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While David Morrison is making headway on women’s recruitment and promotion in the army, the ‘band of brothers’ culture persists. By Sophie Morris.

David Morrison breaking the brass ceiling in the ADF

Chief of Army, Lieutenant-General David Morrison.
Credit: © Commonwealth of Australia, Department of Defence

“Without having to kiss arse,” says Michelle Jenkins, a staff cadet at the Royal Military College, Duntroon, “I thought, that’s a man who runs an institution that I can see myself supporting 100 per cent.”

After five years studying psychology and journalism, Jenkins was considering an army career. The clincher was the Chief of Army, Lieutenant-General David Morrison’s, intense piece-to-camera in response to a defence force sex scandal last year, telling his troops in a tone of cold fury to respect women or “get out”.

Even as the military is rocked by shocking stories of abuse, Morrison has pulled off an impressive feat, significantly increasing the recruitment of women as he tries to overhaul the culture of a very masculine and traditional institution.

“I am confident we will look back on these last three-and-a-half to four years a decade from now and say, the ADF [the Australian Defence Force], certainly the army, changed fundamentally in that period,” says Morrison. “We don’t do that very often.”

But he may have overreached in his ambition.

The proportion of women in the army has risen from below 10 per cent four years ago to 11.9 per cent today, but Morrison concedes to The Saturday Paper that it is unlikely to reach the 13 per cent goal he set before he finishes his tenure mid-2015.

It also falls about 100 women short of the target he outlined in a speech to a United Nations conference last year, of having 3600 women serving by mid-2014, up from 3000.

As he strives to make the army’s “warrior culture” more inclusive, Morrison has become, arguably, one of Australia’s highest-profile feminists. One military insider observes wryly that half of Australia’s feminists are in a swoon for him.

Not only is he trying to transform the army, he has also argued on a global stage, with Angelina Jolie, for an end to rape in war and raised awareness locally of the scourge of domestic violence.

When asked whether he identifies as a feminist, he answers without hesitation: “Yes, I do.”

“The reason I’m happy to say it is that I think there is a gender imbalance in our society. I think it holds us back. I think women are denied opportunities that are accorded to men as the birthright of their sex.”

“I don’t want to get into the debate about it,” he adds, referring to the recent kerfuffle over Foreign Minister Julie Bishop’s comments that she considers the F-word – feminism – “not a term that I find particularly useful these days”.

But he goes on to share his reasoning, with the fervour of a recent convert. “What’s wrong with being a feminist? What’s wrong with saying, ‘If we want to go ahead as a society, if we want to realise talent across the board, we should be redressing that imbalance’?”

The other question that he answers in the same swift and emphatic fashion is whether he thinks women can kill as well as men. “Yes, I do,” he says again. “Women have taken life in conflicts throughout human history. You only have to look at the revolutionary wars that were fought, for example in Vietnam.”

The increased recruitment of women has coincided with the removal of restrictions on females serving in combat roles, provided they satisfy physical requirements, increasing the likelihood of women reaching senior ranks. Thus far, no female has applied for the gruelling selection process for the army’s Special Forces.

As a 14-year-old in the 1970s, Morrison read Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch, at the urging of his aunt. “Maybe I’d said something completely unreconstructed, I don’t know. I had time, so I read it,” he says.

It did not turn him into a teenaged feminist. Not by a long shot. He followed his father into that bastion of blokeyness, the army. And it was only as chief of army since 2011, when confronted by systemic discrimination and abuse experienced by females who loved the army as much as he did, that he became convinced women were getting a raw deal.

All he remembers of Greer’s seminal text is the passion, but he is well versed in contemporary debates. He thinks women should “lean in”, as per Sheryl Sandberg, but says the jury is still out on quotas and that deploying them in his organisation would be seen as a “top-down, tin-ear” approach, with too much “collateral damage”.

Talking feminism with Morrison is refreshing. He meshes military jargon and strategy with the language of empowerment and opportunity. Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick says this unique combination has made him a sought-after speaker globally. “He links women’s empowerment with military capability,” says Broderick, who Morrison credits with opening his eyes to gender issues. “There are not many men in the world who can do that.”

