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The Australian National University

Chief of Army offers vision of gender equality

Address by Lieutenant-General David Morrison AO, Chief of Army
ANU National Security College, 11 November 2014

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Lieutenant-General David Morrison AO

I am delighted to be invited to participate in the Women in National Security forum, especially on Remembrance Day. I plan to speak of issues around culture and leading organisational change and I will do so drawing from my military career but it is important to begin by offering some caveats to what I am about to say.

While I will speak about discrimination and the resultant waste of human potential, I have never been discriminated against in my life. While I will speak briefly about global order and the norms that support it, I am no practitioner of international relations. And while I will speak about culture and its extraordinary influence on our lives, I have no academic qualifications on which to rest my case.

Some would say, uncharitably perhaps, that given such limitations, the confidence to proceed is such a male thing to possess!

I should also say that this is a personal account.  I use the personal pronoun throughout, but in doing so it is only to give emphasis to the journey I have been on as your Chief of Army.  Such use should in no way be construed as me losing sight of the wonderful contribution so many people, men and women, have made in improving the long term health of our Army and ADF.

Let me get to the heart of the matter and I want to begin with something of a rhetorical artifice that is designed to grab attention by being contentious and at a tangent to what you might expect me to say.

Clearly, my not inconsiderable public statements about gender and culture to date have been consistent in their themes around equality.  But here is the rub - equality is a most admirable concept but I am concerned that it doesn’t work so well at a geopolitical level.

That is why Columbia University's Kenneth Waltz, arguably America's pre-eminent realist before his death last year, said that that the opposite of "anarchy" is not stability, but "hierarchy."

In a piece for the think tank STRATFOR, Robert Kaplan observed that hierarchy eviscerates equality; it implies that some are frankly "more equal" than others, and it is this formal inequality - where someone, or some state or group, has more authority and power than others - that prevents chaos. For it is inequality itself that often creates the conditions for peace.

To be even more contentious, and to run the risk of being labelled an uber-realist, I think Waltz and Kaplan are right. But please don’t walk out just yet.

My argument, refined over three years of wrestling with organisational change while leading an institution as prominent as the Army, is that there is a need for hierarchy – internationally, within our own democracy, as foundations for the very institutions that comprise that democracy. Further, that hierarchies are long in their gestation and are products of the culture in which they develop; and that whether the culture is national, institutional, social, or indeed familial, it counts greatly what comprises that culture.

I think it is at least arguable that following the Second World War the international community developed in the way it did, to the benefit of many, because there was a discernable hierarchy which allowed global norms to develop and be supported. 

So, although American supremacy was the skeleton supporting this normative system, its sinews, arteries and organs was constituted by a complex, mutually supporting system of institutions, from the United Nations, The International Monetary Fund, The World Bank and for a time, the Bretton Woods Agreement. At a practical level the world’s trade flowed relatively free of interruption, courtesy of US sea power and on account of shared values, institutions and norms.

These shared norms bound a diverse range of nations to the ideals of a benign global order which sought to limit the arbitrary use of force and the proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction while encouraging a free global economy, the expansion of stable democratic states and a shared responsibility for the natural environment.

But this paradigm has changed. It is now more difficult to shape such norms due to the proliferation of players, including NGO and other non-state actors, compounded by the diffusion of identity, which has gathered pace with the inception of social media. 

A number of rising powers have demonstrated that they are willing to enjoy the benefits of this normative system, while contributing very selectively to its maintenance. The weak, or non-existent norms for the use of space, and particularly the cyber domain are a case in point.

Be assured that I do not subscribe to theories of American decline. But it is beyond dispute that global power is becoming more diffuse, hierarchies less apparent, degrees of anarchy increasing.

This is a bleak view and you could ask what it has to do with the need for better gender balance in our societies and their institutions. As I said, I am no sociologist. I have no anthropological training, but I am certain of this: we live in a world where, increasingly, the squandering of women’s talent, the traducing of their potential, is a global disgrace.

By every credible measure, women are denied opportunities that are accorded to men as a birthright of their sex. At home they face levels of domestic violence that imperil their very being. This is the case in so called first-world nations and in the developing world; it is a feature of secular and non-secular societies. Women face barriers, sometimes tangible, often subliminal, that constrain their lives and their contributions to the development of our world.

