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Reflections on organisational change, merit and bias — Jenna Higgins

One of the key vectors in the Air Force Strategy 2017-2027 is ‘People Capability’, and Air Force has introduced a variety of strategies to increase representation of women to 25 percent by 2023. In this post, Flight Lieutenant Jenna Higgins reflects on the need to critically examine attitudes to merit and bias in order to bring about the organisational change needed in today’s Air Force.

On Friday 24 March, the National Defence, Police and Emergency Services Women’s Leadership Summit was held in Canberra focussing on ‘opportunities and challenges for women seeking leadership positions in today’s workforce and broader Australian community.’ The summit hosted some remarkable and inspiring ladies who relayed their experiences in both the defence/emergency services and the corporate arena.

The speaker that most sparked my interest however, was Julie McKay, the Gender Advisor to the Chief of the Defence Force. As female aircrew, to say that I am sceptical of gender programs and schemes that aim to increase female participation and leadership would be an understatement. I have always believed that if there is a job you want to do, just work hard and make it happen. I further have a particular distaste for quotas. Surely the best person for the job will be picked; that’s purely a capability argument that everyone can get on board with.

However, Julie McKay made a very interesting point regarding merit and bias. She stated that when you are down to the top three candidates for selection into one position, you have already determined that all are equally meritorious. They likely have similar qualifications, similar experience and equally meet essential and desirable criteria. Each candidate has reached this position due to equal ‘merit’. So who is selected? At this point, the position will usually be filled based on personality; the person who will most easily to fit into the culture. Alternatively, they will be just like the person who last successfully fulfilled the role. While perhaps unintentional and well meaning, this is unconscious bias also known as the ‘similar to me’ or ‘affinity bias’. It cements the status quo, and makes diversity at the upper levels of leadership more difficult to achieve. To be honest, this doesn’t just apply to women. In fact it applies to anyone that isn’t a middle aged white male i.e. the bulk of our senior leadership.

CDF Gender Advisor Julie McKay meets with Air Force Flight Camp students [Image credit: RAAF]

CDF Gender Advisor Julie McKay meets with students at an Air Force Flight Camp [Image credit: RAAF]

In this case, the argument for a quota system holds some validity whereby the quota is equivalent to the percentage of women in the organisation. This would encourage the upward growth of women until the system normalises. With that said, it is pleasing to know that the Australian Defence Force, especially the Air Force and Navy has recognised this bias and now seek to ensure that at least one female representative is on all promotion boards. Army have a slightly different system however seek to have female representation on all Personnel Advisory committees.

McKay also made the point that the organisational structures should be adapted for the future ADF. Just as it is important for the Air Force to focus on technologically advanced platforms for future sustainability, the organisational structure must change to support a changing workforce and generational aspirations. Especially in the context of recent research which indicates that today’s young workers will hold between 10 and 15 jobs in their lifetime. One such example of evolving structural change is the encouragement of flexible working arrangements (FWA). FWA need to become the norm. And I don’t mean the norm for working mothers and fathers, I am suggesting the norm across the board. Personnel who do not specifically need flexible working hours should consider taking ownership over the hours they work in order to achieve the balance that suits their lifestyle best. Among many of the benefits of this system is that when parents do take FWA, they aren’t stigmatised or viewed as not contributing enough. This concept does not just have to apply to ground postings. At a flying squadron, it is not uncommon to use reservists to fly in a training role when short of personnel (taking leave, on course etc). Why can this not used as a construct to bring women (and men) back to a flying role in a part time position?

The cultural shift that must continue to occur is to identify that women are not the problem. They do not need to be taught how to be leaders any more than a man does. They should also not need to adjust their style to be ‘one of the boys’ in order to gain respect. Parenting requirements should not require ‘special treatment’. It is the organisational constructs that need to continue to evolve with FWA being just one example. I deliberately say ‘continue’ because they are evolving, and amazing progress is being made. But now is not the time to strike it up as a ‘win’. Just as we acknowledge the requirements we set for platform acquisitions are no longer the same as they were 50 years ago, we also need to accept that the requirements for recruitment, retention and organisational structure are going to shift.

Flight Lieutenant Jenna Higgins is a currently serving Royal Australian Air Force Air Combat Officer. The opinions expressed are hers alone and do not reflect those of the Royal Australian Air Force, the Australian Defence Force, or the Australian Government.


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