Words matter, Morrison has realised, as do stories. He argues it is time to reconsider the myth of the Anzac soldier as a “rough-hewn country lad – hair gold, skin white – a larrikin who fights best with a hangover and who never salutes officers, especially the Poms”.

“This is a pantomime caricature,” he says. “And frankly, it undermines our recruitment from some segments of society.”

If you are looking for a story of diversity and inclusion at odds with army stereotypes, it would seem hard to go past Morrison’s friendship with a soldier whom he met as an infantryman decades ago and who has, more recently, served as his speechwriter.

When ABC TV’s Australian Story profiled Catherine McGregor last year, telling the story of her transition from male to female, Morrison praised her courage and said he had pledged to “stay absolutely rock solid” with her through her gender change.

McGregor penned some of Morrison’s strongest lines on gender issues.

In June, however, McGregor left Morrison’s office to serve the chief of air force.

McGregor won’t be drawn on her reasons for leaving the army beyond saying: “I’m very grateful to David Morrison for his support when I transitioned gender but, from my perspective, I find service as an air force woman more affirming and rewarding than my service in the army.”

The army, with its “band of brothers” traditions and emphasis on physical strength, lags behind the navy and air force in female employment. Broderick says women make up about 18 per cent of the other two services but the army is making good progress, from
a low base.

More than 640 women signed up in 2013-14, comprising 16 per cent of the total recruitment of 4020. Back in 2010-11, it was about 290 women, or just 11 per cent of that year’s much smaller intake of 2640.

Morrison is particularly pleased that women make up 25 per cent of those selected for staff college, the all-important course preparing officers for promotion to higher ranks.

Still, there is a dark side. The day I interview Morrison, the government is releasing the report of the Defence Abuse Response Taskforce, pointing to the “existence of a discriminatory culture and the perpetuation of negative attitudes towards the participation of women in Defence”.

And it’s not just historic. “I’m dealing with a number of issues now, which I won’t go into now because they’re still under investigation, but they reveal we still have a long way to go,” says Morrison.

His sharp response to overt sexism and abuse has garnered attention, but the structural changes he is pursuing are just as crucial. He has grappled with how to promote equality in an institution that is essentially hierarchical and says it all comes back to how you define merit.

On meeting a woman who had risen to a senior role in another organisation, while having three children, he asked how she achieved her impressive career trajectory. Every time she went on maternity leave, she said, her employer promoted her.

Morrison realised that, in the hierarchy of the army, taking time off for kids meant a woman could slip behind her peers and never catch up. “That inspired me to go back and talk to HR and say, ‘We’re not doing this right.’ Now if you go off for nine months or 18 months maternity leave or whatever, I guarantee you will not lose seniority,” he says.

“Three women who are about to give birth, we have promoted. We’re saying: we want you back. Your life skills that you’ve accrued through different life experiences, having a child or climbing Mount Everest, we don’t want to set that to one side and say that doesn’t suit us.”

He reckons such changes will also make an army career more attractive for this generation of recruits, who may not find a traditional linear career path appealing.

Broderick describes Morrison as “courageous”, but says his high-profile campaign has encountered some controversy and internal resistance. “I’m not sure the message has permeated as well as it should to lower levels of the organisation,” she says, adding that, for new recruits, the views of their commanding officers are of greater immediate relevance than those of the top brass.

At Majura Training Area in Canberra, affectionately known as “Camp Krusty”, Michelle Jenkins and other cadets have just spent three weeks living in the scrub. When I ask what role gender plays, they joke that they all smell the same. Recently, they discussed when the army might have its first female chief. The conclusion they reached seems remarkable to an outsider, considering the army’s hyper-masculine image, but Morrison, without hesitation, gives the same response: “Within a decade.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 13, 2014 as "Breaking the brass ceiling". Subscribe here.

Sophie Morris
is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.