Opinion: Quotas, gender, merit and the ADF

by Maureen Frank25 Aug 2017

By Maureen Frank, Founder and Chief Disruption Officer at emberin

Recently the headlines have shouted: Army bans male recruits.

This was a result of the 50 Army jobs posted a few weeks ago, whereby only 15 were available to male applicants. As a huge advocate for gender diversity and the engagement of men in the process, I took to social media:

I know this has ruffled feathers in the Army – BUT …at the heart of a radical decision like this is the underpinning truth that the phrase ‘best person for the job’ is in fact completely subjective! ‘Merit’ is typically based on historical perceptions of what has worked – and is very much based on ‘my’ measure of performance based on how ‘I’ perform. When there is an overt refusal to listen to this clear logic – sometimes you need to force it – and that is what the Army has done. I hope there has been in depth discussions with the recruiters to help them understand the ‘why’ of this science – I believe that when people understand the ‘why’, they are much more willing to give things a try – rather than being forced to do something that they don’t understand.

Here are some of the responses I received:

The world has gone mad

Maureen Frank: Really? I don't think so. It's a reflection that education and explanation of the flaws in the historical methods of recruitment have not worked. It's about really getting the best person for the job without 'my measure of performance' goggles on!

I am so happy when all these folk with zero understanding of Defence recruiting commenting on this issue, especially as Defence has already stated that it is a media beat up. Yes, Defence is trying to increase the number of females it gets through the doors - but no this does not mean we are banning blokes or dropping standards. Just a bit of extra effort on a certain sector.

Maureen Frank: Thanks - I think you'll find my comment was having a go at those on the 'best person for the job' - so I agree with what the army has done.

From someone who heard what I was saying:

Appreciate your feedback. My comments (and I would suggest Maureen Frank's as well) were less about the specifics defence recruitment and more focussed on how we (all of us) run a real risk of assuming the way things are naturally like that, rather than the result of (unrecognised) biases. Sometimes the only way to avoid/test the bias is to remove that option from the table and see what happens. Does the world fall apart as you believe it will or not?

It was very apparent that the issue and the discussion generates a lot of emotion:

A while back a feminist had complained in a post on LinkedIn that we men discriminate in the US military and should allow women in the military. I said, "We do allow women in the military! Here are some or our heroes and sisters of the military service, that we men honour and respect."

Maureen Frank: That's awesome - btw ....I know a lot of great men who are new age 'feminists' as well.

With all due respect, if I may make a correction. I am not a feminist. I am for equality. I am an equalist. I do not subscribe for the preference to the hiring of a gender over another. What I feel is suggested in the article is not equality, but discrimination of one gender over another. That is not equality, that is discrimination.

Then a ‘male feminist’ chimed in:

Let's be honest, the only people who really complain about diversity actions taken to redress decades or even centuries of exclusion are the poor white male majority.

Maureen Frank: Yes I get it  and I agree - I have found though that you have to bring white men on the journey too - rather than force feeding - because, as you say, they are in the majority and have the power to change things if they understand.

That clearly hit a nerve with my indignant ‘equalist’:

I wish people did not replace one form of bigotry and discrimination over another as is depicted in this article. Feminism in this sense is discrimination. What we need is equality, without the preferential hire and treatment of women over men.

Then I had feedback from those who supported the hiring of women – as long as they fit certain criteria! The criteria included:

  • Not wanting to be a role model to other women (she must be a disruptor)
  • “The ones that I liked” (doesn’t sound like ‘merit’ to me)
  • “I find explosives so interesting and cool” (does anyone really say that?)
  • They were very attractive and feminine off duty (really?)

I served in the military with women. You always ask every candidate why they wanted to do a particular job and join my field of bomb disposal. Sometimes the answer was because "I want to blaze the trail for women everywhere in this field" or "I want to be a role model for young women everywhere". These were the ones that wanted to join only to disrupt a culture and be a celebrity doing it. They were saboteurs. The ones that I liked, and typically fit in and always survived the cut, said, "Because I want to save lives, or "I find explosives so interesting, cool or neat." Then you start talking about somethings that we did in the field and the young lady's face would light up with interest of possibilities of what she would be doing! We knew at that moment that we found the right candidate. That was the one that we men wanted to invest the time and training in. Not the one that wants to be a celebrity or disruptor. They were all very attractive and feminine off duty, but also did a very good job in the field. They could hold their own against the boys, gained their trust and always had their 6!

Before I had a chance to take a deep breath and respond as politely as I could to this clearly biased approach, a young lady beat me to it:

There are a range of disturbing things in this response. Is there a need for you to note that "they were all very attractive and feminine off duty?" Is there really something wrong with a woman wanting to be a role model for others? After all, this is drummed into us. If you're a female leader you're expected to be a role model for others coming after you. It's expected to help others get where you are. It doesn't mean someone wants to disrupt a culture - sometimes it's about making that culture more welcoming to others like them. I'd ask you to have a look at your response and question some of your own assumptions. Women shouldn't have to change who they are to fit into your culture - it's the responsibility of everyone to create a workplace where every person can bring their whole self to work. That's when diversity truly pays off.

The war raged on with a mentality that forcing the issue was not going to work:

The point is that gender should be completely irrelevant. If you want to close a gender imbalance you need to make the armed forces more attractive to female recruits. All this does is diminish capability by excluding potentially strong candidates and forcefully recruiting others.

I am sure you also have a view, it’s an emotive subject.

I was reminded of the words of David Morrison as he reflected on his four years at the helm and his mission to level the playing field in the ADF:

"Military service only appeals to a certain number of people. You have a military culture that tells stories about itself to itself and emphasises masculinity, overt masculine bravery, male characteristics. It becomes without too much thought quite an exclusive institution.

But that doesn't work. You can't have in a multicultural society like Australia a force that is charged under the constitution to protect it to be something other than a reflection of society."

I have never been in the ADF. However, I have spoken to over 10,000 leaders (primarily men, in all industries including defence) across the world on this subject. I have a fair idea of what success looks like and when a situation is unlikely to succeed. I know that the Army and the ADF generally have made some huge efforts to right an imbalance for years. When you have tried everything, sometimes a radical, courageous and unpopular approach is what is required.

What we need to recognise is that we are all ‘human’. Therefore, it’s in our nature to judge performance and ‘merit’ based on our personal frame of what ‘good’ looks like. When that frame has historically been more masculine in style, it’s a mindset that with all the best intentions in the world, is very hard to break.

I would caveat this by saying that, in my experience, before you took such a disruptive stance, more male-dominated work environments need to educate men down to the frontline on the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of taking a different approach. If done properly, this has the effect of engaging a broader group of male champions who seek out ways within their sphere of influence to make this happen. On the flip side, when the first men hear of ‘gender targets or quotas’ is via an edict from above, expect fierce resistance and limited sustainable success.


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