Australian of the year David Morrison on gender equality

Australian of the year David Morrison’s efforts to bring sexism into the daylight making him a deserving man to feature on Engaging Women.

He has successfully driven cultural and institutional change in the Australian armed forces.

In this speech he was still chief of the Australian Army.

Lieutenant General David Morrison on the case for gender equality.

I have been your Army Chief for almost two-and-a-half years, and during the course of that time I have become increasingly involved, certainly out of a deep personal commitment, but also in response to certain circumstances that have happened in our Army and our Defence Force, in the issues around diversity and inclusivity.

Now, before I say anything further, I would like to offer three caveats. And while this is not practiced public speaking to do this at the beginning of an address, I really do feel the need to do so. The first caveat is institutional, the second is academic, and the third is personal.

Institutionally, the Australian Army exists under our constitution for one reason primarily, and that is to ght and win the nation’s wars. If you would like to give it a business connotation, our output is either the implied threat of, or the delivery of, violence. I make that point upfront because much of what I will talk about is addressing cultural issues within the institution that is the Australian Army. I certainly don’t lose sight of the fact that I am held to account, not just by the Government of Australia, but also by you, the citizens of Australia, to deliver an Army capable of securing the future prosperity of this country and a protection of either its land mass or its interests.

The second caveat is academic. I have now had the opportunity over the course of the last couple of years to speak at functions such as this about culture and the challenges to changing culture. But I have no background in it. I have no training as a sociologist or as a psychologist. My background is an arts degree, and that’s about as much as I can tick off. So what I speak about today is deeply personal, but of course, expressed within the guise of a leader of a 112-year-old institution, the Australian Army.

And so to that third caveat: I am 57 years old, I am white, I have an Anglo- Saxon heritage, I am male, and I have never, not once, been discriminated against on the basis of my race, my sex, my sexual orientation or my religion. And while I suspect that there is a time coming soon where I may be discrimi- nated against on the basis of my age, I do not speak with personal authority in this area.

Yet I am very aware that I am speaking to an audience largely of women who
in many respects will have felt at least partly, or perhaps much more dramati- 7 cally, our society’s imbalance in terms of gender diversity, and felt the weight
of that.


So having offered those three caveats, could I now just tell you a little bit about your Army, because if you’re 112 years old and you’re one of Australia’s trusted institutions – and many surveys point to the Army as one of the top three or top ve most trusted institutions in this country at the moment – it is for me disheartening that many of my fellow citizens don’t know very much about it, and I think that says a great deal about our democracy and about our place in the world.

So we are 112 years old. And down at the War Memorial along the Roll of Honour, which runs on either side of the wall up to the Hall of Remembrance, are the names of our fellow citizens, who, since the Sudan War, before the Boer War, have gone overseas to protect Australia and its interest and not returned. There are 102,000 of them. They are primarily from the Army. While they are not exclusively male, they are overwhelmingly male because the busi- ness of the Army during the 112 years that we have existed has been seen as a predominantly male preserve. That’s not to say of course that there haven’t been women as part of our organisation since its inception on 1 March 1901. We now of course, in 2013, have many women in our organisation. But they are under-represented.

When I became the Chief of Army in June 2011, I was aware and concerned, but not energised, about the fact that we indeed had less than 10 per cent of our 50,000-person workforce who were women.

Indeed when I came into the job as the Chief of Army, I was concerned about three things primarily. The rst was the support to our men and women on operations. And when I began my time as your Chief we were on operations in Timor and the Solomon Islands as well as Afghanistan, and that has remained and will continue to remain my number-one priority because that’s what you expect from me.

My second priority, and you can be relieved that I will not talk about this in any detail, was about the force structure of the Army, most particularly in the third decade of this century, doing my bit to ensure that we would be a robust and relevant ghting force ready for Australia’s security needs in 2030.

And my third concern was set in a rather grey mist for me, but was nonethe- less absolutely committed to it, around the idea of workforce. But I have to say that my overwhelming concern in June 2011 was the care of our wounded, our ill, and those who had been injured as a result of their military service. That does still remain an absolute priority for me. But I hadn’t given a great deal of thought – not conscious thought, not laid out thought, not thought that you gained through interaction with men and women who you trust – about culture.


