Jennifer Wittwer on a life of firsts


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Again then, Wittwer thought she was becoming a member of a contemporary establishment. A profession within the navy had at all times been on the playing cards; her father, an air pressure pilot, had died in a airplane crash earlier than she was born, so the household historical past was at all times within the background.

“I at all times felt that I had this reference to the navy,” she says.

“I felt that I’d do properly in a regimented form of life-style, and the navy appealed to me as a result of fairly frankly, it had the nicest uniforms.”

Jennifer Wittwer, in a 1980s recruiting advert.

Jennifer Wittwer, in a 1980s recruiting advert.

It was additionally originally of a brand new section for the navy, by which ladies who signed up may keep on after they have been married and had youngsters.

“It was solely the late 70s that that modified. I keep in mind considering it was a reasonably fashionable navy,” she says.

However she quickly found how little progress had been made – not that she had something to match it to.

“We have been being paid the identical as our male colleagues, that was not a difficulty, however we had very restricted decisions as to what roles we may have,” she says.

“We have been restricted to communications, logistics and administration. We could not drive ships, could not fly planes, could not be engineers – all these issues that now, fortunately, ladies take as a right and settle for as regular roles that you could undertake within the navy.”

They weren’t even allowed to put on trousers, again in 1980. Wittwer determined early on that she would full 20 years of service, after which she would get a pension. In these early years, with no different objectives or sense of what lay forward, it was, she says, merely a matter of “gritting my enamel and bearing it”.

Since then, Wittwer’s whole profession has been outlined by change, by being on the forefront of seismic shifts in how the navy treats ladies within the office. However to start with, she had no sense of how a lot issues would remodel. She merely envisaged a land-based profession in what was then the Girls’s Royal Australian Navy.

However when the ladies’s navy grew to become amalgamated with the final service, she was all of a sudden competing for positions and promotions with males. By the early 1990s, she was informed she must go to sea – a risk that had by no means entered her thoughts when she had signed up.

She was 34 when she took cost of her first ship, with no prior sea expertise. She discovered herself seasick, and answerable for all ship logistics, together with bringing plane on and off the ship, and monitoring observe nuclear and chemical assaults.

Jennifer Wittwer on HMAS Swan, as Helicopter Patrol Officer in 1996.

Jennifer Wittwer on HMAS Swan, as Helicopter Patrol Officer in 1996.

“These have been all obligations that my male colleagues had developed, grown into. I used to be simply thrust into it,” she says.

She was considered one of two ladies on board with 212 males. Not surprisingly, she handled harassment from her fellow officers.

“I handled these conditions, I acquired them sorted, nevertheless it was uncomfortable, and it was pointless, and I felt it was an assault on my credibility as a logistics officer,” she says.

Effectively earlier than that, as a extra junior officer, like most of the ladies who joined the navy within the 1980s, she had additionally been topic to sexual harassment and abuse – occasions that have been par for the course.

“I did not do something about it on the time, as a result of I did not suppose it will be taken critically,” she says.

“There wasn’t even a course of to guard me. You have to keep in mind, this was the times when workplace partitions have been coated with pornographic photos of girls. And males would swear, make inappropriate jokes, all these issues have been occurring on a regular basis with ladies within the workplace.”

These days, as in most fashionable Australian workplaces, there are processes in place to guard ladies from abuse and harassment. But it surely wasn’t till a few years after the very fact – in 2013 – that Wittwer had the chance to deal with what had occurred to her, by way of the Defence Abuse Response Taskforce.

“[It] was then the organisation that was set as much as truly take private submission,” she says.


“I went by way of that course of, together with having that investigated by Victorian police. Sadly it did not come to fruition due to the passage of time, the issue in figuring out the perpetrator, and so forth, however I used to be glad that I as a person together with many others was given a possibility by way of a course of to have it recognised and brought under consideration, and supplied with some type of compensation and the chance to have it correctly investigated.”

However within the meantime, Wittwer was clocking up her , and ticking of her private record of objectives. She was already married by the point she went to sea, however delay having youngsters till after she had accomplished her 12 months on the ship. By then, she had been within the navy about 15 years.

It was round this time that she moved away from logistics, and into what she calls the “gender house”, an area she has crammed and expanded and amplified steadily ever since.

“I would at all times had a ardour for ladies, and I believe that was born out of recognising that within the 80s and 90s I struggled,” she says.

“Not struggled when it comes to my very own private achievements, however simply struggled towards the system to amplify ladies’s participation, ladies’s roles, the significance of getting ladies within the organisation, and never only a bunch of blokes.


“And naturally, having been a sufferer of the sexual harassment and abuse that was occurring throughout that point, I used to be very obsessed with defending ladies’s rights and enhancing their rights in our organisation.”

Within the years main as much as the defence pressure overview by former Intercourse Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick in 2011-12, Wittwer was busy laying the groundwork to what would turn into a critical rethink of girls’s alternatives and participation within the navy. She was appointed to supervise a reform of the navy’s values and tradition, and particularly easy methods to get extra ladies to affix.

She finally grew to become the navy’s Girls’s Strategic Advisor, to advise senior leaders on ladies’s participation and illustration.

“I used to be a part of that complete cultural reform bubble, which was a extremely thrilling time,” she says.

“I believe for the primary time in my naval profession, which by this time was 28 years or one thing, we have been beginning to see constructive change. To me the constructive change was extra about the best way folks handled one another, not essentially about ladies getting one thing greater than males. But it surely has been about recognising that girls add worth to the organisation, and simply treating everybody that you just work with with respect within the office. Nothing extra, nothing much less.”

By the point the government-initiated Broderick overview got here out, Wittwer was prepared to maneuver into one other house – Girls, Peace and Safety, a decision of UN Girls handed in 2000. Wittwer was despatched to Afghanistan in 2013 – her first abroad deployment, on the age of 50, as a gender advisor to NATO operations.

“It moved me into a special space, however nonetheless touched on ladies’s participation and illustration, in a wider means,” she says.

“I needed to go away behind my ardour for navy ladies, and considering now a bit extra strategically about how we contribute ladies to peace and safety operations, and to try this, how will we improve their participation and illustration in nationwide establishments.”

…because the world evolves, and as workplaces evolve, there’s at all times going to be firsts.

Earlier this 12 months, Wittwer left the navy after 37 years, and arrange her personal consulting agency, Steorra Consulting, serving to organisations to extend ladies’s participation and illustration within the office – primarily in abroad armed forces, working with UN Girls.

She has twice been named in The Australian Monetary Assessment’s 100 Girls of Affect, and is a finalist on this 12 months’s Canberra Girls in Enterprise Awards.

However her two daughters, aged 21 and 18, nonetheless present no indicators of eager to observe of their mom’s footsteps, a undeniable fact that makes her wistful.

“We have got a variety of very sensible, very clever ladies in our organisation, and I believe my two daughters would slot in very properly,” she says.

However once more, that is the top product of her years of trailblazing, of that unique willpower to simply “grit my enamel and bear it”.

“Folks usually say to younger folks, ‘You possibly can’t be what you’ll be able to’t see’, and we argue that we have to have position fashions, for younger ladies to see that there are ladies pilots, engineers, and all these different alternatives that exist,” she says.

“Alternatively, I’d additionally say you will be what you’ll be able to’t see, as a result of because the world evolves, and as workplaces evolve, there’s at all times going to be firsts.”

Sally Pryor is a reporter at The Canberra Occasions.

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