News: Sexual harrassment widespread in the defence force.

Defence Minister, Stephen Smith.


Yesterday I tabled the Review by the Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Ms Elizabeth Broderick, into Treatment of Women in the Australian Defence Force (ADF).

The Review and its recommendations are an important part of a broader strategy to help ensure that all Australians who choose to wear the uniform of their country are able to do so solely on the basis of their ability, rather than their gender.

It’s important to remember where this process started. As Ms Broderick said in her press conference this morning, the starting point for this Review was the so-called ADFA/Skype incident of April last year.

I made it clear at the time of the ADFA/Skype incident that I found the treatment of a young woman in the Air Force – studying at ADFA, having her character called into question while making complaints regarding alleged sexual abuse and having unrelated matters put in the spotlight at the same time – to be wrong.

I continue to hold that view, unapologetically.

Ms Broderick’s Review found widespread sexual harassment, inadequate levels of supervision, a cumbersome complaints processes and an equity and diversity environment lacking positive engagement.

The Review identified areas in ADFA’s culture which could be improved and recommended improvements to issues including providing quality staffing at ADFA, management of complaints, accommodation for students and mechanisms to better manage the risk of injury to female cadets. 

The second part of the Review, dealing with the treatment of women in the ADF as a whole, deals comprehensively with the career of women in the ADF from recruitment and retention to career choices, work-life balance practices and policies, leadership, and more disturbing topics such as sexual harassment, discrimination and sexual assault.

This part of the review makes a number of recommendations, which say that as a country we need to:

Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Liz Broderick
  1. Actively promote a broad organisational understanding of diversity as both a core Defence value and an operational imperative linked to capability and operational effectiveness;
  2. Address the significant under-representation of women at decision making level;
  3. Increase the number of women recruited to the ADF as a whole, but also to specific occupational areas and units;
  4. Improve the level to which the ADF assists serving women and men to balance their work and family commitments; and
  5. Establish a new and more robust approach to responding to unacceptable sexual behaviours and attitudes.

The equal treatment of women should be at the core of any Australian workplace, and should be a core Defence value.

The failure to treat women equally undermines operational effectiveness.

Women are essential to the operational effectiveness of the ADF because they contribute to a diverse workforce, which strengthens the ADF’s ability to be an effective, modern, relevant and high performing organisation.

The ADF must also address the problem of a shrinking talent pool, the significant cost of unwanted departures, the lack of diversity at leadership level and its desire to be a first class employer with a first class reputation.


The practice of selecting the most senior leadership positions in the ADF from combat corps codes will be reviewed with the object of selecting from a broader group of meritorious candidates, particularly women. A critical mass of women will be built in areas that currently have a low representation of women.

Women in the ADF.

The removal of gender restrictions from combat roles was an important step in providing women equal opportunity in their work and career progression, which we’re already in the process of implementing, and is closely linked to the issue of a lack of women in senior leadership positions.

Flexible working arrangements will be put in place for both men and women to underpin capability and recruitment and retention.

A new Sexual Misconduct Prevention and Response Office will be established to coordinate victim support, education, policy and reporting for misconduct of a sexual nature, to include personnel with experience in responding to people subjected to sexual harassment or abuse.

The ADF will develop a more robust approach to responding to unacceptable sexual behaviours and attitudes, making the system more responsive to the needs of complainants, including allowing members to make confidential (restricted) reports of sexual harassment, sex discrimination and sexual abuse.

The Sex Discrimination Commissioner made the point yesterday that instances of sexual harassment or other abuse against women in the ADF are broadly comparable to other parts of society.

What these changes are about is ensuring that Defence, as it does in so many other ways, holds a mirror up to the best aspects of our society, not the worst.

We have a female Governor-General. A female Prime Minister. A Cabinet and a Ministry, a Shadow Cabinet and Shadow Ministry, replete with highly capable and professional women.

Senior female officials throughout the public service and in key positions throughout corporate Australia.

And this is reflective, of course, of the modern Australia in which we live.

If this is as unremarkable in important leadership positions elsewhere in the Australian community, the same must apply in Defence.

Stephen Smith is the Minister for Defence in the Australian Government.

Do you know any women who are members of our defence forces? What has their experience been?