Rank, gender and working arrangements of ADF members: results from the Defence Census and implications for partner employment

With the majority of ADF members in a relationship how families experience Defence life matters – not just to families but also the ADF. So it’s with interest that I look at the data from the 2019 Defence Census to find out how the ADF workforce is working, and what implications it has for partner employment.

ADF family policy acknowledges that service in the ADF places unique demands on Defence members and their families. The policy states “the nature of Service life and the commitment required of Defence members may impose restrictions, pressures and difficulties on their families not generally encountered in the civilian community”. It goes on to say that “The ADF acknowledges the positive contribution that families make to the morale, performance and retention of Defence members“.

The working arrangements of ADF members heavily influence families and may dictate how much time members dedicate to their other life roles including their caring and domestic responsibilities. In turn, the distribution of domestic and caring work in families may influence how partners engage in paid work. As the OECD reports “the gender gap in unpaid care work has significant implications for women’s ability to actively take part in the labour market and the type/quality of employment opportunities available to them“. We know that the disproportionate share of unpaid caring and domestic work borne by women is a contributor to the gender pay gap. We also know that providing men with access to flexible working arrangements and encouraging its uptake is integral to progressing gender equality in the workplace

Most of the time the rank and service of the ADF member is of little interest in discussions about family. But we can’t ignore it entirely because the Census reports a correlation between rank and the hours worked by ADF members, between rank and time away from home, as well as differences between services, and between men and women. Therefore the rank, service, gender of the member and gender of the partner are likely to influence ADF partner employment. It’s important to take these differences into consideration and understand the different experiences and needs of ADF families when designing policies and programs. The ADF partner employment situation is far more nuanced and complex than current policy suggests.

Rank, Gender and Service breakdown

The permanent ADF workforce (ADF(P)) is made up of 58,476 members: 29,968Army; 14,369 Air Force; 14,139 Navy. According to the 2019 Defence Census 80.5% are male, 18.1% are female, and 0.6% are unspecified/intersex/indeterminate.

56% are Other Ranks/Junior Non-Commissioned Officers (NCOs); 18% are Senior NCO/Warrant Officers; 22% are Junior Officers; and 4% are Senior Officers.

Hours worked and time away from home

Senior Officers worked more hours than those in less senior ranks, and men worked more hours than women. Senior ranks were more likely to spend nights away from home (not including deployments), but junior ranks were more likely to spend more time away. Army members were more likely to be away from home than those in other services and had the highest median number of nights away from home. However, Navy members were more likely than those in other services to spend very lengthy periods away.

Senior Officers worked a median 50 hours per week, Junior Officers/Senior NCOs 45 hours per week, and Other Ranks/Junior NCOs 42 hours per week.

The median number of hours usually worked by males was 45 hours per week, compared with 42 hours for females.

Senior Officers were more likely to have spent a night away from home in the previous 12 months (96% for SO; 88% for SNCO/WO; 87% for JO; 80% for OR/JNCO) but the median number of nights spent away from home was higher for OR/JNCO members (40 nights), compared to 30 nights for SNCO/WO members, Junior Officers and Senior Officers. 

Males (85%) were more likely than females (77%) to have spent at least one night away from home on Defence service in the previous 12 months. 

Army members (88%) were more likely than Navy (80%) or Air Force (78%) to have spent at least one night away from home on Defence service. The median number of nights spent away from home was higher for Army (45 nights) than Navy (30 nights) or Air Force (21 nights). Navy members were considerably more likely than members of the other Services to have spent more than 150 nights away from home in the last 12 months – 14% of Navy members spent more than 150 nights away, compared with 8% of Army members and 5% of Air Force members.

Operational Service

Since the 2015 Defence Census 39% of all ADF(P) members have been operationally deployed one or more times:

 32% had been operationally deployed for 6-8 months, 26% for less than one month, and 23% for 2-4 months.

Men (41%) were more likely to have been deployed than women (33%).

SNCO/WO members (48%) were more likely to have been operationally deployed since the last Census than all other rank groups – Junior Officers 39%, OR/JNCO 37% and Senior Officers 35%.

Navy members (55%) were more likely to have been operationally deployed than Air Force (42%) or Army members (31%).

22% had been deployed within the previous 12 months:

Males (23%) were more likely to have been operationally deployed in the last 12 months than females (19%).

