Society & Culture

Australian Defence Force: Shifting workplace diversity

Nancy Francis, Mardi Jarvis & Sophie Hampel | 07 June 2023 | 25:21

Podcast Transcript: Australian Defence Force: Shifting workplace diversity

Maria Rampa: Hi, I’m Maria Rampa and welcome to this episode of Engineering Reimagined. Defence and National Security has long been considered an industry dominated by men, however a recent shift in culture as well as an ongoing push to increase diversity, has seen the Australian Defence Force (or ADF as it is commonly known) take positive steps towards gender equity.

In recent years, the ADF has worked hard to attract and retain women within their ranks by altering the fitness standards for admission, offering more flexible working arrangements, and creating dedicated leadership programs for women, to increase their opportunities.

In this candid conversation, Nancy Francis, Associate, Program Advisory at Aurecon, speaks to Mardi Jarvis from the Department of Defence on the importance of culture for shifting diversity, the challenges of single parenthood while juggling a busy career and everything in between. They are also joined by Inkling CEO and organisational psychologist, Sophie Hampel, who explains why behavioural change at work can be really hard and what people of all genders can do to create impact. I hope you find their conversation valuable to help you navigate similar challenges in your workplace or industry. Let’s listen!

Let’s listen!


Nancy Francis: Hi, Mardi. Hi, Sophie. So nice to have you here. Mardi, why did you choose to work in Defence?

Mardi Jarvis: So when I first joined Defence, it really was just really out of convenience. I was living in a regional location. Defence was the main employer in the country town that I was living in. The slogan for the Defence force used to be "one job, many careers" that absolutely is that, we are the largest landholder in Australia. So the opportunity to serve our nation and protect our interests here and overseas, day to day the things that we are doing for Australia, flood recovery, bushfire recovery, the COVID response. Last year I led the department's response to the secure telephone voting for the election that enabled 70,000 Australians to cast their vote who were impacted by COVID. And just most recently I've been the lead on the Department's interim recommendations for the Royal Commission into the events of veterans suicide. So, having work that is meaningful to people across all parts of the community. People think of ADF about current serving members and going off and fighting overseas, but it's so much more the Defence force does here in Australia.

Nancy Francis: The Defence sector, so we know that this is one of the many male-dominated industries. And the data shows that one in five Defence industry employees are women and less than one in seven Defence industry managers are women. Tell us a little bit about your experience working in this environment.

Mardi Jarvis: I joined Defence as quite a young 20 year old, nearly straight out of school, about 28 years ago, and Defence now is absolutely a different environment. But when I started, I was one of the few females working in the office. I was in a regional location. I barely ever saw anybody in uniform as a female. Now, we have females in all roles, combat roles included, in the ADF. Some of my experiences though, when I reflect on that 28 years as a young female in Defence, I absolutely felt unheard or invisible. And over the years, walking into rooms where I was the only female in that room is really, really intimidating. I'm somebody who, in my own life is quite a bit of a peacock, quite outgoing and has as a lot to say. That is a real challenge to go into a room where you feel that you're not being valued and you're not being listened to. I have been lucky in my career that I have had a number of female senior leaders as I've progressed up, that I could look up to. The saying that you can't be what you can't see is alive and well. And, when I sit here today, my daughters who are 12, they can see female leaders at the deputy chief of army level, we have deputy secretaries of a number of our groups who are females. But a little story that I'll just share with you, I was doing a job that I loved. And I was pregnant with twins and I was actually moved sideways out of that role. When I told my manager that I was pregnant, now all the right things were said, We've moved you, we want to make sure that you're well-rested and your relaxed, all things at the time I thought, yep, that's good. But on reflection, it was just moving me sideways because when I came back from maternity leave 14 months later, I didn't go back into that role. And that actually took me 12 months of pushing and challenging and saying, I'm here, I can do the job. I did do the job. And it was only when I came back full time that I was actually given the job that I had before maternity leave. So, 12 years later, I would hope we wouldn't see that sort of behaviour and treatment. I'm sure there are still pockets though, where that occurs. I definitely felt that I had to work harder and longer and prove that I could do that job as a single mum with two young kids at home. And I just think, it's really important as leaders, that we’re just embracing diversity, across all diversity, not just female diversity.

