Gender equality in the Army: Q&A with Major Elizabeth Boulton

in Q & A , Tagged Women in Defence, Army, ADF.
  • Liz Boulton

    Elizabeth Boulton

    Major Liz Boulton joined the ADF in 1990 and after completing training was commissioned as an Army Lieutenant in the Royal Australian Corps of Transport (RACT.) She deployed to East Timor in 1999 and Iraq in 2004. She is presently undertaking a PhD on a part-time basis at the Australian National University, focused upon conceptualization of climate and environmental risks.

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Q & A:

The Australian Army's new report: 'Teaming: An introduction to gender studies, unshackling human talent and optimising military capability for the coming Era of Equality: 2020 to 2050' seeks to provide a deeper understanding of gender in order to empower leaders to operate in an increasingly complex environment. BroadAgenda's co-editor Dr Pia Rowe talked to Major Boulton to find out how gender plays out in the modern Army.


Q: Your new report ‘Teaming’ seeks to provide a deeper understanding of gender as it relates to the Australian Army. What prompted your interest in this field?

 A:  I guess I’m just an average Australian woman who gets frustrated dealing with these issues and wants them fixed. I have seen the big change process with ‘Pathways to Change’, but I think everybody agreed that much more work had to be done on cultural understanding. I had been away from Defence for eight years, and came back with fresh eyes, and it was just my perception that perhaps people didn’t fully understand the deeper conceptual aspects. I had quite a bit of empathy because I knew we had had a phenomenal period of war, and people had been just been going back and forth to the Middle East, many on multiple deployments. When you’re doing that for work, it’s just all consuming. And I just felt that it was the right thing to provide some of the conceptual background and put it in layperson’s terms.

Research has shown that this issue exists in the civilian world as well. However, it is particularly important for Army, as we need cohesion and we operate in such a fast moving complex world that we need to be able to access talent and ideas to win. We can’t afford to be held back by anything.   

I also had a side-eye on what was happening with the growth of women combatants, the ‘war among the people’ aspect in the Middle East, and the growth of the tactic of sexual violence in conflict. I was fascinated, in a very grim way, and wanted to do more to help address these issues.

Q: Army is still often perceived as an extremely masculine work environment – is this view now dated?

 A: Yes, that is definitely dated. Even just recently I saw some media coverage about men in the field, and the wives left at home, and I felt a bit irritated. Nowadays we have some male partners staying at home looking after the kids while their female partners deploy. However that view ignores gay people as well. We’ve had women doing some amazing things, like working on Taliban reintegration programs, piloting Blackhawk choppers - they are now entering arms corps, so it is a bit annoying when you get this rhetoric of men deploying and wives at home.  And I think it is a bit of a shame sometimes, that the Australian people don’t get the full story.

The vast bulk of the Army is very integrated, particularly in corps such as logistics, communications and intelligence, it’s just business as usual. The arms corps units still are mostly men, but because everything is now so intereconnected, by default, they still end up working with women as well. We all do initial training together, and both genders go on courses together every few years.

BoultonMajor Elizabeth Boulton

Q: There’s been some talk about the ‘Anglo Saxon warrior culture’ in the media, and some have even suggested that promoting diversity will weaken the fighting ability. What are your thoughts on this?

A: I don’t think ’warrior’ belongs to any skin colour or gender. If you look at women throughout history who’ve stood up to oppression or things that they thought that needed to be stopped – anyone can have an instinct for justice or to protect others. It's an aptitude thing -  some people have the urge to work in that environment.

I’d add that in the Army the ‘warrior’ word is not used that much – the preferred word is ‘soldier.’ People talk about soldier ethics, soldier values and so on. For me, I interpret ‘warrior’ in the tradition of Samurai or the Shambhala Warrior – that it encompasses a strict ethical code.

Q: Do women need to embody masculine characteristics if they want to succeed in the Army?

A: No. Firstly, the Army doesn’t talk in those terms. It is interested in attributes such as courage and initiative, resourcefulness, physical toughness and resilience.  We’re not interested in masculine or feminine, it’s not part of the discussion. The leadership focus is on integrity, mental toughness, good judgement and insight, these are human attributes which suit the nature of Army work.

 Q: You talk about ‘feminine fierceness’ instead of ‘feminine frailty’ – can you elaborate on that?

