Promoting workplace diversity in the Australian Defence Force

Team spirit in the workplace

Written By: Lauren Kelleher  15/10/15

Gender diversity within senior management teams has become an increasingly topical issue in Australia.

Over the past week, the subject of female representation in leadership roles has been on the national agenda – from ANZ releasing its first National Women’s Report on barriers to achieving workplace gender diversity;  to South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill fronting a forum of state government executives in Adelaide, to discuss the importance of women in senior management roles.

Although it is clear Australia has come a long way when it comes to promoting the importance of women in leadership, women in the public sector still continue to face a number of challenges standing in their way on the road to successful leadership.

A new report from the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) released in July 2015, revealed the gap between women and men in ministerial positions in Australia has actually worsened since 2012 – making the Australian government ministry one of the worst in the developed in the world for gender balance.

While governments have begun to realise the importance of establishing a more representative public administration in recent decades, the report warns women in Australia “still face important barriers in reaching senior leadership positions,” saying gender imbalance at the most senior levels of government needs to improve.

Captain Jennifer Wittwer, who has 34 years’ service in the Australian Defence Force (ADF), says improving the poor levels of female representation across government in senior executive roles and boards begins with a change of thinking – for both men and women – across the sector.

“We need to look at where Australia is sitting globally and focus our attention on what we are doing, and why we aren’t looking at special targeted interventions to increase the number of women in some of those areas?  We should be saying – what is it that we can do to change that” she says.

Over the course of her career, Jennifer has transitioned into a number of leadership roles in the ADF, including taking up the position of the very first Women’s Strategic Advisor in the Royal Australian Navy.

And in the last few years in particular, Jennifer has been focusing on the role women play in peace and security efforts, promoting the importance of women’s participation in her organisation.

Ahead of Women in Leadership in the Public Sector, Jennifer shares the steps she has taken throughout her career to advocate the importance of women in leadership roles in the ADF and what needs to change in the future to promote gender diversity in the Public Sector in the future.

I began my career as a Maritime Logistics Officer, but I’m also a strategic human resources specialist. In the early years, my career was typically focused around supply and support functions such as catering, stores and financial management.

But over the past 20 years I’ve broadened into other areas, like conducting administrative inquiries into workplace complaints, organisational and cultural reform, and gender diversity.

Over the past few years I have been focused on integrating the gender perspective into military operations and looking more closely at the role women play in peace and security efforts, as well as the impact of conflict on women and girls in conflict affected communities’.

In my current role I am responsible for implementing the Defence actions in the Australian National Action Plan for Women, Peace and Security 2012-2018.  This plan sets out what Australia will do, at home and overseas, to integrate a gender perspective into its peace and security efforts, protect women and girls rights, and to promote their participation in conflict prevention, management and resolution.

My interest and passion in this area came from joining the Navy at a time when women were not equal, when there were limitations  in career opportunities and on our service – for example, we couldn’t serve at sea.

A big part of my efforts over my career has been on gender diversity and equality.  This has played out in many ways.

About 24 years ago I project-managed the construction of one of the first Defence childcare centres on one of our Navy bases –we had a very supportive Commanding Officer who was keen to ensure women were able to return to work after pregnancy, which at the time, was difficult to achieve for many reasons.

Around the mid-2000s when I was working as the Director of Navy Organisational Culture, I started to look at what was being done to address the recruitment and retention of women in the Navy.

There had been a number of reviews conducted in the past in the relation to the treatment of women, but there were no specific strategies in the Navy to address separation rates or barriers for career progression of women.  It was during this time I had the opportunity to develop leadership, mentoring and networking programs for women with the aim of encouraging them to look and plan ahead and to think more carefully about what they wanted to do in their career.

In 2009, a new cultural reform program called New Generation Navy  (NGN) was rolled-out, which is still on-going today, focused on leadership, reform and culture – how we can improve the way we treat each other in the workplace, the importance of authentic leadership, and organizational changes to better meet our national commitments.

Through NGN we  ensured the inclusion of gender diversity as a platform for reform, and as part of this, we  developed a workplace behaviour program for all Navy people to address the impact of workplace behaviour on employees and the organization.

More recently I have been working towards improving the ADF’s ability to respond to the gendered concerns of women and girls in conflict, including how our own women contribute to and participate in peace and security efforts.”

In 2010 I became the inaugural Navy Women’s Strategic Adviser which was designed to advise the Navy senior leadership on issues that impacted the participation of women. My legacy in this role was the development of a women’s leadership strategy, to enhance the role of women and improve their professional leadership development and career pathways. This strategy still underpins much of the work that is being done in the Navy on gender diversity.

This work segued very nicely into the implementation of the Broderick Review in 2012, which looked into the treatment of women in the ADF. My role then became focused around leading the Navy’s implementation of that review.

My more recent work has been around the implementation of the United Nations Security Council Resolutions on Women, Peace and Security into military operations that are being conducted in conflict environments. I started working with North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 2012 and in 2013 I deployed to Afghanistan as a gender advisor to the NATO International Security Assistance Force joint command.

This enabled me to focus their attention on the gendered concerns and different needs of women and girls in conflict environments and how to best support them.   This was particularly relevant to our support for women in the Afghan security forces’.

These resolutions are not just about the physical protection of women and girls, but also about their participation in conflict prevention, their roles in peace negotiation and peace mediation. It’s about bringing women to the table – because women form 50 per cent of the world’s population, and they therefore should be as equally engaged in all aspects of conflict management, resolution and prevention.”

When I joined the Navy in 1981, there were very limited employment opportunities for women – we couldn’t serve at sea and we certainly did not serve overseas in overseas postings like the United Nations. We didn’t have women serving on deployment – it was completely unheard of.

However the last fifteen years has bought about a greater focus on the role women play and the importance of women in our organisation, and how both men and women contribute equally to military capability and operational effectiveness.

I have had a positive experience over the past 20 years or so, and I would say a large part of that came down to my superiors being supportive of my professional development and my family responsibilities. I am a single mother of two teenage girls and I have never been made to feel that this has impacted my performance or my ability, or my bosses’ perceptions of my outputs and outcomes.”

We need to think big and we need to think more globally. Australia has poor levels of female representation across a range of sectors in senior executive roles and on boards, and we need to look at where Australia is sitting globally and focus our attention on how this can be improved.  Quite frankly, people don’t like the word quota, but sometimes that’s what actually helps make a change – in third world countries they have been necessary to at least get women to the table.

At the end of the day we have to start looking at things that we can do differently. The Broderick Review has taught us that special interventions or targeted measures can sometimes bring about the change needed, and that to achieve this, it is important to have ‘champions of change.’

In organisations like the ADF, males are the dominant gender. Males absolutely have to be the ones leading change. It needs to be men in current positions of authority talking on the case for change, and I would say that in this regard, the ADF has been well led by our former and current Chiefs of Defence Force.

The gender perspective is also about recognising the differences the impact of the workplace can have on men and women and addressing those differences. There is nothing wrong with saying men and women have different needs and concerns. We have to stop saying gender equality means we are all the same and we have to be treated the same – that is not the case. It is about making sure that people are treated appropriately to ensure equality and equal rights.”

The Women in Leadership in the Public Sector Conference provides women with a platform to come along and learn new, tangible ideas and to make changes to their goals or work plans. It provides women opportunities to develop strategies for further career advancement, by networking, talking with and listening to other inspirational women.”

Source: Women’s Agenda 



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