Nancy Francis: It seems like there's a shift in the diversity in leadership, with this changing perhaps messaging or just changing life, and what our expectations are. Have you seen a shift in attracting and retaining more women? Given where you were 28 years ago, the transitions that have happened and where we are now?

Mardi Jarvis: Yes, I absolutely have. Even in the last 13 years from when I left and came back, the shift in culture, the shift in mindset. Now, some of that was slow. Some of it took time. But we are absolutely reaping the benefits of that now. We need a workforce that represents the community that we are here to serve. All of our ADF categories now are open to women, including combat roles. We're aiming to achieve 25% of female representation in Navy by 2025, 15% in Army, which we actually have achieved already, and 25% for Air Force, which we've also achieved. In relation to our APS, so our public service elements in the Department, we've currently, as of December last year, 47.5% women representation in APS in the Defence force. The fitness standards in the past have actually prevented opening up recruiting women into the ADF. So in late 2021, the services actually revised the standards for fitness levels to make it more equitable for people joining. We talk about equity and equality, really important that we give people an even playing field. The revised standards have actually seen since 2021, 15% more women passing that pre-entry test. So I think that's an amazing initiative. As a senior leader in Defence, it's really important that we are represented at that level and in the female ADF senior positions increased by 4.4% and female APS, so public servants such as myself increased by 19.3% from 2017 to 2022. So, the numbers are going in that right trajectory.

Nancy Francis: It seems to me like there's a deliberate approach to how Defence is going to attract and retain women. The example of changing the fitness standard. There is that agility and that response which leads this diversity. If you could comment on that a little bit and talk a little bit more about why diversity of leadership is so important.

Mardi Jarvis: Any organisation to remain relevant, it needs to be adaptive, it needs to be agile. But as leaders, having that bias or that unconscious bias, we really need to be aware of that because we still all do it in some way, shape or form. But I just think having a leadership team in an organisation that is mature enough to identify when that is happening and being able to be adaptive to pivot and change. It's critical as leaders that we show that we are supportive of diversity and that we do have things we're working towards, be them targets, be them programs. It's important that we measure it, and that we hold ourselves and our leaders up to account. If we've got an organisation which is all one pocket of the community and it's not everybody else, you're not going to be able to deliver for that community. It's as simple as that. And you won't attract people if you don't already have those people. Diversity is critical to having a high performing team, having a culture where people can challenge the leadership on ideas and views and feel safe in doing that is really, really important. I talk with my team about culture being, you know, Sunday night when you're sitting at home having a glass of wine watching TV and you think, I'm going to work tomorrow, how do you feel about that? I know that I'm going into a good culture because of the way I feel Sunday night. To get that culture like that, you need a diverse team to bring all parts of themself to work.

Nancy Francis: What else is Defence going to do to address this need to attract half of the population?

Mardi Jarvis: Going forward the kicker is really that work life flexibility and balance which of course is challenging in certain roles, but I think being open to what flexibility looks like across a diverse workforce and particularly for women and not being so prescriptive in what the roles are, what the hours are, what the location is, because you're missing out on a whole skill set in doing that. If you have a trusted workforce who we want to go above and beyond, they want to do the best they can. They will fit that into their life. And I think being flexible to allow people when it can happen, we know you can only drive a tank out on a range. You can't do that from your kitchen, you can only fly a plane in the air. You can't do that from your lounge room. So, we as leaders and our teams need to understand that. But where we can, we have to make it more flexible for people to do their work, to attract people. Otherwise, they will go elsewhere.

Nancy Francis: So we've been working on a few initiatives, but one of the initiatives is creating the Leadership Development Program, the Defence Aurecon Ascend program, really the focus of that was to equip women working on Defence projects, whether as industry partners or part of the APS, so that they've got those leadership skills to advance their careers, the ability to challenge the status quo, and then to overcome certain fears and inadequacies that we all feel as humans. Tell me a little bit about the impact that the program has created for women who have gone through the program.

