United Nations Commission on the Status of Women address

10 March 2023

To my panel colleagues and people and to all our friends in the room.

My name is Natasha Fox and I am the Deputy Chief of the Australian Army. I am honoured to be part of this panel. Before I begin I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land in which we meet, and where I am from in Australia, it is Ngunnawal Country, and pay my respects to all First Nations people, their elders, past, present and emerging.

The Australian Defence Force has a history of women undertaking military service, long before I joined in 1988, who paved the way for current serving Australian women. However, I want to look back to the pivotal year of 2012, when the Human Rights Commission undertook a “Review into the Treatment of Women in the Australian Defence Force”.

In 2012, the incidents and subsequent outrage that triggered the Human Rights Commission Review were not isolated and were not unique. The review brought to life the lived experience of women in our military, it allowed us, and our experience, to be seen.

The review laid bare the aspects of our culture that had damaged our people and undermined the bonds of trust and respect between members of the armed forces.

The response was a very public recognition that discrimination, harassment and sexual misconduct was both unacceptable but more importantly, preventable, it was a willingness to see ourselves and acknowledge that our culture had to change.

Our leadership then, and now, also understands that based on our national security and our population demographics, that increasing women’s participation in the Defence workforce, including in senior leadership roles, is fundamental to building Defence’s innovation, competitive edge, capability and operational effectiveness.

What was missing, was the ‘how’ of achieving our goals and how we shift behaviour. The Australian Defence Force military leaders were vulnerable enough to admit that we needed help.

There was no doubt that the Australian Human Rights Commission were best placed to help us.

A Human rights approach is a unifying framework for the Australian Defence Force that is drawn from a diverse nation, a nation committed to equality regardless of gender, sexuality, ethnic origin or cultural background.

It makes us relevant to the Australian Nation we serve.

Since 1947, Australian Defence Force personnel have put their lives on the line as peacekeepers to protect the human rights of others, in fact a small personal note - I was part of the first all female patrol at Observer Group Lebanon at the United Nations Troop Supervision Organisation (UNTSO). My reflections about Service are that it is about the greater good, it is putting others before yourself, putting your nation, your community before yourself, it is more than a job, it is about supporting others, lifting others and providing hope.

Our partnership with the Human Rights Commission is built on respect, trust, on a shared understanding of the Australian Defence Force and its purpose, and a commitment to excellence. This partnership values transparency as a means for being accountable for our culture.

Our partnership understands that both of our organisations have a level of expertise and when put this together, redefines how we approach wicked problems through the lens of achieving Defence’s mission, whilst caring for our most valuable asset - our people.

The commitment to continually measure, and optimise our culture is now deeply embedded in the leadership of the Australian Defence Force and the civilian Defence organisation

For change to happen, it has to be lead, informed by research, best practice and progress must be measurable and evaluated, changes need to be credible for our workforce, and credibility in the military is operational effectiveness.

To give you an insight into the work the partnership has delivered - since 2014 there have been 43 pieces of work conducted with the Australian Human Rights Commission, delivering a range of reports/advice and recommendations from tactical unit reviews, through to broader whole of Australian Defence Force reviews such as: recruiting, unacceptable behaviour, deployment experiences, and cultural reform, and Defence enterprise work such as Indigenous Pathways programs.

A transformative body of work was the Fast Jet Pilot project, which I have selected to briefly discuss due to the association with STEM / technical skills for the role, was instigated to investigate whether systemic and / or cultural barriers had contributed to zero women joining this occupation, since it opened to them, in 1995.

In June 2016, the Human Rights Commission presented its final report which made 65 recommendations spanning multiple issues including recruitment, retention, training, approaches to learning, workplace culture and physical requirements for fast jet pilots.

63 recommendations have been implemented with the remaining two focussed on long term growth. Air Force went from 0 fast jet pilots in 2016 (that is zero over 20 years), to two in training in one year after the report, to currently having five qualified fast jet pilots. We also now have 18 per cent fixed wing pilots and 16 percent air battle managers.

To achieve transparency each year we open ourselves up to external scrutiny, to understand the impact/effect of our policies and our culture, with the aim to increase the participation and advancement of women. The results are published annually in the ‘Women in the ADF’ report. Then we work on the nature of interventions that might be needed with the assistance of the Commission.

A human-rights based approach and in partnership with the Commission ensures that the work we take to advance women in the military happens with them, not to them. This approach also deliver pragmatic solutions and therefore has the same approach or aim if like as the Gender Peace and Security mandate.

The cultural shift to include women, rather than be purely about representation, means that it is ok to invest in programs that tailor uniforms and provide bespoke equipment for women based on science, maternity leave provisions, family support arrangements, appropriate facilities and access to education / career advancement programs. When we provide these pragmatic solutions - for women, they actually enable better service for all our people.

I am proud that now all Australian Defence Force employment categories are open to women, including combat roles. Now while we have removed these structural barriers there remains issues with some workforce segments. Only 10% or less, of women serve in the Aviation, Combat and Security, and Engineering and Construction and we have more work to do in these segments.

We have identified and adopted female representation targets in each of the Services of which the early targets have been achieved and we are now looking at 18% for Army by 2025, 35% for Navy by 2035 and 35% by 2030 for Air Force.

The overall participation rate of women in the Australian Defence Force in 2021/2022 was 20.1 per cent. That represents an increase of 5.7 percentage points since 2012 (14.4%). If I reflect for a moment, 20 years ago it was only 12.5%.

I often hear that you cannot be what you cannot see. My Defence Force is enabling women to be seen - we now have 17 percent of women in Senior Officer positions, (an increase from 12.7 percent in 2017). Of the 3.5% of First Nations people serving in our military 24% are women.

Today I serve alongside incredible, fierce, compassionate women: the inaugural Head of Space Command, Army Commander Forces Command, Head Cyber Warfare, Head Business Transformation, Head Air Force Capability, Head Naval Engineering, Head of Patrol Boats and Specialist Ships, The Surgeon General and The Head of Commonwealth Intelligence Services in the USA. Many of my colleagues are the first in their roles and have incredible personal stories.

We have had women as the most senior non commissioned officers in Navy and Air Force, and currently have a female Regimental Sergeant Major, the first for Army.

We have 20% of Commanding Officers in Army’s Full Time and Joint units and 11% Regimental Sergeant Majors, in Navy we have Commanding Officers of Major Fleet Units (Warships), and a Senior Tactical Warfare Commander.

17.7% women deployed last year across 29 operations, with 7 of these operations having greater than 25% deployed. It would also be remiss of me not to mention that we had Major General Cheryl Pearce previously deploy as the Force Commander of the United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP).

I am the first woman to serve as Deputy Chief of Army, and I am confident that due to the work we have done in partnership with the Australian Human Rights Commission, I will not be the last, but like I said, this is a constant learning journey.

Thanks to the work achieved and the ongoing work through our partnership with the Australian Human Rights Commission, the women of the ADF will have a culture, equipment and training that better able to provide them with a fulfilling career, better able to deliver a safe and inclusive work environment, and better fit to Serve Australia and its national interests than at any other time in our history.

Thank you.