Group Captain Dee Gibbon (above second from end) was a 2013 Australian Financial Review and Westpac 100 Women of Influence awardee in the Diversity category. Her career in Air Force has been in education, human resources and diversity, and she has played a major role in paving the way for successful cultural change in the forces.
“I was what they call a ‘RAAF brat’,” says Dee Gibbon (above), whose Dad was in Air Force.
“I never wanted to fly but always wanted to join...
“Well, actually, it was a choice between either studying drama or joining Air Force. I was a very creative child. Everything was a drama, a musical, a competition. I often joke that I had to choose between doing a degree in drama or joining Air Force and I’ve been acting like a military officer ever since.”
Jokes aside, Dee points out that joining the ADF (Australian Defence Force) as a woman is not a stereotypical career path, and making that non-stereotypical choice usually means that person has had some sort of tangible interaction with the choice. The interaction might come in the form of having a family member work in the area or growing-up in close proximity to the profession—an Army base—or having an association through a school course, like cadets. Dee’s was in her blood and family BBQs where she got to speak with women in the Air Force about what they did and why they joined.
Passionate about education, Dee believes in engaging in rigorous, robust research and using that to underpin the need for diversity in the military so that the organisation can successfully increase its capability and sustainability.
“The diversity elements of Pathway to Change are about capability and increasing our capability as an organisation and not about ‘political correctness’ or some ‘left wing feminist agenda’, which is often the language in which the criticism is couched.
“In fact, we recently put together a communication strategy explaining the benefits of becoming a more diverse organisation,” Dee says, pointing out that if diversity was all about political correctness and feminism, why would big businesses that are responsible to shareholders be engaging in similar policies and procedures.
“There are no politicians breathing down the necks of those organisations or ‘feminists’ in charge dictating policy and procedure but these big businesses continue to develop diversity within their ranks. The reason they do it makes business sense. They recognise that the more diverse and capable they are as an organisation the better they will be,” she says, going on to stress that, “if we [ADF] don’t do the same we will be left behind. We won’t be able to keep up. We won’t attract the best and brightest talent from the Australian population”.
What does a ‘traditional’ recruit look like?
A crisp, conservative, young, white, heterosexual male, could be the stereotypical answer.
Around that image hangs another question: What are the chances of filling this stereotype from an ageing population in a society that allows people to make so many other choices?
“To attract and retain the loyalty of the best and brightest means being diverse and addressing the whole talent pool and not some stereotype that if it does exist, exists in ever-decreasing numbers,” says Dee, who also believes there needs to be change around recruitment and training to widen the recruiting pool.
“Women and men can choose any career of their liking but most tend to make very traditional career choices because it’s difficult to undo lifetimes of stereotyping and gender socialisation.
“Air Force has really worked to change this. My approach in this is the ‘field of dreams’ approach; if you build it they will come’. All organisations play a critical role in developing the types of entry pathways, targeted initiatives and retention strategies that will bring about real diversity in our workforces in the future, but you must develop a sound understanding of exactly what the barriers are, and then work towards actively mitigating those barriers,” Dee says.
Dee notes Air Force research indicates that women who do join the ADF tend to join the more feminised areas (clerical, health science, communications, intelligence), without even considering less traditional career options.
The reasons for this include questioning their own ability to succeed in non-traditional roles, perhaps because of an under-confidence in their maths and technical skills or because they perceive that certain jobs will be too dirty, too difficult and ‘not a job for me’.
Identify the barriers and you can develop specialised entry and training pathways that incentivise entry into the roles and change women’s perceptions about the job itself. Programs can help women to develop confidence in their own abilities and provide women with the skills required to succeed in these roles (preferably with a number of other women to provide support and friendships as they progress).The outcome of this is to change the conversation around gender to a focus on the need for diversity in all areas to increase the organisation’s capability.
Dee’s research on female pilots both in a military and civilian context is one such area that has begun to have much wider implications and development potential for Air Force and the ADF.
Backed and resourced by senior managers, including Chief of Air Force, Air Marshal Geoff Brown, Dee’s team has been able to develop tools and strategies to increase the intake, success and retention of women in non-traditional roles.
One such tool is Flying Solo, which is a magazine-style guidebook for women pilots that acknowledges the challenges young women may face entering a very masculinised field of employment. Among other things, the guide explains how other women have succeeded in this environment, and provides practical guidelines for meeting the challenges of perhaps being the only female in your cohort, the whole course, including instructors, commanding officers and subordinates.
Female pilots are also now buddied with a more senior female pilot in a phone-a-friend style relationship.
Air Force has also set up WINGs—Women’s Integrated Networking Groups—which are run at every base and regularly provide a forum for RAAF women to share experiences.
“To attract and retain the people we need to sustain the organisation, and make it the very best it can be, we need these sorts of programs. We also need flexibility,” says Dee, who believes men are critical to the flexibility conversation.
“Men can actually have a harder time accessing flexible work practices. The organisation has accepted that women may want or need flexible employment but struggles to understand that men too are seeking greater workplace flexibility. Flexibility, for whatever reason (as well as more permanence around living arrangements), is an issue for everyone.
“Flexible work practices make it possible for people to stay in the ADF through periods of their lives when they have to prioritise other areas, such a family, sport or study. I see flexible working practices as a mass retention tool and one important piece of the diversity conversation,” says Dee.
She also adds that women and men are not the same, which can be challenging within a military construct that values uniformity and ‘sameness’.
She goes on to explain: “By its very nature, ‘military’ values regulation, everybody looking and perhaps thinking and reacting in the same way. But that’s a view which met our capability needs 20 years ago. Nowadays, warfare and the nature of military operations are changing. The operating environment is constantly changing and shifting. To accommodate those changes and the challenges that this invokes, we need people capable of viewing a problem through various lenses and seeking alternative options for resolution. Flexibility and diversity will become increasingly important through future years in an ever-changing global operating context.”
Group Captain Dee Gibbon has just begun a new role with the ADF (Australian Defence Force) as the Head of the Sexual Misconduct Prevention and Response Office (SeMPRO).
In her previous role Dee was a director of Broderick Review project.
One of the most exciting things about that job was seeing conceptualised strategies become “living breathing policies and procedures that improve the organisation and its people”.
In the past 12 months, Dee explains, the SeMPRO team has had the job of establishing the office; and providing direct support to victims, commanders and support staff in relation to offences of a sexual nature.
A key focus this year is on prevention and education.
“We will be making sure that the men and women of the ADF have a very clear understanding of ADF’s values, sexual ethics and appropriate behaviours. We will make it crystal clear what that behaviour looks like in accordance with those values and what it doesn’t look like,” says Dee of her new role.