Mardi Jarvis: It's been a game changer for our female executives in Security Estate Group. It's given out our high performing female executives on the program confidence that they didn't have before. It's given them networks both within the department but also with the industry partner. It's quieted that ‘lizard’ voice, which we all have. It's empowered them on how to manage that. The two key things for me, the sponsorship program, so building connections to senior executive men and women outside of their normal business area, is something they would not have been exposed to before and they would not have been exposed to without this program. So that's been really, really good from a networking point of view and a two-way sharing of experience and skills. And then the final thing that I think is critical with this program is that it's a strength-based program. So as females in particular, we're pretty good at identifying all the things we're not good at, we're pretty good at finding all those faults and all the things that didn't go right. We're not as good at going, I am really, really good at whatever. And let's build on that strength. We spoke earlier about going into a room as a young female with a lot of men and not feeling heard and not wanting to say something. This program is giving confidence to these females to go and say, actually I do have a voice and I'm really good at whatever and I'm going to go and share that. I have seen the alumni come to executive meetings and present papers that they would not have done before, come up with new innovative ideas. We have run an innovation sprint, where our alumni put their hand up and said we want to be part of this. Pre-Ascend they would have said, that's not my circus. I'm having nothing to do with that. We've seen a number of the alumni being promoted. And I think the best thing in all of it was last year, we got to bring them all together at one of my favourite bases, Puckapunyal. And they actually got to see the capability. For people working in Melbourne or Canberra or Sydney in an office, actually getting out and seeing, this is what I come to work for every day is really, really powerful.

Nancy Francis: I'd like to bring Sophie into this conversation as well. Now, Sophie, is CEO and co-founder of Inkling, an organisation that uses psychology and behavioural science alongside learning methodologies to help people fulfill their potential. What are some of the examples you typically see or hear of women in the workplace not having the confidence to take the next step.

Sophie Hampel: While there are organisations that are seeing much greater gender equality in senior leadership across the board, gender representation just decreases significantly the higher we get into seniority. Catalyst did some research in 2020 that showed the reduction of women in leadership basically halves from professional level, so a 42% to executive level at 23%. And women still hold very few CEO positions. In 2021 it was 5% of CEO roles in Fortune 500 companies. So we've still got work to do, it's a complex challenge, which is why there's no silver bullet when it comes to driving this and why organisations take quite a strategic multi-initiative approach. And it is very much needing to be considering of the organisation, the industry, where you're located. Those things all have a really important factor, the broader culture that your organisation exists in. So the first one is around domestic burden, and I'd love to get both of your input around this one because women still carry two thirds of the domestic load. So we know that the more women advance, the more likely that she will employ a third party resource to help out. But the domestic load carried by men, the more senior they become changes very little. And there was a really great book that Annabel Crabb wrote called The Wife Drought: Why Women Need Wives and Men Need Lives back in 2015, this balance side of actually what are men missing out on. And what are women being held back from, from a lens of looking at domestic burden. Both senior women and have families. I can imagine you've grappled with this barrier yourselves.

Mardi Jarvis: So I'm actually a single mum, so I carry the whole burden 24/7 and had my daughters as a single mum. So there's not even a dad that they go to on the weekends to lighten that load. But it's true that, you know the village raises the children. When my children were particularly young and I was looking to progress up to the next level, I had au pairs come and live with me for five or six years to enable me to have that. But talking to friends in senior levels, I hear them. We’re going home to do the shopping and the washing and the cleaning. I certainly do not think we have progressed as a society on the whole. I know there are some amazing husbands, partners, men out there doing a whole heap of the work as well. But I think it is inequitable. Nancy, over to you.

Nancy Francis: I've got a four and a half year old, and my husband's actively involved. But, yes, a lot of that caregiving, especially in the downtimes when we've got sicknesses, medical appointments, surgeries, all of that. And so when I go into the workplace, you do have to work harder because you just go from shift to shift to shift. You do your job, then you go home to job number two. I think it does still fall back to us. And I'm sure I'm not alone, we're all having our own different struggles where the women still remain the main caregiver, the main double jobber. I feel I can say that. We've all come so far and yet there are still things that we fundamentally and traditionally fall back to and are still falling back on us as well.

