The Australian Defence Force and the Breakdown of Hyper-masculine Culture

By Lucy Hall

Source: Australian Government Department of Defence

The Australian Defence Force (ADF) has often been defined under a hegemonic masculine ideal, in which notions of brotherhood and ‘warrior ethos’ thrived. Within this, masculine privilege dominated the Force, whereby any enlistee was welcome to join so long as they could perform to the same standard as a man.[1] However, over the past decade the ADF has pioneered a change in the hyper-masculine culture of the military. This report will detail this shift by examining the Australian Human Rights Commission-led collaboration with the ADF and the implementation of the Pathway to Change: Evolving Defence Culture strategy. It will then provide an overview of the key cultural initiatives born out of the Pathway to Change, the ADF Total Workforce Model and service-specific female-orientated programs. The report will then conclude with a discussion on the importance of female participation in the military. 

Cultural Reform Collaboration: Human Rights Commission and the ADF 

From 2014 to 2015, the Australian Human Rights Commission collaborated with the ADF to help promote and cultivate cultural change within the Australian military. The collaboration built upon a previous examination into the treatment of women in the ADF and Defence Force Academy which lasted from 2011 to 2013. This examination was carried out by the Sex Discrimination Commissioner at the time, Elizabeth Broderick.[2] After the examination, Broderick made 21 recommendations, which were all later accepted by the ADF, and focused on matters such as recruitment and retention of women in the ADF, preventing sexual harassment and abuse, and improving leadership opportunities.[3] After the reviews by Broderick, the Human Rights Commission in collaboration with the ADF, aimed to embed cultural reform across all three military services (Navy, Army, Air Force).[4]

The 2014-15 collaboration was led by the current Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Kate Jenkins, and involved the observation of certain military bases and units to determine their cultural environments. For example, Jenkins looked at the culture within the Army’s combat brigades and fast jet pilot training, in order to provide recommendations on ways to promote female inclusion.[5] By the end of the collaboration Kate Jenkins had worked with over 30,000 ADF personnel to identify necessary areas of improvement and provide recommendations designed to enhance cultural reform and diversity.[6] Overall, the collaboration assisted in cultivating an inclusive ADF culture, with a focus on diversity and cultural reform.[7] The collaboration additionally highlights the Australian military’s commitment to building a more inclusive and culturally-aware environment. The ADF’s steps towards ensuring cultural change can also be seen through the whole of military cultural change initiative, Pathway to Change: Evolving Defence Culture.[8]

Pathway to Change: Evolving Defence Culture 

The five year plan coined Pathway to Change: Evolving Defence Culture (the Plan) was released in 2012 and implemented as a strategy to create an organisational culture of inclusivity, collaboration and professionalism within all services of the ADF.[9] The plan was additionally enacted to address the findings of the initial reviews from Broderick in 2011. As well as acting as a tool to address necessary cultural changes, the Plan set in stone the importance of future recruitment and retention strategies of women. The Plan also prioritised the representation of women in senior and middle-management roles and within decision-making bodies as a whole. Five years on from the implementation of the Plan, and female representation is beginning to show improvement.  

As of 30 June 2019 the overall proportion of women in the ADF sat at 18.9%, representing an increase of 4.2% from 2013.[10] There are also 70 senior officer positions held by women, which is increasing gradually.[11]

By 2023, the Navy, Airforce and Army have set specific targets for female participation. These include 25% for the Navy and Air Force, and 15% for the Army.[12] To achieve these new goals, the Plan was built upon with a refresh of the Australian Defence sector’s cultural values, published under the Defence Cultural Intent Statement.[13] This cultural reform has primarily focused on fostering an inclusive and diverse working environment, underpinned by mutual respect and accountability. In conjunction with this cultural reform, each service within the ADF has developed their own cultural change initiatives. 

