7 Apr 2015

Number of women in Defence 'inadequate'

9:51 am on 7 April 2015

The number of New Zealand women signing up to the armed forces in the past decade is virtually stagnant, despite a concerted effort to boost their numbers.

Defence Force soldiers in Afghanistan's Bamyan province in 2013.

New Zealand soldiers in Afghanistan's Bamyan province in 2013. On average, 15 percent of those serving in the army, navy and air force are women. Photo: NZ DEFENCE FORCE

During the last ten years, the highest level of women recruits amounted to only a quarter of the peak of male enrolments.

In the decade, the highest number of new female recruits into the regular force was 267 compared to a peak of 964 male recruits, Defence Force figures show.

On average, 15 percent of those serving in the Army, Navy and Air Force are women, though within the Navy there is a slightly higher proportion of around 21 percent.

Massey University Centre for Defence and Security Studies senior lecturer Anna Powles said women did not view the force as an obvious career path and that had a lot to do with the low visibility of women in senior leadership roles.

She said the Defence Force needed to address its use of gender neutral language in its official documents and make clear that taking maternity leave will not impede promotions to senior ranks.

The Defence Force is disappointed by the low numbers, saying it may be down to a lack of role models for school-age girls.

Lieutenant Colonel Louisa O'Brien of the New Zealand Army said young women and girls at school do not see the Defence Force as a likely choice.

"They don't see the role models already there. It's not given to them in school, perhaps, as an option.

"So we know we need to present the military and the range of ninety-plus trades and occupations they could have in a more available light to young girls making those decisions."

Improving culture

Former Defence Minister Phil Goff said the culture for women in the Defence Force had improved over time.

"We all remember the first cases of when women went into the Navy and the very high levels of sexual harassment and bullying that took place there. There have been some improvements."

He said New Zealand has a better proportion of women in its Defence Force than similar countries like Australia, Canada or the United States but still had not gone far enough.

He said women were valuable to the Defence Force as they could operate in volatile circumstances that men cannot.

He saw evidence of this in deployments to places like Timor Leste, Solomon Islands and in particular Afghanistan.

"There are things women can do as part of your peacekeeping forces that men can't possibly do, particularly in Muslim countries.

"We knew that the women could get in alongside the local Muslim women. They could find out what was actually happening, the problems in the community, how to improve our relationship with them.

"If we're only getting 15 percent of our Defence Force from 50 per cent of the population clearly we're missing out on recruiting some very able and capable people and that [shouldn't] be the case."

Mr Goff said the Defence Force was looking at problems surrounding recruitment but had been going backwards, not forwards.


New Zealand First women's affairs spokesperson Tracey Martin said what the figures showed was that every single one of the women who went into the Defence Force was a trailblazer.

"They're ploughing through a really male dominated environment and they have very few females they can lean on who they know have got their back or share their experience.

"The numbers we've currently got won't encourage the participation of women inside the force because it [seems] to me you have to be a really strong independent woman to go in and play against males."

She said Defence should look towards education institutions for help. "I think there needs to be more work inside of schools with career advisors to show that this is actually an academic and physical pathway for young women."