A: What I’m trying to say is that there’s been this old binary logic that frames femininity as frail and emotional, and the opposite of masculinity. But actually if you look at people as they are, fierceness has always been part of women’s identity. And men are fierce as well, but even though we all have the same human characteristics, sometimes the way we express them is slightly different. When women feel that something has to be done, they can go into that intense, driven space because they have a fierce desire to fix things, or protect someone - and that is part of femininity, or part of being a woman as well.

I sense women are getting back in touch with that dimension of themselves, especially young girls today, they seem more comfortable with their innate strength and courage.

Q: Change is always hard, especially when we are talking about significant changes to the existing power structures. What are some of the benefits the increased diversity can offer to men specifically?

A: It was an eye opener to me to see how much pressure men are under in our society and how much they’re affected by socialisation and expectations. Initially I kept asking men for their point of view as I wanted to understand their side of the story, and although they were very happy to talk about teamwork, and even ‘women’s stuff,’ when I asked them about conceptions of masculinity, they just absolutely wouldn’t talk. So I realised that I would need to research it myself. As I was doing this, I felt like I was trespassing on foreign ground, but as I read the research from men’s studies, I came to realise how ridiculous it is to look at this gender thing without considering the male side. It’s intricately related to the whole notion of equality to understand the other side of the story.

We see it already in society, the pressure men are under – with suicide rates and so on. They may feel they can’t access all their normal human attributes or talk about their feelings. Hard perfectionism and expectations can be quite damaging, and it doesn’t help them with their resilience. Conforming to stereotypes can even negatively affect their decision-making.  But excitingly, solutions are emerging – like the ‘positive masculinities’ approach, which works with men’s strengths.

Excitingly, solutions are emerging – like the ‘positive masculinities’ approach, which works with men’s strengths

I had quite an interesting conversation with a civilian man who, interestingly, said that the idea of coming together to talk about the kind of future we want terrified him, because he saw it as just offering a vacuum of nothing. Many people want to retain and celebrate the aspects of both genders, but I think the male part of the conversation is just getting started.

Q: Have men been receptive to your work?

A: Quite amazingly, many have been. My initial impression is that people are glad to fill knowledge gaps and be informed.

However, there’s always a spectrum. I know that generally, there’s a little bit of issue fatigue.  There’s been so much talk on gender that it becomes a hindrance in trying to create teams. Even various military women have said to the senior leaders, “we just want to be a part of the team and we’re sick of being singled out for attention and discussion.”

I know that generally, there’s a little bit of issue fatigue. 

Others are staying very quiet, perhaps they strongly dislike it, or they prefer to quietly reflect because they are conscious that it is a sensitive discussion, so we need to be cautious. Some of the discussion about gender initiatives in the Australian Defence Force has been very critical, saying it is people using the ADF to effect social engineering etc. So, people are highly alert to how it can become a painful and divisive topic.

You have to be careful because in the Army we need to have a very cohesive team, you need an approach that doesn’t break down that sense of trust and teamwork between people. But I know Army folk prefer straight talk, and there are many who genuinely want tangible information to effect the best outcomes.

Q: Is there a risk of alienating some people?

A: Yes. However, at an institutional level, my view is that not getting this right presents a far bigger risk. The world is changing and I’d rather risk some discomfort now so that the force is better prepared for the future. If leaders are empowered to manage their teams and a changing environment, they won't have to depend on advisors when making key decisions.

Q: Why is equality in this environment important – why should women join the Army?

A: It is a calling that suits a particular sort of person.  I think it comes down to motives. For a lot of people who join, it comes down to that ethos of wanting to protect other people and our country and our way of life. They’re not really people who are driven by economic motives. It's people who enjoy being in a group, enjoy the intensity of things, and doing something they feel is helping others. There is challenge, being outdoors a lot, variety, doing very hard things, believe it or not, some people like that!

Q: Is there anything you'd like to add?

A: Originally, I thought this was just going to be an internal document, and I was quite surprised when Army decided to publish it externally. I think it shows a lot of courage, and says something about their willingness to get uncomfortable. We’re heading into a lot of complexity and we need hard, critical thinking so we can be prepared for the future. It is difficult, but we’re willing to go there because we want to get this right.

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