The ADF’s Service-Specific Cultural Initiatives 

The Navy Strategic Workforce Plan 2018-23 

The Navy Strategic Workforce Plan 2018-2023 (the Navy Plan) has increased the Navy’s capacity to ensure gender diversity and inclusion.[14] The Navy Plan focuses on ensuring female military personnel are provided with necessary support measures in order to increase recruitment and retention. The measures include relocation support, updating conditions of service (reunion visits for single parents with sole custody of a child), and consideration of school holiday periods. Actions under the Navy Plan also include the sponsorship of The Future Through Collaboration women in engineering mentor and mentee program, and sponsorship of the Australian Institute of Company Directors Board Ready Program for senior ranking female Navy personnel. 

Air Force - New Horizon

New Horizon, initiated in 2012, set overarching values for the Air Force which include achieving a diverse, inclusive and safe working environment.[15] Within this, the Air Force ensures women receive the exact same training and career progression opportunities as men, and provide support and flexibility for women with family commitments.[16] For instance, the Air Force provides extended leave and part-time work options, the ability to place one’s career ‘on hold’, access to child care and education services.  

Army - Good Soldiering 

Launched in early 2019, the Chief of Army implemented the cultural change program, Good Soldiering. The program is founded with four guiding principles: Courage, Initiative, Respect and Teamwork.[17] These principles have laid down a foundation of mutual trust, understanding of diverse opinions, acceptance of individual differences and incorporated the need for a collaborative people-first approach. Good Soldering aims to create an overall change in the Army’s culture, and work towards a more inclusive Army. 

In addition to the three cultural programs, a tri-service Model has been established to provide varying and accommodating service options for military personnel.

The Total Workforce Model

In a survey conducted in 2014 it was found that both men and women alike choose to leave the ADF to start a family, or spend more time with their families.[18] In order to prevent loss of military personnel, and continue to work towards equal gender representation, the Total Workforce Model (TWM) was introduced in 2016. The TWM introduced both full and part-time pathways for military personnel, in order to allow for a balanced career.[19] The TWM also offered flexible working arrangements (FWAs). FWAs are available for personnel serving under Service Category 6, which allows the option of varied and flexible working hours, the ability to work from home, and the choice to work on a four day week schedule. 

To further ensure the retention and support of ADF personnel - primarily women - female-specific initiatives have been created across each of the ADF sectors.  

Creating a Culture of Inclusivity 

From 2018, the Navy, Air Force and Army have sought to facilitate the integration of women in typically under-represented workplaces.[20] This has been done by providing mentorship, sponsorship and networking opportunities. These are displayed in the below table: 

The service-specific initiatives, TWM and cultural changes discussed thus far represent the steps taken by the ADF to create a more diverse and equal military where female-specific needs are brought to the forefront. However, of equal importance is the latest step taken from the Australian Government to ensure gender equality across the ADF. 

Female Participation in Combat

Over the past ten years the Australian Government has been working to promote equal female participation in combat. This primarily involved removing gender-based restrictions in ADF combat roles. Prior to 2011, Australia had permitted the ADF to legally discriminate against women for employment in combat roles under the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth) (the Act).[21] This exemption necessitated a reservation for Article 11(1)(b) and (c) of The Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), relating to equal employment opportunities and application of employment criteria, and the right to promotion.[22]

However, in 2011 the Australian Government declared that all gender restrictions in ADF combat roles would be removed.[23] From 2013 women already serving in the ADF were able to transfer to direct combat roles, and from 2016 combat positions were open to all Australian women. More recently, Australia removed the final barrier to female participation in combat operations by amending the Act and withdrawing their reservation to CEDAW.[24] This marks a significant step, as any future attempts by the ADF to reverse gender-equality policy would entail noncompliance with CEDAW. 

Why ask, where are the women? 

Female involvement in the ADF is a crucial aspect of building sustainable peace in conflict, post-conflict and post-disaster environments. As noted in the Participation category of the Australian National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security (NAP), women’s role in the security and peace-building process ought to be recognised and enhanced.[25] This is underpinned by one of the NAP’s aims to ensure women are provided with the opportunity to participate in ADF deployments abroad. In accordance with the NAP’s Participation principle, the ADF have included women in the deployment of two overseas operations. 

