Just 16% of New Zealand Defence Force personnel are
women, a statistic which prompted the NZDF Women's Development
Forum. Rosie Manins talks to two Dunedin women about their time
in the New Zealand Army.
Former New Zealand Army soldiers Kat Brown (left) and
Michelle Bourke are shouldering their workload as
University of Otago students, having put down their rifles
to take up higher education. Photo by Peter McIntosh.
No pain, no gain.
For three months, recruits are put through their paces at
Waiouru, in the central North Island, before being deployed
to army camps nationwide.
Early starts, infrequent and brief showers, arduous physical
activity and restricted liberties are daily reminders that
boot camp is not for the faint-hearted.
Young, fit men find it tough.
And so do the handful of women lured by life in the military.
Kat Brown and Michelle Bourke remember only too well the
physical pain and mental challenges of basic army training.
Ms Brown (27), a first-year health science student at Otago,
joined the army in September 2004 as an 18-year-old.
She wanted to be a nurse and was inspired by her father's
long army career, so enlisted as a medic.
In January, she left Burnham Military Camp near Christchurch
as a corporal, hoping to get into medical school and become a
Dunedin's university campus is a far cry from the barracks,
but Ms Brown is putting to good use the skills she honed
during eight and a-half years in the army. She owes her time
management, self-discipline and no-quit mentality to the
military, and remains a corporal in the territorial force.
Similarly, Ms Bourke (28) is serious about making the most of
her time as a student after working at three trades in the
Her eight years in the military taught her to take
responsibility and to use her mental strength.
''When things are stressful, I think about the hardest times
in the army and I know I can get through.''
Ms Bourke is in her second year of an environmental
management degree at Otago, having left Burnham in December
2010 to study.
She joined the army as a 17-year-old in 2002, following a
''I'd had enough of school and wanted to do something
challenging. The whole lifestyle change attracted me - it was
all action, all go - and I thought it [the army] would be
lifelong for me.''
Ms Bourke was a reasonably fit teenager, and not worried at
the time about the army's physical requirements.
''I played a bit of high school sport, but even that was not
enough for what I was in for. It definitely helps to be fit
Athleticism was also far from Ms Brown's mind when she
''My dad loved his job in the army and had amazing
opportunities in terms of travel, and I saw it as a more
unique day-to-day job. He suggested I should do some
pre-training so I started going for runs, but I definitely
From the moment they arrived at Waiouru, life ceased to be
''The big thing about basic training is it's such a shock to
the system, because all of a sudden you're up at 5.30am and
have 15 minutes to make your bed, have a shower and be
dressed. You have breakfast then go to physical training and
an hour later try not to bring it [breakfast] up again.
''You have to march everywhere, people are yelling at you,
and you have to ask permission to do everything,'' Ms Brown
''Coming from a military family, I knew I just had to get
through those first three months and it would be better. It's
definitely a test of your ability to cope when times are
Walking the Waiouru hills in uniform with 30kg packs, rifles
and combat gear was designed to be difficult for the largest
and strongest recruits, so most women found it even harder
because of their size.
''I will never forget that pain,'' Ms Bourke said.
In such circumstances, mental strength was crucial.
''A lot of it is mindset. You can play the female card if you
want, but it doesn't really get you anywhere.''
She found one benefit of being a woman in the army was having
the desire to prove others wrong, and was motivated to
succeed because there was an expectation she would fail.
Being underdogs made women stronger.
''There is that stigma, like in any workplace. They think
'she won't be able to carry that', but you do,'' Ms Bourke
She was ''sick of being last'' in technical rifle drills, so
put in the extra practice and ended up beating most of her
male counterparts to take the position of second gunner.
Ms Brown added, ''You get a lot of respect if you can do it
More of a shock for Ms Bourke was the requirement to go days
without the already time-restricted showers.
Female recruits were given lessons in maintaining basic
hygiene within their regimented routine, by senior female
soldiers who had been through it and could offer advice.
Despite the hardship of basic training, both Ms Bourke and Ms
Brown were fond of the army and recommended it for a variety
''Everyday life after basic training is completely different.
It's just your normal 8.30am to 4pm day,'' Ms Bourke said.
''You can earn while you learn, and you get qualifications
without a student loan. For that age, you won't find the same
pay for what you do, or get the same life skills.''
Ms Brown admitted it could be ''a bit much'' being the only
female within a group, but the army offered great
''I don't think you get sick of being a minority, and I would
definitely consider going back. It's a great lifestyle and I
love working with people who are also my friends.
''Like any job, there are things you might not like, but
overall I would definitely recommend it.''
Last year, 217 women joined the NZDF, enlisting in the army
(93), navy (80) and air force (44).
By the end of the enlistment year, 180 of the female recruits
The number of women in the NZDF last year was 1339,
representing 16% of all personnel.
The army had 540 women (12.8% of its staff), the navy had 412
women (22%) and the air force 387 (16.9%).
In the past decade, the number of women in the NZDF has
fluctuated between 15.2% and 16.9%. Numbers increased from
1283 in 2002 to a peak of 1620 in 2009, but had since dropped
The trend worried the NZDF, and so in June it held a two-day
Women's Development Forum at the Trentham Racecourse at Upper
Attending the forum were about 200 participants, including
men and women from the New Zealand air force, navy and army,
and various national agencies as well as the Australian air
force and army.
About 15% of those attending were male - a deliberate attempt
to illustrate the existing ratio in reverse.
Speakers including Justice Minister Judith Collins shared
their experiences and strategies for succeeding in
male-dominated environments, and workshops focused on better
recruitment and retention of women.
Following the forum, Chief of Army Major-general Dave Gawn
wrote in the June issue of Army News about the lack of
He said the defence force could not afford to ''neglect over
half of New Zealand's demographic'', and although women were
succeeding in all military trades, the recruitment and
retention of female soldiers remained ''poor''.
''This low appeal may be understandable in the combat trades
where the physical demands, particularly load-carrying in
excess of 60kg, are beyond the capacity of many. But it is
the same across all trades.''
Women left the army to start and raise families, which meant
existing ''family-friendly'' policies, including part-time
work, flexible hours and work-from-home options, should be
actively promoted, Maj-gen Gawn said.
But above all, the defence force had a bigger challenge in
attracting women to join the army in the first place.
''Perceptions are reality and the reality is that the army is
not an attractive option for women. Studies have shown that
gender perceptions and attitudes will not change until the
percentage of women in our army grows closer to 30%.
''That is our target, and 13% is not even close. We have a
long way to go, but we're working on it.''