Defence Industry Survey – Land Forces 2018

by Katherine Post

Defence industry companies from Primes to SMEs, as well as Government and Defence, consistently tell us that companies who are innovative will be the ones that are most likely to reap the benefits of the Australian Government’s renewed investment in defence capability.

It is now well understood that diversity is a key dependency for innovation. So how diverse are Australian defence industry companies?

Rapid Context conducted a gender diversity survey of 100 defence industry companies exhibiting at Land Forces 2018. On average, the organisations surveyed estimated their workforces to be about 70% male, with senior leadership estimated to be about 90% male. Those surveyed also estimated that of the female employees they did have, only about 30% were in roles related to Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM).

Overwhelmingly, female participants in the survey at Land Forces 2018 noted that they were significantly underrepresented as both attendees at the conference, and in defence industry more broadly.

Can defence industry companies claim to be innovative whilst this lack of gender diversity remains?

Why diversity leads to innovation

People who are different from one another bring unique information and experiences to the workplace. Differences in ethnicity, gender and other dimensions are correlated with differences in how people view problems (‘their perspectives’); and how people attempt to solve problems (‘their heuristics’). Diversity therefore improves the ability of groups to search ‘epistemic space.’ When groups have less cognitive diversity, members tend to see things in the same way and therefore converge on similar solutions, which are often sub-optimal. Cognitively diverse groups, on the other hand, are more likely to find novel solutions to problems and only to agree on solutions when these are optimal.

So what is defence industry doing to increase gender diversity?

With all the focus on innovation in defence industry at the moment, we might expect to see a renewed push for improving diversity in what has been a historically male-dominated field.

Despite low levels of women’s participation in the defence industry workforce (in particular in STEM roles where innovation is likely to happen), 54% of our survey respondents said that it was easy to attract high performing women to their organisation and 71% said it was easy to retain high performing women in their workforce.

But this perception is contrary to what the data tells us. Workforce data shows that the few women in defence industry roles are leaving at higher rates that men.

So while there is a significant lack of gender diversity in the defence industry workforce, some companies have limited visibility of this as an issue that may affect their business growth or competitiveness. This may reflect that increasing gender diversity is not seen as a priority or may reflect a level of comfort with the historic status quo whereby defence industry workplaces are predominantly male.

A number of participants in our survey commented that ‘women just don’t want to work in this industry’ or ‘women don’t tend to apply for the positions’. These comments reflect historic and ongoing structural gender inequalities that permeate our culture and impact on the pipeline of skilled STEM workers coming through the education system.

While there is a significant push to get more girls and women into STEM education, the flow-on effects have not been felt in the defence industry yet. When these women and girls do enter the defence industry workforce it will be crucial that defence industry companies are ready with an inclusive culture that sets them up to thrive. Otherwise, these valuable employees will not stay.

In tech-intensive industries, for example, highly qualified women who start out in business roles leave for other industries at high rates—53% of women, compared to 31% of men.

STEM industries particularly struggle to attract and retain female workers. Around 30% of STEM graduates are women; but less than 30% of jobs are held by women. And there is still a gender pay gap of around 25% (compared to a national gender pay gap of 14.6%). Exit rates for women in STEM peak about 10 years into their careers. Isolation, hostile male-dominated work environments, ineffective executive feedback, and a lack of effective sponsors are all cited as reasons that women leave.

The trends regarding female participation in traditionally male-dominated industries, including defence industry, are clear. Women are less likely to enter these industries and far more likely to leave.

The total cost of losing an employee can range from tens of thousands of dollars to 1.5 – 2 times the employee’s annual salary. Research shows that employees produce more value to an organisation over time, like an appreciating asset, which helps explain why losing them is so costly. Improved retention, on the other hand, reduces turnover and costs while increasing job performance and productivity.

It’s clear there is a genuine desire in the defence industry for a diverse and inclusive culture – about two thirds of survey respondents agreed or strongly agreed with the statement that a more gender diverse workforce would increase their organisation’s productivity and about half said it would align with their broader organisational strategy and goals. The challenge is how to get there.

We have developed an evidence-based program – Rapid Connect – to assist defence industry retain skilled and valued female employees. The focus is on engagement, and understanding the needs of your female employees so that business owners can make the changes necessary to become employers of choice and develop their competitive advantage through diversity and innovation.

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