Generation Equality for Military Partners

International Women’s Day 2020

The UN theme for International Women’s Day 2020 is Generation Equality: Realising women’s rights for an equal future.

It’s time for “Generation Equality” in our military community – both in uniform and out. 

2020 marks 25 years since the Beijing Platform for Action (which set out how to remove the systemic barriers that hold women back from equal participation in all areas of life), 20 years since  the adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security, the 10th anniversary of the establishment of UN Women, and five years towards achieving the UN Sustainability Goals. Closer to home it also marks 35 years since a group of ADF partners told the Minister for Defence they’d had enough of the impact of military life on families – leading to the landmark report Supporting Service Families, more commonly known as the Hamilton Report, which ultimately lead to the establishment of Defence Community Organisation and Defence Families of Australia

In 1985 when Sue Hamilton began her study I was a Year 9 high school student. I was part of a generation of young women that were led to believe that we could be anything we wanted to, and that we could have it all. That wasn’t the case of course – in 1986 as much as we loved Top Gun as women we couldn’t be fighter pilots. But, still, I believed the world was my oyster. I didn’t know then that I’d marry someone in the Air Force. I could never have envisaged the impact that it would have on my career aspirations and outcomes. 35 years later I celebrate that any young woman in Year 9 today can watch Top Gun 2 and choose to pursue a career in the military in any role she’d like, including fighter pilot. But I’d also like it  if a young woman in year 9 today isn’t faced with the same employment challenges and lack of financial security that I, and those courageous women who spoke their minds in 1985 were, if she chooses to spend her life with a service member. 

Defence love to talk about next generation fighter aircraft, warships and vehicles. It’s high time we had a discussion about “next generation families” particularly by paying greater attention to the impact service life has on the partners of service members – the overwhelming majority of whom are women – particularly with respect to employment.

According the 2017 ADF Families Survey ADF partners experience high levels of unemployment and other career and employment sacrifice as well as career discontent due to the compromises made in the amount and nature of the work performed. Only around 1/3 of partners in the survey were in full time work. Another 1/3 were in part time or casual employment (many wanted to work more hours). A further 1/3 were either unemployed or not engaged in the labour market. This impact on employment has serious health and wellbeing implications for military partners and families, including their long-term financial security. The following quote from the Hamilton Report remains as relevant today as it did in 1986:

“the result is that many service families are either reluctant one-income families, with aspirations to a higher standard of living than the serving member’s salary alone can sustain, or at best precarious two-income families, unable to enter into financial commitments that depend on a second income, because of the ever present possibility that that income will be lost on posting” 

However, amongst employed families in Australia today the majority are dual income [1], placing ADF families at risk of being disadvantaged compared to their civilian counterparts. 

There is very little discussion about partner employment as a gender issue. But to not look at military partner employment through a gender lens is to not fully understand the issues. We know that in general women fare worse than men in the workforce. The WGEA has identified that the gender wage gap in Australia is influenced by a number of factors, including [2]:

  • discrimination and bias in hiring and pay decisions
  • women and men working in different industries and different jobs, with female-dominated industries and jobs attracting lower wages
  • women’s disproportionate share of unpaid caring and domestic work
  • lack of workplace flexibility to accommodate caring and other responsibilities, especially in senior roles
  • women’s greater time out of the workforce impacting career progression and opportunities.

In addition to this, women face greater risk of economic insecurity in retirement than men – retiring on average with half the superannuation of men because they spend more time out of paid work and work in lower paid roles[3].

So, by virtue of their gender alone military partners are disadvantaged. How much more disadvantage does military life confer on partners, the overwhelming majority of whom are women? 

Military life is defined by a combination of three key features that occur throughout military life: mobility, separation and risk [4]. 81% of ADF partners say they have made employment or career sacrifices because of ADF life [5].  Mobility is a key employment challenge for partners who have little say in where or when they move. ADF 2015 census data reveals that over half of ADF partners had changed jobs between one and five times due to service related relocations [6]. Over half were out of work for between one and six months following their most recent relocation. And of those partners who changed jobs more than half earned a lower income than in their previous job. Transferring occupational licences between states and countries can either be impossible, cost-prohibitive, or cause lengthy delays. Moving to areas with high unemployment rates presents obvious challenges. Despite it being illegal for employers to discriminate on the basis of marital status 35% of respondents to the 2017 ADF Families Survey identified “negative perception of defence partners” by employers as a reason they had difficulty finding work.

