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Women in Leadership: Achieving an Equal Future in a post COVID-19 World

As our nation’s land specialists, Army is acutely aware of why a diverse force matters. We fight where people live and 50% of the world’s population are women. Drawing on a presentation I made to a 2021 Defence International Womens’ Day event, this piece reflects on the opportunities for women in leadership that have emerged from Army’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.  Firstly, I consider the pandemic as the catalyst for cultural change, and how this enables more women to progress more naturally into leadership roles. In the second part, I outline how the accelerating differentials of our time – like COVID - are helping the Australian Army transform its workforce.

To frame the discussion, it is helpful to build a brief context on leadership.  Like the ubiquitous, undisciplined use of the word ‘strategy’, ‘leadership’ is often discussed. It is less often that we focus on its true meaning and application. At its simplest, in the ADF we define leadership as the art of influencing others to get the job done[i].  In the profession of arms, we predominantly learn about leading through application; less time is invested in personal study and reflection. Senior leaders will share with you that leadership is hard, recognising it is an acutely, gritty human endeavour. However, it should not be confused with management or command. While leadership, management and command are complimentary in that they all deliver outcomes, realise objectives, and involve people, they are different.  Management is a science of coordinating and administering resources, which of course includes people. Command bestows a legal authority on a military officer to lawfully direct others to do something under that authority. It follows that you can command and manage, but you might not necessarily be a leader.

In the Australian Army, there are four pillars to the art of leadership:

  • leaders lead through influence to get others to do things, and they can do so because they know and care for their people
  • leaders are of substantial character – they are virtuous and know what they stand for
  • leaders make ethical decisions
  • leaders are resilient in uncertainty or crisis.

With this very brief context on leadership, how then is COVID accelerating cultural change in Defence on the nature of work? In her book The Wife Drought, Annabel Crabb argues that until we change the nature of work for both men and women, we will not achieve equality of opportunity for women in senior leadership roles. Of itself the title – The Wife Drought – suggests every leader needs someone like a ‘wife’ to help them with the ‘friction’ of life’s responsibilities outside work. In Defence, women have pay parity and all job roles are available to them. However, despite some progressive strategies about remote located work and part time work, this type of work was not normalised pre-COVID. This was because (as Crabb identifies) work across society was constructed on the ‘ideal worker’; one who can commit fulsomely to the workplace, and who has no distractions to full time employment. Historically, this model favours men.

COVID is debunking this resilient and persistent industrial-age concept of work. COVID has fundamentally broken and reconstructed the nature of work and the ‘ideal worker’. As with any massive change, we are still progressing through the ‘trough of despair’ as General Stanley McChrystal calls it. Society is now through shock, denial, depression, frustration and experiment. As a result, it is rising back up the trough into acceptance, integration and creating the new normal.

Defence is only just understanding the agility and opportunity of the post-COVID workplace for the enterprise. This includes becoming more effective and efficient because of the change in ‘how, where and when’ we work.  Defence is unifying in ‘why’ the new normal is a force-multiplier for the effects our people deliver.  To change culture, you need to change your process and behaviour. But to change your process and behaviour you need to change your culture.

The accelerated cultural change in what constitutes work, and what the worker is, opens the door to new opportunities for Army women who want to lead.  Alongside RAN and RAAF counterparts, within the last year Army has been able to modernise and transform how we train our people. Unexpectedly from the COVID crisis, for the first time in decades we completely rethought how we could achieve outputs that were otherwise delivered face-to-face. Change management is hard as we seek to break old habits and a deep-rooted desire to go ‘back to what we knew.’   Nonetheless, online training and remote working are now largely normalised.  

In addition to fostering cultural change, the work place implications of COVID have also accelerated Army’s thinking on workforce transformation. There are five lines of effort to this transformation. This article will focus on the two that have most relevance to women in leadership.

The first of these is the Total Workforce System.  Its purpose is to harness full-time, part-time, public servants, partnerships, academia and industry workforces. Within this system, Army is rethinking how it can make part-time and full-time service more agile and scalable for its personnel. Because the system is interchangeable along service categories, it gives rise to initiatives that refocus attention on how Army retains people and advances them into senior leadership roles. It is also enabling Army to place new value on differing types of work – both in uniform and out of uniform.

The second area of transformation relates to Army’s career management practices. When Army could not move people across the country for their next posting in 2020, we asked ourselves, why do we relocate our people as often as we do? As an army that is recapitalising its platforms and systems in this half-decade, Army is seeking to achieve better-value horizontal career progression, as opposed to vertical progression.  These changes will support Army to build technical expertise in its operating system. More philosophically, Army is rethinking why we only ‘build’ (ab initio) our people and how we might better ‘bridge’ (laterally recruit) our workforce for the contemporary operating environment.

Changes to workforce culture and career management increase flexibility for our people and their families which augers well for women who seek greater agility in service.  Indeed, they are changing the nature of work for us all.  The added benefit to Army is that the changes allow us to gain an advantage on our value proposition - our people - to do more things, in more places, more of the time for government. In Defence, COVID has been an accelerating differential to expand our risk appetite to trial ideas and to challenge extant policy and process. There are more opportunities for women to remain in service, and to balance family and work through enterprise-wide adopted flexibility. The opportunities are enhanced for those who want to lead. Whether women or men.

This piece is modified from a speech delivered to the HMAS Watson Defence International Women’s Day event (12 March 2021) by Brigadier Ana Duncan, AM, CSC.  BRIG Duncan is Commandant – Royal Military College of Australia and Director-General Australian Army Leadership.


[i] ADDP 00.6 – ADF Leadership, edition 3, 2021

The views expressed in this article and subsequent comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.

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