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Rapid Context, a research consulting firm, has released a report titled ‘Growing the defence industry workforce: Attracting and retaining women with critical skills and trades’.

The report opens with a blunt assessment: “In order to take advantage of Australia’s investment in defence capability, defence industry needs to grow its skilled workforce. While there are a number of initiatives being trialled towards this end, these initiatives fail to grapple with the fact that defence industry has a poor record as an employer of choice for women.”

The statistics back this up: women make up less than one in five employees in defence industry (the national average is one in two); only one in seven managers in the industry, compared to a national average of one in three; one in five new graduates working in defence industry; and one in every fourteen new apprentices.

The focus on diversity at seminars and conferences in recent years, and high-profile initiatives like ADM’s Women in Defence Awards, may suggest the situation is getting better. It is not. Women are leaving the industry at higher rates than men and hold less than 30 per cent of STEM jobs despite comprising 30 per cent of STEM graduates. According to the report, only two per cent of employers have a ‘stated policy of recruiting female apprentices.’ In the very jobs that defence industry needs most – engineers, managers, technicians, trades – women are severely underrepresented and are becoming even less so.

To be clear, defence industry is putting in effort to attract skilled women. Many readers will have seen advertising campaigns, public commitments and sponsorships. The big issue is not so much attraction, but retention.

“Efforts to retain the female employees that companies have made significant efforts to recruit are often neglected. The consequence of this inaction is high attrition rates,” the report argues, citing data from the ADM Top 40 2018.

“Isolation, hostile male-dominated work environments, ineffective executive feedback, and a lack of effective sponsors are all cited as reasons that women leave STEM.”

The report cites other reasons why women leave defence industry; lack of access to child-care or flexible working arrangements, feeling that other organisations better value their skill set, and perceptual barriers such as ‘subject to implicit bias’.

“In a meeting where I was questioning processes that had led to poor outcomes, a senior male stood up, and said ‘Well what the eff would you know about any of this anyway, missy,” an interview participant said.

“We generally know which companies are the boys’ clubs,” another said. “It’s pretty clear that this is a culture that comes from the leadership. And once you have earned that reputation it can be pretty hard to change.”

It is easy to point out the need for change, but harder to say how it can be done. Whilst some recommendations are long-term, such as a need to examine and potentially change workplace culture, there are two short-term actions all companies in the industry can make to better retain skilled women.

First, create flexible working conditions. Current Australian parental leave laws and widespread company policies preclude men from taking equal paternity leave. This places the burden of expectation on women to take time off to raise kids. Until law and workplace culture changes across Australia, defence industry can offer flexible conditions to women to offset this burden of expectation and retain a greater number of female employees.

Second, set up mentoring arrangements. Defence has successfully used this approach to hire and retain Indigenous employees. The report argues that similar mentoring arrangements change gender norms and workplace culture over the long term if junior women are mentored by senior men, or if junior men are mentored by senior women.

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