This debilitating aspect of modern society affects us all, including those who become our soldiers. At the grave risk of generalising, it is in no small part a product of cultural mores that are skewed heavily towards men and that in turn produce hierarchies that are certainly self-propagating but hardly beneficial to the greater good.

I will speak specifically about the Army in a moment, but consider this proposition: if hierarchies count in creating opportunity, in providing stability, then the positive role of leaders, and those who influence leaders, is absolutely essential.

We need men of authority and conscience to play their part and we most certainly need women, too long denied a strong enough voice, to be given opportunities to lead – in all endeavors, in all parts of our polity and society. 

I am not calling for some utopian equality. The business of living is tough and getting tougher. But to deny the talent in over 51% of the globe’s population is quite frankly madness.     

So let me make some observations about culture and what leaders, men and women, could at least consider as we grapple with this waste of talent and the callous disregard for women’s potential. In deference to my lack of academic qualifications I will speak about military culture to which I do think, as the Chief of Army, I have some claim, but I am certainly willing to extrapolate should there be any questions.
Army culture is complex and possesses deep roots. It remains overtly masculine. There are legitimate historical reasons for this, although Army has been slower than many other large organisations to offer unrestricted employment opportunities to women.

But the events at the Australian Defence Force Academy in 2011 and within the ranks of the Army in 2013 have been game changers. After a decade of almost continuous rolling inquiries into aspects of ADF culture, discipline, alcohol and drug use, these have proved to be creative crises.

First, in 2011, it led to the appointment of Ms Elizabeth Broderick to head a wide ranging inquiry into the treatment of women within the ADF. Liz was the right person in the right place at the right time.

Second, it was the catalyst for me as the new Chief of Army to conclude that there were systemic faults in our culture that had to be addressed in a different way to the past.

Third, it required finding the right way to engage my overwhelmingly young, male and Anglo-Saxon workforce in seeing the issues for what they actually are.  People don’t do things for your reasons, they only do them for theirs. Messages, narratives, examples and leadership in a hierarchical organisation count greatly.

It was clear that any attempt to increase levels of female participation in our workforce would be reliant on cultural change. Women found aspects of the culture repellent, as did the parents of young Australian women.  First and foremost we had to guarantee a safe secure workplace where talented women were able to compete on their merits.

But I hope I have impressed on you my realist perspective and, in that spirit, let me state categorically that at the core of our Army’s contract with Australia is our sanction and mastery of organised violence.

To paraphrase, George Orwell said: “We sleep safe in our beds because tough men and women stand vigil in the dark to visit violence on those who would do us harm.”

That is a profound truth and it demands that we maintain a combat culture. There are some who would exclude women from that role but it is disingenuous and naïve. Women are already exposed to combat in the complex operations of the 21st century; and they now have no gender based restrictions in being eligible to join men in that dangerous vigil to keep us safe.

Hence any measure that I champion must be directed at enhancing Army’s foundation war fighting capability. Granted some of the cultural change that I have implemented is laudable in its own right. I trust I have insisted on standards of decency and respect for comrades that are the right of any Australian. However, I have never lost my focus on how my decisions impact on capability.

As I began my task, it was clear at the outset that our culture possessed many virtues. Our operational performance was excellent. Moreover, many women felt immense pride in their service and did not identify with the stories of bullying or sexual harassment that had such currency.

So how were we to achieve the appropriate balance? How could we eliminate meaningless misogyny while still preserving a team ethos that could survive the heat of battle? How were we to ensure that in an organised hierarchical institution you propagate capability that has as  its intrinsic strengths, inclusivity and diversity?

The answer is in how you define yourself as a soldier and as an Army. Its about culture and it counts.

I have been at the forefront of leading cultural change and I think I only now understand just how much it does.  It shapes our perspective of who we are: as Australians, as members of a particular profession, as supporters of a sporting team. It is often intangible: a sense of identity, a shared but often unspoken alliance with others of our group. Indeed it is so intangible at times, it defies ready definition and wilts when examined forensically. When it is made tangible it is often through totems – a badge, a slouch hat, a national flag. It is bolstered by the stories we tell each other and herein lies culture’s great strength and weakness.

Let me give you an example of what I mean.

The marking of the Centenary of the Great War and the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli landings next year will thrust Anzac, and what it ought to mean to us, into the foreground of our public debate. That may be a very good thing. Anzac looms large in the Australian psyche. For better or worse, Anzac has become one of our dominant national foundation narratives.

