

Change is not only about policy wins or big headline moments. It is the way we talk, think, and act every day that creates a ripple effect that benefits everyone. The theme of International Women’s Day this year is ‘Choose To Challenge’, so, during my ADFA address, I issued a gender challenge. 

I challenged the audience to become ADF leaders with a refined and fearless gender perspective that leads change. One that creates and safeguards a culture of inclusivity and empowerment that supports women and our diverse workforce. 

It is a challenge like no other – and the audience vibe reflected a startled “Where do we start!?”. So I offered three ways that individuals can go about to achieve this challenge:

  1. Refine your own gender lens

A gender lens allows you to make gender visible so you can clearly see the role gender plays in shaping the lives, experiences, expectations, and challenges of all people. “Gender biases” are often subtle and often not intentional or malicious – but they can lead to systematic, unfavourable treatments of individuals based on their gender, denying them rights, opportunities and resources.

This gender perspective is complicated to put into practice because treating all people equally does not necessarily result in equal outcomes. For instance, gender quotas are not equal – they are designed to break a biased system and push women through the door from the outside so that their presence in that space is the new norm. 

Creating a gender lens is so challenging that teaching people to do it is my current job. My role at the Peace Operations Training Centre is to train ADF members to integrate a gender perspective into the planning and conduct of operations. Understanding the battlespace, the human situation, and the differing impacts of military operations on men, women, boys and girls helps the commander to make more informed decisions and achieve the mission. 

An ADF Operational Gender Advisor is enhancing and improving their gender lens every single day – and I implored you to do the same. This task requires actively educating yourself and focusing on making the invisible, visible in day-to-day work to address gender equality and women’s empowerment.

2.         Actively value the work of women.

Actively valuing the work of women goes beyond being an ally in words and a self-appointed title. Turn your observations from your gender lens into action. As leaders, it is your responsibility to articulate what positive, inclusive behaviour looks like and celebrate examples of it in practice. Actively create an environment where asking for feedback on the organisational culture is normalised, and make it safe for people to answer. Leaders must keep asking, reflecting on what they hear, and then acting on it.

I challenge you to uncover gender biases like an over-zealous detective. Examine your decisions and workplace customs, rituals, and norms that might appear to be neutral or objective, to make sure they’re inclusive by asking: have women been left out of consideration? If so, in what way; and how might that omission be corrected? What difference would it make to do so? 

I reflected on the support that Major General Mick Ryan, Acting Chief of Joint Capabilities,  has afforded my co-founded initiatives: Propel Her, a publishing forum for military women, as well as Women in Future Operations. His sponsorship and promotion of these initiatives to his broad networks has amplified the voices of myself and the women I publish and involve – and made our contribution mainstreamed in spaces that have predominantly been male. 

Defence has committed USD $1 million to the Elsie Initiative for Women in Peace Operations, which aims to identify and overcome barriers to women’s meaningful participation in conflict resolution. By designing transformational and sustainable change to advance the participation of uniformed military and police peacekeeping, this creates peacekeeping missions that better reflect the population they serve.  

In support of the Elsie initiative, the ADF pledged a target of women serving on United Nations operations at 18% and are currently achieving it! As perfectly stated by Shirly Ayorkor Botchway, Ghana’s Minister of Foreign Affairs: “Women peacekeepers are role models, and their presence gives a sense of comfort to the vulnerable and the affected, especially women in conflict and crisis situations.” 

3.         Take on some of the burden

If you look at the marketing, International Women’s Day is heavily women-centric. Of course, it is a day to celebrate women but if we really want change to happen, we have to have more men taking an active role. This may start with an acknowledgement that people who have more power have more opportunity to make a difference – and in Australia, this group is predominantly man.

Women are not the ones that should always be challenging the bias, so why are they the ones carrying all the burden? If we are truly to have gender equality, discussion needs more men at the table, and choosing to be proactive in supporting women through sponsorship and mentorship, and speaking up if they see unconscious bias or microaggressions.

Actively educate yourself on the gender pay gap which currently see men working full-time earn $25,679 on average a year more than women working full-time. Educate yourself on why Australia has recently dropped 29 places in the Global Gender Gap Index, and on women’s unpaid domestic labour worth $132 billion per year, equivalent to around 8% of Australia’s GDP. 

I am proud to be an ADF member, and I acknowledge how far we’ve come in progressive gender equality in the organisation – but now we need to ramp up the effort. We are moving to a revolutionary time in history where the world now “expects” equity, diversity and meaningful inclusion. My generation is thankful for it, but I know that the young women I was addressing in the ADFA auditorium, and my children’s generation even more so, will notice its absence and demand it as an entitlement. 

It is our duty to fearlessly call out gender bias, discrimination and stereotyping where and when we see it. Choosing to challenge is exactly that, a choice – and one that you will have to make every day of your life.

* This article is derived from a speech by MAJ Lyndsay Freeman delivered on the 3rd of March 2021 to ADFA staff and students at Adam’s Auditorium, ADFA, on invitation from Commandant ADFA, Commodore Peter Leavy, CSM, RAN.