Mardi Jarvis: I heard one of our female deputy secretaries say this a few years ago, and it stuck with me. I just think as females, we need to be much more deliberate in the non-negotiables. They’ll be different for all of us. So my non-negotiables, the days that I travel to Melbourne, I’m in the car at 4:00 to come home because I need to be home at 6:00 to cook dinner. So my non-negotiable is, there's no meetings in the office after 4:00. On a Friday, I'm going to finish at 3:00 to pick the kids up from school. I think we need to be much more deliberate in our non-negotiables and schedule them in and they’re just like a work meeting. And then, you might need to pick up a bit of slack over the weekend if you've got your non-negotiables. But that's just a conversation and that comes back to being that trusted employer and a trusted employee and getting more out of people. I'll do anything on the weekend if it means I can leave at 3:00 on a Friday to pick my kids up. So I just think that's really important. We need to be better to do that. Both males and females.

Sophie Hampel: It's such a good tip to role model that flexible working. There is change happening. I think about what it looked like ten years ago when we started running our first women's leadership development programs. It has definitely evolved. Bu t I think that we’re still seeing women steer away from those high intensity jobs because they perceive them to be more unpredictable. And just trying to juggle as you said, Nancy, job number two. And so, I think we need to continue to push this agenda around how that domestic load is more equally shared. I did just want to call out that obviously, what we've just talked about is very much based on the stereotypical nuclear family, which is becoming less common. And as fewer people get married and choose to remain single or, have different sexual orientations or identities. So this isn't relevant to all women, but it is definitely something that is a factor that impacts a significant number of women. The other one that I want to talk about was gendered work, and that's particularly relevant to both of your organisations. What we see is gender bias is continuing to govern the occupational choice that men and women are selecting. Right? So while occupations have become more balanced in the last 30 years, women are still really underrepresented in many executive or senior leadership roles, but also technical occupations. So women are especially underrepresented in STEM. In Australia, we're expecting about 13% growth in STEM occupations by 2025 and just 16% of STEM qualified Australians are women. And we know that women enrol in those STEM courses at lower rates. And so there's this whole piece that actually happens from early age, where our kids are learning to follow gender expectations and their career ambitions are based on the ideas that girls and boys have different capabilities. And this research, we're still seeing it play out. Women are still more likely to choose caring careers like teaching and healthcare. And boys are choosing careers like engineering. And so despite the fact that we're closing the education gap in most countries. People graduating in technical fields are mostly men still. We still have fewer pathways with women to progress to business leadership roles. It is changing, but we still see more women executives being in HR or marketing, those types of functions. The other area around barriers is more around those structural barriers and we know that bias is still present in our broader culture and still is in our organisation workplace behaviour and structures do have this combination of unconscious and conscious bias. But we see more and more, particularly in organisations in Australia, that it's much more around that unconscious bias. This is why sponsorship is particularly important, because what we know about sponsorship is that people who get sponsored are much more likely to get a promotion than those without. And what we know is people in dominant groups are more likely to have a sponsor. So men are 46% more likely than women to be sponsored and white people are 63% more likely to be sponsored compared to people of colour. The challenge around sponsorship is it's often not structured, it's often much more informal and it just really creates those opportunities for things like getting secondments or being put on significant cross functional projects that really builds the experience and expertise to get those more senior roles. So really trying to shift up and create more awareness around sponsoring diverse talent and making sure that we remove structural barriers around sponsorship is really important.

Nancy Francis: We see that women have to work harder throughout their career to get to the level they want to be at. When they get there, they have to work harder again to overcome biases. Is that linked with why not getting that bigger executive jump and it's only the 5% at CEO levels because we all get there and we're like, Gosh, I have to do this all over again. I'm just tired. I can't do this anymore.

Sophie Hampel: We know that women in that pathway to senior leadership actually take on a higher level of administrative work and emotional burden in comparison to male counterparts. And that all of these factors do play into burnout and why some women just opt out or never opt in the first place. And that balance around impacting aspiration. There's been some really interesting studies done on women starting their careers very aspirational, that aspiration dropping more than 50% by the time they reach midpoint in their career.

Nancy Francis: Are you seeing more demand for leadership programs across other industries that help shift the dial on women in leadership positions? Or are we sort of shifting away, going, no, we can't single women out in any way?