You see, I had accepted from the time that I had joined the Army in 1979 and embarked on my Army career here in Brisbane in 1980 that our culture was something that was almost sacrosanct. That it had sustained us in all of those wars that are remembered at the War Memorial, and of course remembered most poignantly with those names that run along the Hall of Memory. Yet as I came into the job, I was only too well aware that the Army and the Australian Defence Force (ADF) had undergone a series of reviews – 13 over the last 15 years – and that if they were to have a commonality given to them, it could be found in the recommendations that went to the heart of the culture of the organisation. Indeed, some ve months before I became your Chief of Army, we had an incident at the Australian Defence Force Academy, which I am sure everyone in this room is familiar with, and if you aren’t please put up your hand and I will describe it, but what has become known as the ‘Skype affair’ is still receiving considerable press today.

Now, as a man, as a soldier, as a general and as a leader in waiting, I was of the view at the time that the actions of the men who have since been found guilty in a Magistrates Court in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) around that Skype affair were abhorrent and reprehensible, but this was not indicative of the culture of the ADF, let alone the Army, although they were army cadets. There are many still in our community, our society, who would agree with the following view that I’m about to express. I will correct it in just a moment. How can the actions of a group of men who had been a part of the ADF for less than 10 weeks be re ective of the culture of the ADF or the Army? Surely it’s much more re ective of who they are, or their education or their upbringing. Now, in June of 2011 I was of that view, but I am not of that view now.

Indeed, I had changed my view within a few months of becoming the Chief of Army. What had fuelled that change in my thinking was my interaction, rst and foremost, with the Sex Discrimination Commissioner of Australia, Ms Elizabeth (Liz) Broderick. She had been commissioned to undertake a review of the treatment of women at the Australian Defence Force Academy, and then subsequently the treatment of women in the ADF, and she came to see the new Chief within a month of me taking over.

Now, I don’t know if any of you in the audience know Liz Broderick, but I’m
here to attest that she is a force of nature, and I can also say with con dence
that I do have a reputation within the service, within the ADF, of never leaving
people wondering. So it was a robust initial meeting. Robust but deeply 7 positive, for her I would like to think, but certainly for me.

Because Liz asked a series of questions for which I had only in my own mind weak or ill-formed answers. One of the questions she asked that sat me bolt upright, was: “Well look, David, if this is not a cultural issue, if 13 reviews in 15 years don’t act as an important signpost, answer me this: Why, for all of the money that has been spent, for all of the words that have been written on a page or put on a recruitment campaign, do you only have less than 10 per cent of your work- force as women?”

And she left me with a pile of what I thought at the time was feminist literature. I am here to tell you that I have read more feminist literature than I thought I would in five lifetimes since that meeting. But it has not been for naught. The documents sat on the corner of my desk. Chiefs of armies seldom have to worry where their next meal is coming from, or where their next brief is coming from. But I travel a lot and I tend to place documentation in my briefcase and read it on the plane. In a flight to Brisbane in 2011, I pulled out the literature that Liz had given me, and it immediately struck a chord.

I didn’t know how the dots joined in my mind at the time, I’ll tell you about that in a moment, but this issue around why women weren’t joining our Army, while at the same time we were trying to grow to be a robust, relevant force in the third decade of this century, really struck me as a challenge for me, not for the amorphous mass known as either the Australian Army or the ADF.

So I had another meeting with Liz very soon after, and she said, “You know, what has been done by other organisations is that the leader has stood forward and named a target.”

And I thought about that. We were at 9.8 per cent of a 50,000-person workforce.

And I said, “Look, Liz, I’ve read the literature and I’ve heard what you’ve got to say, I think you’re right. Let me talk to my human resources (HR) people about what I can do, naming a target that is relevant to me in my time as Chief.”

And I should point out I’m a statutory appointment, I finish at midnight on 3 July 2014.

So, the HR team – which is fantastic I can tell you, wonderfully talented men and women – came back after a few weeks of study and said, “ General, what we think you should do is you should say we’re at 9.8 per cent and we can get by 3 July 2014 to 1 per cent.”

And I sort of blinked a couple of times and said, “one per cent?”

