News //

Defending an education

Georgia Behrens explores the culture of sexism in the Australian Defence Force Academy


“Good luck. They’re a pretty private bunch.” I’ve just asked a relative who has worked with the Australian Defence Force Academy (ADFA) if they have any contacts whom I could potentially get in touch with. The response is cautionary: the staff and students at ADFA are unlikely to be willing to speak to me about their experiences at Australia’s premier military training institution.

I’m mildly sceptical, but after approaching several female ADFA students about discussing their experiences, I discover that my relative was right. Each of the cadets has to seek permission from their divisional officer to speak with me, and, ultimately, only one gets authorisation. Even then, it’s on the condition that this article is sighted by ADFA’s media advisor before it goes to print. I’m disappointed, but given the coverage that ADFA has had in the media lately, their paranoia is justifiable.

Since it first opened in Canberra in 1986, ADFA has undergone scrutiny over allegations of widespread cadet misbehaviour, including alleged instances of assault and sexual harassment. In 1998, a landmark inquiry found that ADFA was the site of high levels of inappropriate sexual behaviour, including rape, and that this behaviour was widely tolerated by the military hierarchy.

In 2006, Robyn Fahy, ADFA’s first-ever female graduate, received compensation from the defence department after revealing that, while a cadet at ADFA, she regularly suffered physical and verbal abuse. In 2011, an incident in which a male cadet is alleged to have streamed video of him having sex with a female cadet to several other students prompted yet another review into the treatment of women at ADFA, led by federal Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Elizabeth Broderick. And, earlier this year, the Defence Force announced that it had suspended 20 ADFA cadets and midshipmen for their alleged involvement in sexually abusive initiation rituals.

According to Liz*, a second-year cadet studying Business at ADFA, the widespread negative perceptions of the Academy are largely undue. She is categorical that the aforementioned incidents are in no way reflective of her experience, or that of her female friends.

“Obviously I think it’s absolutely horrible that some people have gone through that, and of course there should be really serious consequences for people who do act in that way. But … they’re stepping outside the lines that everyone else stays within,” she says.

“I just feel like people are taking the exceptions to the rule and projecting them onto the entire academy, when most people here just put their heads down and tuck their shirts in and do exactly what they’re supposed to do, day in, day out.” Liz also points to high rates of sexual abuse and harassment at other tertiary institutions in Australia. She says that her sister, who lived on campus at the University of Canberra, regularly had men banging on her door to proposition her in the middle of the night, and grew accustomed to police wandering around the building investigating reports of resident misconduct. This reminded me of similar stories from USYD students who live on campus.

Liz says that, at ADFA, cadets are “not seen as individuals, but as part of a team … At first, it was difficult to learn stuff like if one person has their room a bit messy at inspection, then the entire division gets re-inspected,” she says. “But if you’re in combat and someone stuffs up, everyone is going to suffer. So they try to make sure we’re aware of that in every aspect of our lives.”

Students from all backgrounds, genders and degrees are expected to work to the same, high standards. They all wear the same uniform, follow the same schedule, and work towards the same objectives. They are aware that, first and foremost, they are part of an organisation whose standards they are expected to represent and uphold at all times.

“Even if we’re out in Canberra on weekends, we’re recognisable and identified as ADFA cadets, particularly the boys because of their haircuts,” she said. “So, whereas if some ANU guy got drunk and caused a fuss, or treated a girl badly, it would be seen as a problem with binge-drinking culture or sexism generally, if an ADFA guy does it, it’s seen as a problem with ADFA in particular.”

As Liz recognises, sexism and sexual abuse are prevalent beyond ADFA. In drawing attention to women’s experiences at ADFA we must not ignore the need for action beyond its walls. But ADFA is different from most other Universities and institutions.  It assumes responsibility for forming Australia’s future defence leaders, and in doing so deliberately creates a culture and inculcates particular behaviours and values in its students. In doing so, it must expect scrutiny of the environment it creates.
*Names have been changed.