A sudden hush came over the audience. The army commander, Lieutenant General David Morrison, had been addressing a packed amphitheatre at the ANU’s National Security College. His topic? Gender equality (not, note, equity) and female representation in leadership roles across the ADF. A large number of people, mostly women, from across the public service, defence and academe, had turned out to see him. They weren’t disappointed. His performance had been exactly what they’d hoped for. Dynamic and forceful, the inspiring words of a ‘conviction’ leader rang through the lecture theatre.
But now the steady flow of words suddenly paused. ‘It was my approach to the army that cost me my first marriage’, Morrison insisted. There was pain in his words. He paused. For a second the audience was sharing the room with another human, rather than a general. Then, almost imperceptibly, his back stiffened and he carried on.
‘You don’t want non-competitive people in the military’, Morrison announced. ‘We want people who will win’. His voice had become quiet and clear as he outlined the reasons behind his position. Recognising the contribution women can make to the military is all about strengthening and invigorating the institution; making it better. It has nothing to do with political correctness.
Morrison’s now become indelibly identified with this issue; but it wasn’t always so. His progression—why he seized this particular issue; how he used it to spur cultural change; and how he nonetheless maintained the Army’s crucial operational focus—will provide a remarkable case study for years to come. It’s a story about how to achieve one of the most difficult things: organisational change.
Morrison related how he was suddenly faced with his challenge just six months into a three-year term as Army commander. He’d became aware of sexist behaviour in the ranks: no surprise there. It would’ve been easy for him to do nothing. Going head-to-head and criticising the behaviour by uploading a video onto YouTube certainly wasn’t the obvious response, but the general explained why it was a crucial one.
‘I decided there was a limit to the number of things I could achieve [as Army commander]’, Morrison said, ‘but this was something I could do’. And he has. The commander doesn’t deny that injustice against women still exists, but he hopes he’s banished the ‘unconscious bias’, the prejudice that no one notices because it’s present everywhere. The changes are significant.
No one pretends everything is fixed. Indeed, one mother in the audience (who’s employed by Defence) insisted that she wouldn’t want either of her girls to join up. Morrison didn’t try to convince her all the Army’s problems are fixed. ‘But unless I compete for your daughters’, he said, ‘they’ll go to Telstra, or the Commonwealth Bank, or perhaps somewhere even worse’. Morrison paused. ‘They might even join the Navy…’
Laughter rippled through the hall. It was a light-hearted response but it caught the tone of his speech perfectly. The army commander wasn’t saying the problem didn’t exist (the typical defence response). Instead he was admitting the issue and outlining what he was doing to address the predicament. This is the element of Morrison’s response that is so refreshing.
Instead of attempting to deny the problem, or cover it up, Morrison’s embraced it. He’s insisted this is a challenge that he can, and must, deal with. Engagement has become the key to moving on and resolving problems: identifying the issue, admitting it publicly, and outlining a clear process to redress the grievances and prevent its recurrence.
His speech possessed more detail than can be outlined here. He talked about how he changed the recruiting advertisements so they no longer showed women charging at sandbags and bayoneting them. He spoke of targets but without diminution of standards. Finally—crucially—he emphasised that the changes he’s ushering in are to increase the organisation’s ability to complete its mission.
The remarkable success of Morrison’s project can be measured by the way so many others have taken it on as their own.
Nic Stuart is a columnist with The Canberra Times. Image courtesy of Department of Defence.