OR/JNCO (23%), SNCO/WO (22%) and Junior Officers (21%), were more likely to have been operationally deployed in the last 12 months than Senior Officers (15%).

Navy members were most likely (35%) to have been deployed in the last 12 months, followed by Air Force (20%) and Army (17%).

Flexible Work Arrangements

Only 14% of ADF(P) members had used formal or informal flexible work arrangements (FWA) in the last 12 months! 84% had not applied for any FWA! Far fewer Army members used FWA than Air Force. Far fewer junior ranks used it than senior, and more women than men used it.

A higher proportion of Air Force members (25%) successfully applied for and used a flexible working arrangement than Navy (15%) or Army (8%).

More female members than male have used FWA in the last 12 months (21% vs 13%).

Senior Officers were most likely to have used FWA (29% of SO compared to 23% SNCO/WO, 19% JO, and only 8% of OR/JNCO).

Encouragingly, the main reason for requesting FWA was to assist with caring for children (57% for Army, and 55% for both Navy and Air Force). (This may partly explain why the figures are higher for senior ranks because age may be a factor). Also good to see was the fact that only 1% of those who had requested FWA had their application rejected.

I continue to question why, when we know about the links between unpaid work and the ability to engage in quality paid work, do we think mobility is the only ADF-related employment challenge experienced by ADF partners. The “greedy” nature of the ADF is the elephant in the room when it comes to ADF partner employment policy.


Surprisingly (given it is a hallmark of military life), and unlike previous Census data, the 2019 Defence Census doesn’t report any information on service-related removals/relocations. It would be helpful to have information on how frequently members are moving with respect to their rank and service, and which locations they are assigned to. Mobility itself, as well as geographical location is known to influence partner employment.

What does this all mean?

Despite the evidence pointing to a myriad of systemic factors affecting partner employment the current partner employment initiatives are focused on mobility – not in addressing the issue itself but rather on increasing the ‘self-reliance’ of partners in gaining employment. (I’ve argued previously that this approach is inadequate– you can read my blog posts here and here and a recent article by Spanner (see further reading below).

It’s clear from the 2019 Defence Census data that there are differences between members based on rank, gender and service in areas such as hours worked, time away from home, and flexible work practices. This in turn means there are likely differences in how domestic and caring responsibilities in ADF families are distributed according to rank, gender and service, and subsequently in how ADF partner careers are impacted by military life. This indicates that “one size fits all” approaches to family policies and programs may not be the most effective, and that in addition to addressing the systemic issues influencing partner employment as a whole (not currently done adequately) that they should be considered at the ADF workforce level.

With a majority male heterosexual population the working arrangements ADF members work have implications for the careers of ADF partners (the majority of whom are women) but also for gender equality in general. If the ADF are as serious about gender equality as they say they are then their efforts to address it must include encouraging their male employees to work flexibly when practicable. Workplace flexibility isn’t just a way to attract and retain women in the ADF – it’s also a means to ensure gender equality within ADF families and to improve the quality of life of all ADF members by facilitating career life roles outside of their ADF employment; and as a result to boost the morale and performance of staff.

To quote the WGEA “There is a strong business case for men working flexibly and taking parental leave. Access to and uptake of these entitlements can lead to a boost in productivity, an increase in employee wellbeing and improvements to work-life balance. Equally, providing men with access to flexible working arrangements and encouraging its uptake is integral to progressing gender equality in the workplace. Organisations must support and encourage men to take parental leave and flexible work arrangements. An increase in utilisation of these entitlements will benefit families, organisations and make an overall impact on workplace gender equality

Recommendation 7 in my Churchill Fellowship report on ADF partner employment is that current defence workforce policies should be reviewed with respect to how they influence partner employment, and that current and future policies be enhanced to offset negative effects on families. This includes exploring the potential of the Total Workforce Model (and flexible working arrangements), considering how reliant ADF workforce policies and practices are on the unpaid labour of partners, and expanding gender equality efforts to the whole ADF community.

Additional reading:

“ADF partner employment and career development” Churchill Fellowship Report

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

Leigh Spanner (2020) Resilient and entrepreneurial military spouses: neoliberalization meets militarization, Critical Military Studies, DOI: 10.1080/23337486.2020.1815385

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