The disappearance of the military identity in the corporatisation of ADF womenBy Cate Carter November 25, 2020
The internal announcement recently of a new optional uniform for female members of the Australian Army signals a departure from the Australian Defence Force’s long-standing policy of ‘equal treatment of women’. The new dress, first revealed here in an article from August and based on a similar uniform developed for the RAAF’s VIP aircrew, has been designed ‘to provide female members an option to present a feminine contemporary and stylish appearance while maintaining Army’s corporate identity.’ I didn’t know the Army needed a corporate identity, but it seems it is only its women who will be representing it. There is no male equivalent of a separate corporate uniform, and certainly no facility to ‘present a masculine contemporary appearance’ through, say, the wearing of a beard.
Army efforts to pursue the ‘equal treatment of women’ have been a steady evolution of programs and initiatives since the disbanding of the WRAAC in 1984 and integration of women into all combat units. Female uniforms have developed from the accessorised and rather jazzy Prue Acton designs of the 1970s to the same camouflage, formal ‘mess kit’, highly embellished parade and service uniforms and combat equipment as male colleagues. Rather than a one-size-fits-all standard Army issue, these uniforms have been adapted for a female physiology based on trial and feedback from female members. Army women can even now wear tailored maternity versions of camouflage uniforms instead of borrowing larger men’s sizes.
The uniform is only one symbol of inclusivity, but a pretty big one. Group membership is also dependent on shared identity and full access to collective benefits. Indeed, ADF current policy states that ‘Actions are being taken to remove the direct and indirect structural and cultural barriers preventing women from achieving their full potential and full participation’, so it is concerning that such an example of identity difference is now on offer – particularly in an organisation that subordinates the individual to the collective.
Allowing freedom to decide how a uniform is worn by one gender and not the other is a significant diversion from the uniformity and institutionalism of the military role and raise questions of public accountability. As public comments to Brian Hartigan’s article suggest, military embellishments are not optional fashion accessories and should never be treated that way. In fact, as Annabel Crabb wryly noted, ‘The Australian service uniform is a brilliant model of workplace communication and social organisation... If only civilians could develop such a manifestly sensible model.’
Public opinion is important to the ADF, and its senior leaders promote cultivation of good civil-military relations. However, the ADF and other militaries regularly struggle to address the issue of military exceptionalism. Just how different should the military be? How far outside the city walls is far enough to operate in the brutal environment of battle? My research indicates that the Australian public, by and large, prefers to hold the ADF at arms’ length. However, the move to de-militarise ADF members through a corporate identity, suggests that the ADF wants to civilianise and ingratiate themselves to the public. I wonder how many members of the public were consulted about how they want their armed force to look? We need to ask what such a departure from traditional military presentation does for public confidence in the military, and does it reinforce an image of professional competence?
The fact that a female Army member can now choose to represent herself with as many or as few symbols of professional credibility as she wishes, while her male colleague cannot, is alarming enough. The question of whether she needs to de-militarise herself in order to ‘feel feminine’, ‘appeal to non-military people’ or ‘gain respect’ is a more concerning matter. One wonders who this uniform is really for. Is it ADF commanders wishing to appear less intimidating to senior public servants, or a true meaning of the needs of female members? Given the important advances made in integrating women into combat units, I would have thought female body armour might have been a higher priority.