Separation – the absence from home of the service member for training, exercise, deployment or other service-related reasons – also impacts partner employment. Of the top ten reasons provided in the 2015 Defence Census for partners not working four related to family responsibilities and domestic workload: to stay at home and meet the needs of the family; my service related absence from home makes it difficult for my partner to work; to be home when the children are home from school; and childcare difficulties.  

Sue Hamilton recognised the impact that family roles has on partners back in 1986:

 “Of course some of the current attitudes I have observed and which have been reported to me are based on a particular view of the role of the family and the relationships of individuals within it – one which assumes that the needs and interests of all other members should be subordinated at all times to those of one breadwinner. “

The report went on to say 

This model of the family has been a convenient one for the services in the past, but, while it remains a legitimate choice for some families, it is by no means the preferred model for many Australian families today and, unless some means can be found to respond more adequately to the varying needs of families, it seems likely that a defence career will become increasingly incompatible with a satisfactory family life for growing numbers of people. 

Unfortunately, it would seem that the breadwinner-homemaker model expectation persists within the defence community despite the fact that in the years since the Hamilton Report dual income families have become the Australian norm and the number of stay-at-home mothers has decreased [7].  Whilst Australian women in general perform more household work and childcare than men, military life may be exacerbating this in military families.  A report on Canadian military partners notes 

“Research on military families and gender suggests that in order to function, militaries rely on spouses, most often wives, to undertake the majority of domestic labour, suspend their own careers, and relocate willingly for new postings” along with an “expectation that the spouse of the member will take over caregiving when the member is away on duty” [8]

If the number of ADF partners in the workforce has increased since 1986 I doubt it has come with a corresponding decrease in domestic workload. In fact, the domestic workload of military partners may have increased since the Hamilton Report. When Sue wrote her report in 1986 Australia was not involved in conflict. Since 2001 the ADF has been involved in ongoing military operations in the Middle East which has resulted in frequent and lengthy (up to 12 months) absences from home of many ADF members; leaving ADF partners to single-handedly run their households and manage their own careers. One US study found that deployment reduces spouse labour force participation and that the impact begins months prior to the deployment start date and persists for several months after the deployment ends [9]. As a result of member absence from home many partners seek remote and flexible roles that can support them in managing their multiple life roles – yet in the 2017 ADF Families Survey 1/3 of respondents reported difficulties finding work that matched their availability or preferred work hours. 

Between the impact of mobility and the high domestic workload many ADF partners move in and out of employment, are often unemployed or underemployed (in terms of hours and qualifications) and find it difficult to progress their careers. As a result, their ability to engage in satisfying and meaningful employment is compromised, along with their ability to progress into senior decision-making roles and to accrue long-term benefits including savings and superannuation. A situation at odds with Australia’s commitments to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals5 (Gender Equality) and 8 (Decent Work and Economic Growth).

The lack of focus on gender and partner employment today is in stark contrast to 1985 when Minister Beazley, in response the feedback from military partners, commissioned the Office of the Status of Women (under the leadership of Anne Summers) to report on the issues facing families. Ms Hamilton identified back then that changing attitudes may be assisted by increasing employment of women in the ADF:

“Indeed, the relatively small numbers of women in the services in the past may contributed to the tendency for the service hierarchy to lag behind general community attitudes in its approach to spouses. Working with women as colleagues and equals is a good way to develop an appreciation of the growing diversity in the roles women now play in Australian family life”

Fast forward to 2020 and it doesn’t seem to be the case that a greater focus on women in uniform has led to an increased understanding of or support for the careers of military partners. One senior decision maker of ADF policy mused to me that the issue of partner employment would become bigger as the number of women ADF members, and hence the number of male partners, increases. Presumably because compromised employment is societally less acceptable for men than women. Sadly, in terms of how the issue is perceived he’s probably not wrong.  In a separate discussion with another stakeholder I was told “we don’t even know if partners want careers”. 35 years and this is how far we’ve come. There are still gender stereotypes at play. 

