Australian Defence Force still needs to work on cultural change in its ranks

Australian Defence Force still needs to work on cultural change in its ranks

The discriminatory experiences faced by two young cadets at ADFA shows the defence force still has a long way to go in reaching equality among its members.

While there is clearly a recognition among the top brass of the need for change and that the world around them is shifting, the cultural change needed within will take many years.

The two, who bravely share their story in today's Sunday Canberra Times, encountered unacceptable treatment by their superiors and their peers.

That both Sarah Bowley and Joel Wilson were so badly treated that they were eventually forced to leave the academy shows some intolerance and rigidity still remains within the Defence Force.

Their experiences demonstrate that while policies might be made preaching support for transgender people to serve, in practice the reality can be vastly different.


Both joined Defence after the 2010 policy was launched yet still faced strong discrimination and harassment that put an end to their serving careers.

Their treatment was clearly not consistent with the policy and would seemingly be at odds with the military leadership's public message of support.

The rigid gender roles that define life in the military made life difficult for both cadets, and no doubt many others, who don't fit the strict guidelines of gender or sexuality.

It is these rigid guidelines, which are being eroded at a faster pace in general society, that make life very hard for those who don't fit the form, and can breed discrimination.

Inappropriate behaviour needs to be reprimanded and made an example of and those facing discrimination need to be supported and encouraged to raise their concerns.

Where concerns are raised, they need to be followed through, and if needs be, external advice sought, as was the case in 2011 when Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick was called in to investigate the treatment of women at the academy.

In 2013 then army chief David Morrison launched a public tirade against soldiers who demeaned or exploited their colleagues and said they had no place in the army. Further he said the it was an inclusive organisation "in which every soldier, man and woman, is able to reach their full potential and is encouraged to do so".

While there has been change in the ADF in recent years the experience of the two cadets shows there remains a level of intolerance and discrimination within the ranks.

These are not issues that can be resolved overnight particularly when a longstanding culture needs to be changed.

In many respects today's ADF is among the most modern and professional organisations of its kind in the world. In other aspects however, it appears there is still work to do.

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