Now, I should point out, when we’re talking about a 50,000-person workforce, one per cent is quite a large number, and I was talking about regulars more than our reserve forces, so that was 30,000, so it was an extra 300 women recruited and retained in our Army.

But in true leader’s fashion, I completely disregarded the advice given to me by my HR team. I can only encourage you do the same. I doubled it. And had, I’ve got to say, a rather wicked feeling of pleasure as some of the blood drained from their faces, because this was 600 women now. Now, we only have seven battalions in your Army, and that is about 600 soldiers in each of them, maybe a bit more.

But what I have found of course is that when the leader names a target and then makes it public, the staff get a focus. And over the course of the last two years particularly, we have seen a steady increase in the number of women who have both said I’m interested in the Army, or who have actually joined, despite of course, certain setbacks that I will speak about in just a moment.

So naming a target was really important. And I don’t believe in quotas, although I am persuaded by strong, in uential women like Catherine Fox or Avril Henry that quotas do have utility. But I don’t think they’re right for my organisation at this moment, although if you really want to give impetus to this, then it might have to be considered in the future.

Now, I then felt really good about doing this. I’d read some feminist literature, I had realised that there were systemic issues of a sort in the organisation that were actually dragging us back and not allowing us to grow the number of women as part of the total workforce, and I did what any male would do. I got together with my male mates and I said I have got the plan. It made perfect sense to a 57-year-old, Anglo-Saxon, white guy who’d never been discrimi- nated against based on any of those reasons in his life.

The reaction from the women of the Army was interesting. I would say that there was unanimous support for a leader doing something quite overt in this area. But there were two areas that concerned them, and both of them were absolutely insightful for me. Firstly I’d got the policy bit wrong; I had not run it through men and women, or women and men, up and down the hierarchical organisation that is the Australian Army. And secondly, there were a group of women, and I say this with great respect, who had soldiered through 20 or in some cases 30 years of their career in an institution that was not just male- dominated but heavily male-oriented, and who said, “well, in changing the way we’re going to do business, will you not in some intangible way demean or diminish the achievements of me?”

I think that is something that I completely misunderstood. But I understand it
now. As a consequence, some of the policies that we’ve enacted have been
run very much by a group of trusted women, one of whom is in the audi- 7 ence today sitting at my table, Major General Simone Wilkie, who before her
promotion was my Chief of Staff, and before being my Chief of Staff was our
senior of her in Afghanistan, but also women of different levels of experience in our Army.

So those who had entered only a year or two before, those who were coming to years where they wanted to consider some of the options that we weren’t providing them with in terms of family or exile workplace arrangements, as well as the more senior women. And, interestingly enough, while I established that women’s forum, very quickly after I realised my mistake, I changed it again because one of the real messages in all of this is that gender diversity works, and I’ve got to tell you that when I added men to this organisation that I’d formed, this forum, the results were spectacular. Not because of the men, not because of the women, but because of the interac- tion between the two sexes. It is illustrative of the journey that your Army is on now.

So, there was a whole lot of really good work done around policy. We changed and have continued to change the messages. That we now attract young Australian women to at least consider the idea of military service, even if they dismiss it out of hand after a moment’s thought, at least there are some that say, “well, yes, okay, it could be an option”. And that work then went on.

Now, I would like to describe three meetings that I had and a revelation that I had as a result of those three meetings, and then I am going to conclude and allow every opportunity for questions about speci c areas that you may wish to address. The work was underway, I had changed my mind, I saw it as imperative to increase the opportunities for 50 per cent of Australia’s popula- tion to at least, if they wished to, join the Army. The Government at the same time had opened up all areas of defence to both sexes, so if you wanted to join the infantry, which had always been a male preserve, and you were a woman, if you could meet the physical standards that were required, there was nothing to stop you, other than the culture of the organisation of course.

And as I was starting to feel pretty good about myself – as 57-year-old, Anglo- Saxon males do quite a bit – I met a woman at a dinner that I ran. She was a very successful woman in her particular corporate area, and I won’t give her name and I won’t give the organisation that she works for. But I said during the course of the dinner, “Do you have children?” And she said, “Yes, I have three.” And I said, “Oh, gosh, how did your organisation manage or treat you as you took three periods of extended maternity leave?” And she said, “Every time I came back from maternity leave, they promoted me.”