Sophie Hampel: It's been a really interesting journey to watch Inkling be involved in women's leadership development over the last ten years. I will say we are still doing it because it's needed. I think the degree to what's needed differs. The work that we're doing in the Pacific or in Asia is very different from what we might be doing in Australia, New Zealand, UK, the US. And there are different kind of challenges that exist within the broader culture that the organisation might be operating in. We are seeing organisations actually make really great progress and getting quite close to achieving gender equity in those senior leadership roles and therefore they have evolved what they're thinking about. They are potentially going, okay, now it's time to run a similar initiative with other underrepresented groups. And that might include, broadly opening that up to underrepresented groups maybe from a cultural background, it still may include gender, it might include sexual orientation or identity or disability. The other thing that we're seeing is a lot more focus from a development perspective around senior leaders building that capability to be inclusive leaders to what the research refers to as diversity intelligence, which is that ability to really unlock the benefit that exists within a diverse group of people. And that really requires an ability to be inclusive because you can have a whole heap of diversity. And that diversity drives a diversity of thought. And what we know from the research is that diversity of thought creates better solutions. It increases conflict. Homogenous groups are much more confident and they get along better, But more diversity can be quite triggering, it can be confronting. And so we need leaders who can navigate that and ensure that we're still hearing the diverse opinions from others around the room. Otherwise, we're just not going to see the results of that diversity. So I think that's where we're seeing a much bigger shift.

Nancy Francis: Thank you for taking the time today. We're all on the right track of making change, and I can't wait to see what's next.


Maria Rampa: I hope you enjoyed this episode of Engineering Reimagined.

It’s remarkable to hear the positive steps being made within Defence to create more opportunities for gender balance. While each organisation and industry faces their own unique challenges there are multiple avenues to enable change, so I hope this episode has provided some inspiration on what's possible.

If you enjoyed this episode, hit subscribe on Apple, Google Podcasts or Spotify and don’t forget to follow Aurecon on your favourite social media platform to stay up to date and join the conversation. Why not leave us a review? We’d love to hear your feedback.

Until next time, thanks for listening.

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Increasing diversity in workplace leadership

In recent years the Australian Defence Force has worked hard to attract and retain women within its ranks by altering the fitness standards for admission, offering more flexible working arrangements and creating dedicated leadership programs for women to increase their opportunities.

Mardi Jarvis, Assistant Secretary Vetting at Australia's Department of Defence, explains that “the kicker is really that work life flexibility and balance which of course is challenging in certain roles, but I think being open to what flexibility looks like across a diverse workforce and particularly for women and, not being so prescriptive in what the roles are, what the hours are, what the location is, because you're missing out on a whole skill set in doing that.”

In this candid conversation on Engineering Reimagined, Nancy Francis, Associate Program Advisory at Aurecon speaks to Mardi Jarvis on the importance of culture for shifting diversity, the challenges of single parenthood while juggling a busy career and everything in between. They are also joined by Inkling Group CEO and organisational psychologist Sophie Hampel who explains what people of all genders can do to create impact and the pathways created for women though the Defence Aurecon Ascend Program.

Meet our guests

Learn more about Nancy Francis, Mardi Jarvis & Sophie Hampel.
Nancy Francis - Associate, Program Advisory, Aurecon

Nancy Francis

Associate, Program Advisory, Aurecon

Nancy has developed her career to become part of the Defence Leadership team at Aurecon. In her role overseeing our services delivered to Defence, Nancy aims to deliver an extraordinary client experience. She collaborates with colleagues and clients to develop and implement solutions that drive continuous improvement

Mardi Jarvis - Assistant Secretary Vetting, Defence Australia

Mardi Jarvis

Assistant Secretary Vetting, Defence Australia

With over 28 years of dedicated service to the Australian Public Service, Mardi possesses a myriad of skills and experience within the Defence and Federal Courts sectors. She is known as a strategic and systemic thinker with a proven record in change management who has experience in leading teams through organisational change.

 Sophie Hampel, CEO and Co-Founder of Inkling Group

Sophie Hampel

CEO and Co-Founder of Inkling Group

Sophie is a registered psychologist with over 10 years’ experience consulting with organisations globally on leadership and diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging. She is deeply passionate about unblocking limiting beliefs and biases, and creating environments where everyone has an equal opportunity to thrive.

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