The best of them are a summons to live out noble universal human values. Anzac has this potential for our Army. But the mythology that is so often entrenched around professions such as mine was by definition created in a different era and often under different societal norms. The hyper-reality built up around the myth can in the hands of some exact a toll of exclusion rather than inclusion.

In that regard the Anzac legend – as admirable as it is – has become something of a double-edged sword.
For the Army, the most pervasive distortion about what really happened in Turkey in 1915 is that many Australians now have an idealised image of the Australian 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. In the Australian psyche every soldier is Mel Gibson in Gallipoli.

This is a pantomime caricature, and frankly it undermines our recruitment from some segments of society and breeds a dangerous complacency about how professional and sophisticated soldiering really is. 

But if Anzac is to fulfill its mythical role effectively we must seek to interpret it in an inclusive way. Those who use their service to bludgeon conformity to a narrow ideal of what an Australian, especially an Australian soldier, should be, deliver harm not homage to Anzac. I hope the Anzac myth can be reinterpreted by modern Australians in a manner that means it offers intangible but utterly universal inspiration to all Australians.

For me, it was important to accept that many abuses had been derived from a warped reading of our history including the ANZAC legend. We had to adapt it to the 21st Century rather than use it as crude stereotype to idealise a Golden Age that had never really occurred.

Some of this must seem banal and self evident. But you cannot underestimate the power of the stories we tell each other about ourselves. Those stories build up in Armies over long periods of time.

I decided that as a leader I had to reinterpret our stories. But I had to ‘own’ the narrative and ensure that the stories we told ourselves were honest and relevant.

My address to the United Nations on International Women’s Day and a YouTube message that I released to define my stance on bullying of women have received a gratifying response both inside and outside the Army. So too a speech I gave to the Global Summit to Prevent Sexual Violence in Conflict.

On these occasions I issued a direct challenge to the Army as to how it perceived itself. I was firmly convinced that I was right. But, my aspirations for change would have been futile if the underlying culture was not responsive to strong leadership. Using hierarchy to good effect if you like.

Our chain of command may puzzle business leaders. But when used effectively and when officers and Non Commissioned Officers ‘buy in’ wholeheartedly to a commander’s agenda, it is without peer as mechanism for achieving grassroots change. It is a unique strength of well trained military organisations.

However, as all of you will understand leaders have a pivotal role in setting the tone within their organisations. This assumption animates the first principle endorsed by Male Champions of Change - that excellent initiative of Liz Broderick.

All of the leaders comprising MCC agreed to ‘step up as leaders’ and to bring our leadership teams with us.

We agreed to disrupt the status quo within our organisations and for me that has centred on matters of the heart. You can have the best policy in the world, and we in the Army often do, but unless there is a strong emotional quotient, those policies will count for little.

I am proud to be a soldier in my Army and I know first hand the work that Australian soldiers and the soldiers of many nations, have done as protectors in conflicted societies around the globe. Their courage and capacity for sacrifice is to be honoured.

But armies that revel in their separateness from civil society, that value the male over the female, that use their imposed values to exclude those that don’t fit the particular traits of the dominant group, who celebrate the violence that is integral to my profession rather than seeking ways to contain it - they do little or nothing to distinguish the soldier from the brute.

I know that I speak for generations of soldiers whose dedication and sacrifice have shaped Australia, and I speak to the serving soldiers of today who have shown similar commitment to the ideals of service in places like Timor, Iraq and Afghanistan. I am a soldier’s son and between my father and I we have served the Nation for over 70 unbroken years. I am deeply respectful and collegiate in my approach in order to help fashion the Army of tomorrow.

The Australian Army belongs to the Nation. We are funded by their taxes. We recruit from their families and ultimately we prosper, or we wither away, dependant on their ongoing trust and support. That is integral to our contract with the Nation.

We are fundamentally a national institution. Our ranks are open to every person whose allegiance is to Australia regardless of their race, their gender, their sexual preference or by what name they call their God.

In creating a workplace that harnesses the commitment and talent of our men and women, we ensure that in this challenging time where stability is hard to fashion and maintain, the Nation can look to those within its security architecture confident that the best of society have for their focus, the prosperity and safety of us all.


Updated:  4 February 2015/ Responsible Officer:  Head of College, National Security College/ Page Contact:  Web administrator, National Security College