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Time to promote a woman as deputy chief of Navy

21 June 2024 | Jennifer Parker

The officer second in charge of the Royal Australian Navy will shortly rotate, opening the way for a historic first appointment of a female.

Image: HMA Ships Adelaide and Canberra sail in formation at sunrise before entering Sydney Harbour. Photo Credit: Defence images

The Navy and the broader Australian Defence Force have undertaken significant cultural change in the last 30 years, with much to be proud of.

When I joined the Navy in 2002 as a teen from rural Australia, women had only served at sea in permanent positions for just over 10 years.

In 2002, several roles in the Navy were still prohibited for women, and while women were consistently serving at sea in 2002, a female had never commanded an Australian Navy surface combatant, let alone served as the deputy chief of Navy.

Inclusivity for women in the Navy has been a long, hard road, with progress built on the back of many resilient and persistent naval sailors and officers, both male and female, and some inspired senior leaders who sought to challenge the status quo.

Twenty-two years on, in 2024, the Navy has achieved many milestones, with all branches now open to women, and females now commanding ships at sea and establishments ashore, albeit not yet at the same rate as their male counterparts.

In some ways, this progression has been ahead of much of our immediate region and impressive by world standards. Although it must be acknowledged that in some areas, it has been behind some of Australia’s Five Eyes counterpart navies. Notably, the United States, which appointed their first female chief of naval operations in 2023.

While it would be easy to list the many achievements in increasing diversity in the Australian Navy, gender diversity in the Navy’s hierarchy remains an area that requires progress. Not only is it an issue for those young women joining the Navy who aspire to the top positions, as they should, but also an issue for the normative behaviours we seek to shape in the region and beyond.

The rotation of the deputy chief of Navy without a named replacement represents an opportunity. An opportunity for the Navy, the ADF, and Australia more broadly to move the journey forward by finally selecting a woman to the position.

From my vantage point, having left full-time naval service after more than 20 years, there are several well-credentialled candidates at the one star and two-star ranks, with both the experience and leadership to step into the role of Navy’s second-in-command.

The Australian Army will soon promote its third female three-star general, and has already had a female deputy chief of Army and commander Forces Command. The appointments of the then-major general Natasha Fox as the deputy chief of Army and major general Susan Coyle as the commander Forces Command provided not only insights into these prominent leadership roles, but also provided role models for a significant portion of the Australian Army.

Not only women within the Australian Army, but those who represent the more diverse ends of the scale than the traditional appointees to the Australian Defence Force’s senior leadership.

While the Navy appointed its first female two-star admiral in 2011, a surgeon-general and its first female warrant officer of the Navy in 2019, most of Navy’s key senior leadership positions are yet to be filled by women.

In the last Defence annual report, the Navy had 18 admirals, only four of which were female. Notably, even though traditionally most admiral positions are filled by warfare officers, the Navy has never promoted a female warfare officer to the rank of admiral.

Very few have ever been promoted to one-star despite female warfare officers having served at sea for more than 30 years, just as long as many of the Navy two-star admiral cohort have been in service.

There will, of course, be many criticisms of this call to seize the opportunity and appoint a woman as the deputy chief of Navy. There are some who will never be swayed on these points.

The first repechage to the call will be that we should select our top Navy leadership based on merit. The natural prolongation of this argument is that the right woman will get there when the merit is presented.

Given women have served in the Navy for quite some time, and at sea in the Navy for over 30 years, a further prolongation of this merit argument is that the women who have gone before have not had “sufficient” merit – when stated as such, you can see how ridiculous the merit argument becomes. There have been clear barriers in the past.

Of course, there will be some who argue the very existence of this article is an example of the increasing wokeness of defence discourse. I would challenge that much of this commentary will come from many who have never served.

The selection of a female deputy chief of Navy will not address all the remaining barriers to inclusivity, but it is an opportunity that if seized, would demonstrate a commitment to addressing the issue and moving forward as a navy and as a nation.

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