And I thought, why are we not doing that? What does that say about the organisation? What loyalty to the organisation does that engender? What does it say about how we care for men and women? Because we certainly don’t do that. In a hierarchical organisation like the Army, you only get to be the Chief of Army at the moment if you’re male and you’ve done a series of jobs, most of which can only be done at the moment by men, and if you take time out, which I never did, despite the personal costs of that, you are put into limbo. And when you are inserted back into the organisation, you almost start again. That really got me thinking.

The second meeting was at the behest of Liz Broderick too. She rang me in early 2012 and said, “David, would you come and talk to three women, two of them still serving, one who has left the military, the Army, who have come forward to tell me their stories as part of my review into treatment of women in the ADF?”

Now, I have been in the Army for three-and-a-half decades, and I’ve dealt with many signi cant personnel issues. But I have to tell you that I went to Sydney with some trepidation. It wasn’t that I was not prepared to listen, of course I was, I credit myself with a degree of empathy, and certainly sympathy but I didn’t know what I would nd.

Over the course of six hours in three sequential meetings with three different women and their partners or people that they had brought to support them, they uncovered for me everything that is wrong with the Army. I’ve described it publicly on a number of occasions now as the most distressing day of my mili- tary career, and without giving any undue emphasis to my career, I had many distressing days. They told me about how they had been stripped of their dignity and their self-respect by their peers or their superiors. One woman, so distraught at the way we had accommodated her attacker, had left our Army, left our Defence Force.

Now, I’m a pretty hard sort of guy when I need to be. But I don’t think in a professional sense I have been so profoundly moved. And I left that series of meetings at a low that I have seldom experienced, because with the great support of men and women around me, like my Chief of Staff, or like any number of men and women who now had bought into this idea of trying to make opportunities for women work better in our Army, I had heard from women who had said: “This is a thin veneer if you only tackle the targeted number or even the policy. Because out there, there are problems that go to the heart of the 112-year-old institution that you, General, are proud to wear the uniform of.” And I am proud to wear the uniform of it; no one is prouder. Yet we’ve let them down. We’ve let them down because the Army had dis- torted the stories that fuel our culture.

I had the opportunity, this year, to speak at the United Nations. It’s not something that I ever envisaged myself doing, and I’m grateful again to Liz Broderick for giving me the opportunity. It was to the UN Women’s Forum, and I spoke about the dangers of the ANZAC mythology. It’s parlous ground for a Chief of Army to stand on. We as a nation, certainly me as an Army
leader, are buoyed by the idea of sacrifice and those who have served before us. Indeed, as the Chief of Army I live in three time zones. I am the custodian of our history and our traditions, I look after our contemporary operations, and as I explained earlier, I look to our future. Yet there is no doubt that there is a distorted view about ANZAC, and about how men straight off the farm, rough- hewn country lads, not an ounce of discipline in them, but ready to deal it up to the best and the worst, who ght best with a hangover, who never salute of cers, particularly the Poms, they are the archetypal soldier. And if you don’t meet the criteria that are absolutely intrinsic to that myth, you’re not white, you’re not Anglo-Saxon, you’re not male, then you start with question marks all over you.

And there were a group of men, and have been a group of men throughout our history, that have used that mythology as a tool of exclusion, not inclusion. Now, it was alright for me, I met all the criteria. And I was pretty okay at my job. But there were plenty of people with just as much talent as me, just as much potential as me, probably a lot more, who had never had the opportuni- ties that I’d been given, not because of any other reason than their sex, their sexual persuasion, their ethnicity or their religious beliefs.

The third meeting that I had was in Afghanistan, and it was with a group of Australian men. Now, they were a group of infantry soldiers, about 30 in number, and I can guarantee you, irrespective of your background, irre- spective of your sex, you would be proud of them. They were a fantastic representation, not of our Army or our Defence Force, but of our nation. They had been out in harm’s way, the top of the Chora Valley, in 45-plus degree heat, for about four months. They had members of their group badly hurt, and yet they had held or kept the faith.

I arrived at their small forward operating base. They were well aware that the Government had opened up all areas of the Army to women, and they were not going to lose the opportunity of taking issue with a travelling general. They said, adding ‘sir’ as what I thought then was something of an afterthought, “how can you tell me that a woman could improve what we are doing? Can’t you remember, sir, what it was like when you were in the infantry?”