Defence has of course made progress in its gender equality efforts within its ranks and the diversity within ranks and families is increasing. But despite this, from a families’ perspective the ADF remains a somewhat patriarchal institution. Partners and children are listed in PMKeys as ‘dependants’. Support such as housing and the current career support program (the Partner Employment Assistance Program) are provided to ADF members (for the member to pass on to their dependants), rather than directly to families. Defence Housing Australia leases are in the serving member’s name. Partners who have not opted in (but who may not know to) cannot receive information directly from Defence about matters that directly affect them due to privacy law restrictions. In my experience when these issues are raised with stakeholders the discussion invariably turns to negative military spouse stereotypes – tales of partners who put swimming pools in DHA houses, or took advantage of a service member for financial reasons, the naïve partner who doesn’t realise she isn’t listed as next of kin or an official dependant, what the USA call “dependas”, and other stereotypes and stories that don’t bear repeating – rather than about the wellbeing, financial and physical security of partners. This year marks 20 years since the UN Resolution on Women Peace and Security. Australia has shown leadership in this area but there have been recent calls for more focus on domestic policy areas that affect women’s security[10]. I believe there should be a place in the WPS arena for discussion about the impact of military service on female partners. And time for Defence to reimagine it’s relationship with families.

There are however positive signs for change. 

  • The Chief of Defence Force has been a ‘Male Champion of Change’ since 2015 and as such publicly recognises that gender equality is a national and international issue of economic and social importance. 
  • The Minister for Veterans Affairs and Defence Personnel has convened a Council for Women and Families United by Defence Service. 

The Council was established “to ensure the needs of women and families united by defence service are understood and visible, and their voices are heard. The Council brings these voices together to provide timely and comprehensive advice to Government on matters that involve or affect them, drive coherent policy outcomes and advocate on behalf of these women and families”.

In late 2019 the Minister identified partner employment as one of three key priority areas for the Council. Engagement by decision-makers at this level is key. As Sue Hamilton said in a speech to the Australian defence community in 2012:

“In 1985 a group of service wives had the strength to stand up and tell the Minister they’d had enough. With the right Minister, the right supporters, and just a touch of serendipity it’s amazing what can happen”

That report in 1986 triggered a chain of events that ultimately led to big improvements for Australian military families. 

  • The Chief of Defence Force has engaged families in his request for feedback on the modernisation of the ADF employment offer. My own submission to this focused on the implementation of employment arrangements that facilitate more equitable distribution of domestic workloads in ADF families by removing the expectation of partners to do the bulk of the work associated with military life while the ADF member focuses on their job. This is in addition to my Churchill Fellowship recommendation for a more comprehensive career development program for ADF partners that addresses multiple employment challenges. The benefits of such a program would be widespread and encompass health and wellbeing and economic security of partners and families, ADF recruitment, retention, capability, increased labour force participation, as well as gender equality. 
  • Flexible work practices for service members are on the rise in the ADF which provides an important opportunity for ADF families to more equitably distribute domestic workload and thus better manage their dual career families. 
  • Defence Families of Australia remains an important ongoing voice for ADF families to provide feedback and raise concerns with Defence leaders. In addition they have commenced an important program to raise awareness amongst employers of the skills within the ADF partner workforce, and to reiterate how tailored recruitment practices and remote and flexible work options can help military partners reach their potential in the workforce. 

But change has to happen faster than it has in the past. According to the UN “the emerging global consensus is that despite some progress, real change has been agonizingly slow for the majority of women and girls in the world” [11]. In terms of progress made since the Hamilton Report I can attest to that. Researching for my upcoming conference poster on military partner employment – what has and hasn’t changed in 30+ years, it has been frustrating to discover that, whilst there have been advances made, many of the challenges described in the report remain today, and many of the recommendations on employment are as relevant today as they were when the report was published in 1986. Gender equality across the military community must become a higher priority. We can’t afford another generation of inequality.


[1] https://quickstats.censusdata.abs.gov.au/census_services/getproduct/census/2016/quickstat/036

[2] https://www.wgea.gov.au/topics/the-gender-pay-gap

[3] Workplace Gender Equality Agency. Women’s economic security in retirement. Insight Paper. Available from  https://wgea.gov.au/sites/default/files/documents/Women%27s%20economic%20security%20in%20retirement.pdf

[4] Daigle, P (2013). On the Homefront. Assessing the Well-bieng of Canada’s Military Families in the New Millenium. National Defence and Canadian Forces Ombudsman.

[5] 2017 ADF Families Survey

[6] Via the 2017 ADF Families Survey report

[7] https://aifs.gov.au/facts-and-figures/work-and-family

[8] Spanner, L., Governing “dependents”: The Canadian military family and gender, a policy analysis. International Journal, 2017. 72(4): p. 484-502

[9] Savych, B (2008). Effects of Deployments on Spouses of Military Personnel. RAND Corporation.

[10] Allen, L (2020). Australia’s implementation of women, peace and security. Promoting regional stability. Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

[11] https://www.unwomen.org/en/get-involved/beijing-plus-25/about


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