Still a Long Way to go for Women in Defence Technology Filling Talent Shortfalls

Mel O'Sullivan - February 25, 2022

On Friday 17 February 2022 I donned my WYWM Black T shirt with pride to attend the first annual Women In Defence Technology Conference at the Brisbane Convention Centre in Brisbane, Australia. I’d flown in from the farm the day before for my first business engagement representing the company face to face.  

When I left the Army I turned my back on everything to do with Defence for just on 20 years– people, industry, culture – the whole package. I went completely off the defence grid. I’ve been at WYWM for just on two years now so have put my toe back in the water on the Defence Industry and the people in it but this was the first time I had been direct “customer facing” on behalf of the company. I knew I’d be woefully out of date on a lot of the topics of discussion. I attended with the intention of doing a lot of networking but kind of froze on the day (cut me a break – I’ve barely left the farm during COVID). I shut my mouth, kept my eyes open and listened – took a lot of notes. I really wanted to see how much had changed since I discharged.  

Scarlett, Sophie, Jo, Cia and I found our seats and settled in to listen to the first speech of the day from the Minister for Defence. We all know the kind of topics he spoke directly to and which ones he very carefully did not mention. Question time for the minister was very short and he left the conference immediately saying “I’ve got some issues to deal with”.  
Of course one of the main topics under discussion was the issue of gender diversity in defence and related roles. The minister proudly spouted numbers on percentages of women in Defence and highlighted progress made – especially around the opening up of Combat roles to women. To be fair he did say we still have a fair way to go. 

Frankly - I was disappointed.  

In over twenty years nothing seemed to have measurably changed (at least it looked that way to me). Same old conversations around gender quotas and participation – blah blah blah blah blah. Over coffees and wines a good number of the women I spoke to – some still in defence - indicated to me in one way or another that their professional lives still seem to be largely defined around issues of women having to constantly re-prove their right to wear the uniform. Fighting the same tired worn out credibility battles already fought in the support/logistics roles – but now in the “sharp end of the spear” roles.   

If the definition of failure is to repeat the same actions resulting in the same less than stellar outcomes – well – reach your own conclusions.  

Speaking of repeating actions for uninspiring outcomes – let’s talk about the “Talent Shortage”. We were sitting in a room chock to the rafters full of seriously high powered and talented people – heading up large, profitable, industry leading organizations presumably equally full of talented, high powered employees. The first discussion panel of the day was on the topic of talent. I listened to a couple of recruitment agency CEO’s tell the consulting company CEO’s that we have a nationwide talent shortage (surprise!) All the high powered CEO’s nodded wisely and agreed with each other.  

I held my breath waiting for someone on the panel to say something ground breaking about alternative solutions and accessing previously untapped talent resources. I didn’t quite black out – but I might have. Same discussions around the same problem. Same methods of filling vacancies – and only one company in the room that I knew of actually doing anything differently. They might have been keeping their “talent shortage” IP solutions close to their chests – but I don’t think so.  

Agreed – I am biased - but the way I see it this country is not in a position to hold hard to traditional practices simply because “that is the way things have always been done.” We simply do not have the population numbers that other countries do. Any farm girl knows that if you repair something with haywire and the repair fails you have to come up with a different solution that actually works – especially if you have always fixed the problem with haywire before. Repeating the repair with the same haywire will result in the same failure.  

Listen hard people. We have no shortage of talented women and girls in this country. What we do have is a shortage of women and girls who know and expect that they will have a respected and valued seat at the table in the Tech Industries of their choice. Many women opt out because we get tired of having to prove our right to be there every second of every day.

We have better things to do with our time and talent – we’ll give you a wave when we overtake you.  
Recruitment agencies drum up business by telling big business they have talent shortages and big business drinks the Kool Aid and agrees with them – paying big money to get first in line for the same limited pre-approved and (supposedly) proven talent pool. Around and around the circle goes. All the while telling themselves they are encouraging workplace diversity – but never really actually changing their hiring practices.  Anyone for a bit of confirmation bias?  

My notes show me that these seriously talented and high powered leaders clearly are not blind to the problem. They know that the IP loss when employees leave a business is a significant cost (but difficult to measure). They know that diversity creates brilliance and innovation (thank you Air Commodore Amanda Dines for that gem). They know we badly need thought leaders in the industry. Where the industry seems to come unstuck is in making that diversity happen from the bottom up on an industry and nationwide scale.  To this out of the loop Army veteran it appears that the industry as a whole has not found a successful way to make Defence careers and Defence Tech careers more comfortable or more accessible to the diversity demographics businesses need in their teams moving forward. They’re talking the talk – but they’re nowhere near walking the walk. Worse - they don’t seem to know how to change “the way things are done around here”.  

Career Success Powerhouse Jo Allen and new women on the block Sophie Thomson and Cia Kouparitsas spent the day doing some quiet reconnaissance. Almost everyone they spoke to knew about WithYouWithMe – what we do and how we do it. We all just made our presence known in our black and coloured archetype Tshirts. After all – as every cowgirl knows: 

You can lead a horse to water – but you can’t make them drink.  

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