Implying that I had now gone long beyond that and had sunk into the realms of leathered comfort as the Chief of the Army. And I said to them: “Fellas, why are you here? What is your role in Afghanistan? Surely you are here to protect the population, I mean, that is why your nation has committed you. How many Afghan women have you spoken to?” Now, the answer was zero.

I won’t say that the lights came on for them, but as I was ying back to Tarin Kot, the major base that we have in Afghanistan, the lights came on for me. I’d been dealing with cultural issues, depressed as I was after the meeting with those very courageous women who had been prepared to tell me their story, and I was worried about our future capability, and the numbers and the target sort of sat around that. And I can assure you that as we were flying into Tarin Kot, dots got joined. More women certainly improve our culture. But more women also improve our capability. All that feminist literature that I had read, which had talked about a better diverse workforce being a more productive workforce, started to ring not just true, but very real.

So the messaging changed. My messaging, the messaging of my command team – and it wasn’t then about the altruism that is still part of what we are trying to do in the Australian Army, that everyone should be given a fair go, irrespective of their gender – was almost now exclusively about capability.

For me, it has been a little bit like Saul on the road to Damascus. I get paid to deliver capability. You expect it of me and your Army. We will be more capable if there are more women who join our Army, who are given the opportunity to recognise all of their talent as part of our Army.

An influential American woman, Beth Brooke is her name, she’s a very senior leader in Ernst & Young, said to me at a lunch that I was lucky enough to share with her: “In my view, dealing with these issues throughout the course of my life, men are promoted on potential, women are promoted on performance.”

Yet how do you have a capable organisation if there is a very uneven playing field? So I’m not going to talk about my response or the Army’s response to the group that call themselves the Jedi Council. I am more than happy to take any questions that you’ve got about that. What I would like to conclude with is what I think will be, hopefully, because my time as the Chief is coming to an end, what I hope is the most significant legacy. We are on the path to I think exceeding 12 per cent of our workforce as women by the time I finish as the Chief.

But the legacy I’d like to think we leave, that I leave, is that I have at least been part of a team that has readjusted how we recognise merit. You see, if you judge merit in a hierarchical organisation about how you perform in job A, to then do job B, to then do job C, to then do job D, and you make no accommodation at all for men and particularly women who may want to not be present to do job B because they’ve got other things to do in their life, and you recognise none of the life skills that they may accrue in doing what they do when they come back into the organisation, but rather put them back 7 at the start, then you are abrogating your responsibility as a leader who is focussed on delivering a more capable workforce.

And guess what? The same applies to almost any organisation in the corporate, public and private sectors of this country. The Army is not the only hierarchical organisation that does this, or used to do it. We have realigned our judgement of merit. We have recognised that you cannot have a tradi- tional approach here.

Our society in the 21st century not just demands something different, it says if you as an organisation can’t attune yourself to those changes, then you will lose the best and brightest to Thiess, or to Griffith University, or to Rio Tinto, or to the public service. And then, General, whatever your aspirations are in terms of a robust and relevant Army in the third decade of this century, they will come to naught because you will have failed to use the talent that’s sitting in the 50 per cent of the population that you’re not doing enough to harness at the moment. And society in fact will have moved on. Yet if your Army that defends you, that secures our prosperity, isn’t a reflection of the society that we all live in, then is it the Army that the nation wants? Of course the answer to that is no.

So, I will conclude. I would just like to acknowledge a couple of things. As a leader, you are bound to step forward and lead, and I am and I have been prepared for that throughout my professional life. But anyone who believes that as a leader you set much more than the tone and the broad parameters within which an organisation develops is losing a grasp on reality, and is in fact engendering a level of hubris that will bring you down individually and certainly perhaps the organisation that you lead. The work that is being done now in your Army to change our culture, to give women proper recognition and the ability to recognise their potential is the work of hundreds of men and women.

And I am deeply proud to be, for a brief time, their professional head. I am now certain that the major indicator of success that I set myself almost two- and-a-half years ago will be realised. And that is that when I leave, whoever takes over from me, will nd that the momentum for change is unstoppable.


1 This end date has since been extended to May 2015.