In 2013, during the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, females as well as males were deployed as part of Operation Philippines Assist. A significant result of female representation was the broader societal change created. For instance, the locals recalled seeing women do a man’s job and be active agents in perpetuating and fostering peace, challenging the common conceptions of male and female societal roles. 

In addition to female participation in the Philippines, the ADF employed a gender perspective and included gender advisors during Operation Fiji Assist, which responded to Tropical Cyclone Winston in 2016. Including gender-advisors in the assistance operation enabled female-led discussion with local leaders to take place, which focused on addressing the specific needs of women and children.[26] Consequently, through this community level consultation, certain items such as school supplies, sanitary products and nappies were prioritised and distributed to the local populace. 

It has also been recognised that women and children often feel safer talking with other women. In some communities women are forbidden or discouraged to talk with men, therefore making female participation crucial in creating an environment in which all members of the local population can communicate freely. As a female gender advisor for the ADF noted, “if you don't include women in the initial planning for disaster response then you're dismissing 50 per cent of the population.” 

Where to from here? 

The top-down, structural cultural change in the ADF is fundamentally important for the breakdown of the hyper-masculine hegemonic ideal of the imagined combatant. However, there must also be a behavioural change in male ADF personnel. As noted in the NAP, men in the ADF can contribute to the advancement of gender equality through their own actions, and consequently promote equality both within the ADF itself and in conflict and post-conflict settings, as “the equal access and full participation of women in power structures and their full involvement in all efforts for the prevention and resolution of conflict are essential for the maintenance and promotion of peace and security.”[27]


[1] Carter, C 2020 ‘Being one of the boys in the military’, The Interpreter,

[2] Australian Human Rights Commission 2017, Conversations on deployment, 

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Australian Human Rights Commission 2017, Conversations on deployment, 

[6] Australian Human Rights Commission 2015, Collaboration for Cultural Reform in Defence

[7] Australian Human Rights Commission 2017, Conversations on deployment, 

[8] Australian Human Rights Commission n.d., Collaboration for Cultural Reform in Defence,

[9] Australian Government Department of Defence 2012, Pathway to Change: Evolving Defence Culture, 

[10] Australian Government Department of Defence 2019, Annual Report 18-19,

[11] Rishworth, R 2017 ‘The Pathways to cultural change in Defence: maintaining momentum’, The Strategist - The Australian Strategic Policy Institute Blog,,of%20women%20in%20the%20ADF.

[12] Australian Government Department of Defence 2019, Women in the ADF Report 2018-19 

[13] Australian Government Department of Defence 2012, Pathway to Change: Evolving Defence Culture, 

[14] Australian Government Department of Defence 2019, Women in the ADF Report 2018-19 

[15] Royal Australian Air Force n.d. ‘New Horizon’,

[16] Royal Australian Air Force n.d. ‘Women in the Air Force’,

[17] Army 2020 ‘Good Soldiering’

[18] Australian Government Department of Defence 2019, Women in the ADF Report 2018-19 

[19] Australian Government Department of Defence 2019, Annual Report 18-19

[20] Australian Government Department of Defence 2019, Women in the ADF Report 2018-19 

[21] Parliament of Australia n.d. ‘Women in Combat Duties - Reservation Withdrawal’

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Australian Government Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet 2018 ‘Landmark moment for women in the ADF’; Parliament of Australia n.d. ‘Women in Combat Duties - Reservation Withdrawal’

[25] Australian Government Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet n.d. ‘Australian National Action Plan on Women Peace and Security 2012-2018’,,conflict%20prevention%2C%20management%20and%20resolution.  

[26] Chapman, E 2018 ‘Women in the ADF: the operational imperative of participation’, he Strategist - The Australian Strategic Policy Institute Blog,

[27] Australian Government Department of Defence 2016, ‘Addressing Gender for Disaster Response Success’ 

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