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'Societal dysfunctionality' around gender roles needs to be tackled, says Defence Forces chief

Vice Admiral Mellett said gender conditioning away from military life begins in childhood for women.

CHIEF OF STAFF of the Defence Forces has said that full gender equality and greater diversity in the ranks can only be fully realised with a cultural change in society.

Vice Admiral Mark Mellett is set to retire in the coming months from his leadership role after four decades of service.

He told The Journal that his work on diversity is an area he is most proud of and sees it as a major part of his legacy.

Mellett recalled: “I remember it being said to me, there were ‘no gays in the Defence Forces’.

“I kind of knocked my head back for a moment and I said ‘Of course there are … what makes us different from the rest of society?” 

“When I took over as Chief the policy was ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ – I said that was not good enough. I said then that we have an actual obligation to be leaders in the context of the institutions we have here.

“It was at that stage I conceived diversity and inclusion strategy, which is now one of the planks of our policy within the Defence Forces. And that’s across culture, creed, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation.”


The policy of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” has cause significant problems in the US where it was ruled unlawful by a court in 2011. 

dublin-pride-parade A member of the Irish defence forces takes part in the Pride Parade in Dublin. PA PA

The concept of Mellett’s strategy was based around a quote by US activist Verna Myers who said that “diversity is being invited to the party, inclusion is being asked to dance”.

Said Mellett: “Many organisations craft a diversity and inclusion strategy, but leave it sit on the shelf. So it’s not really being asked to dance.

“But in our organisation, we will find a place for everybody that, actually irrespective of their diversity, in fact, if anything, is a strength of the organisation.”

Not about filling the ranks

Mellett said that this commitment to diversity and inclusion was not about filling the ranks but was, in fact, about fulfilling the obligation to serve the State as a whole. 

Mellett admits that the Defence Forces is falling short in the inclusion of women who represent just 7% of the ranks.

But he said in one of the three elements that make up the Forces, the Naval Service, there has been greater success at command level – women are now ship’s captains on a quarter of the nine Irish naval vessels. 

He also referenced Major General Maureen O’Brien who was appointed by the United Nations earlier this year to the post of Deputy Military Advisor in the Office of Military Affairs, Department of Peace Operations. This appointment is at the rank of Major General.

“From the point of view of the opportunities for women within the Defence Forces, they’re growing.

“But there is a simple reality that the challenges with regards to greater gender equality and empowerment of women within the Defence Forces is not just a Defence Forces issue.

officers 60 2LT Sinead Cribbin from Kildare and 2LT Chloe Foley from Meath at the Commissioning Ceremony in Dublin Castle of 67 new Army officers in 2020. sam boal sam boal

Mellett said he played close attention to a project in the 2019 BT Young Scientist Competition which examined the prevalence of gender stereotyping in five to seven-year-old children. 

“It found that at five to seven years of age in primary education, girls are actually being shaped in a direction away from science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and the military – and we need to change that.

In terms of his approach to policy and training, he added: “I can try and fix it to this stage, but in many cases, many girls are already stereotypically developed.

“Yeah, I’m dealing with symptoms, I’d much rather deal with it at source in terms of trying to flip that and that’s at primary school level. Because that’s the societal dysfunctionality that needs to be addressed.” 

Political correctness

Mellett said that none of his measures are about political correctness for the sake of it.

“And it’s not just about access to an extra 50% of the population. It’s not just about being a better reflection of the society, we defend, protect and serve. Gender Equality, and empowerment of women for the Defense Forces is about capability – it makes us more capable.

“The diversity of the perspectives [that a] mix bring are greater than, say, a group-think of males or indeed, females. So you need to have that mix in terms of decision making.” 

That pragmatic approach extends to a measure he brought in around “gender advisors”, who advise and support command decision making. 

“I have a gender advisor who works with me as Chief of Staff,” he said. 

“I want to be frank and say, I’m not saying things are perfect, we are on a journey advancing towards a level whereby we are sensitive to the importance of gender equality and empowerment of women within the Defence Forces.”

This interview with Mark Mellett was part of a broader interview on his career with The Journal.

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