For six months of this year, I swapped my life managing an Army maintenance workshop to sitting at a desk in a Sydney CBD office. As part of the Australian Army's Outplacement program, I was seconded to Diversity Council Australia (DCA).
What I've learnt has changed my perspective about feminism, masculinity and what a few decent men can do to change the world around them.
After 17 years of service in the Australian Army, which is nearly half of my lifetime, I find myself in the entirely alien situation of sitting at a computer, overlooking the Sydney CBD, wearing a suit and chronicling my experiences over the last six months.
A bit about myself and how I got into this situation: as a keen and eager 17 year old I enlisted into the Australian Regular Army as a Vehicle Mechanic. I jumped on a bus leaving behind a distraught mother and a father who I am convinced was thoroughly relieved that his son had finally made a good life decision.
Despite the separation from my family and complete change of lifestyle, I instantly enjoyed Army life. The physical training, the time on the range, the fieldcraft, I revelled in all of it. Over time I came to recognise it wasn’t just the activities that I was doing that was shaping me, it was the unbelievably strong culture of mateship that I had been welcomed into.
I have had a fantastic life so far and have been fortunate enough to serve my country on operations in Timor Leste, Iraq and Afghanistan. I have an amazing wife and three (usually) gorgeous children.
Recently, I was afforded the opportunity to participate in an Australian Army Outplacement Program and commenced work at DCA for a six month period. I learned that DCA is the only independent, not-for-profit workplace diversity adviser to business in Australia and provides leadership on a range of workplace diversity matters.
To say that this presented a completely different work environment would be a significant understatement. I am accustomed to being placed outside my comfort zone, indeed a career in the Army constantly challenges your comfort zone, however this was something else entirely. I replaced my cams for a suit that previously only got dusted off for ANZAC day. I went from a male-dominated environment to a distinctly female-dominated one. Brew room discussions of footy, cars and fishing are replaced with discussions about children, work-life balance and how bearing three children affects one’s body. Handshakes are replaced by the occasional and (in my case) very uncomfortable hug.
One thing however remained quite similar, from the outset I was made to feel like a valued team member by the staff at DCA.
The biggest difference, however, has been the nature of the work. I went from managing a maintenance workshop to assisting in developing a project that focused on gender equity in masculine work environments. What did this mean? It meant reading…. a lot of reading.
I read articles, blogs, watched presentations and TED talks and am halfway through Dr Dean Laplonge’s book, So You Think You’re Tough which takes a critical look at women in mining and provides a compelling argument for a more contemporary approach towards gender. I immersed myself in the topic of gender equity and in broader issues that women face. From clock-on to clock-off I was confronted with ideas about feminism, women’s movements, men’s violence against women, women’s inequality and the many and varied ways men contribute to gender inequality.
Over time I began to feel ‘tainted’ just by being a man. I felt that all men were being tarred by the same brush. I began to feel that even language polarises the sexes. I began to question why I had left a job in the Army that meant so much to me to, day in, day out expose myself to media that hammered me for being a man. After all, I consider myself a reasonably decent person; I’m a long way from being perfect but I’m a dedicated family man and I live by the values of courage, initiative, teamwork and respect. I certainly do not condone domestic violence, rape or sexism, yet just by being a man I felt under attack. I began to get defensive.
In true military manner, I administered myself a teaspoon of cement and cracked on. In doing so I experienced a distinct turning point that made me realise I was looking at this all wrong. It was Laura Bates’ TED talk on Everyday Sexism. For me, Bates’ talk was a great way to experience the “day in the life of being a woman” and is a video which I believe every man should watch. But there was one point that really hit me. That was when Bates’ began to describe the threats she had received just for creating a website to allow women to share their experiences and to seek support. She placed the threats up on the screen behind her and I read them as she spoke. I was horrified.
That some low-life would put pen to paper and write such explicit, brutal and truly abhorrent threats shocked me. In an instant Laura Bates changed the way that I would look at this issue forever. I thought of my wife’s over-protective instincts towards my two daughters and suddenly understood why. I became concerned about the world my girls were growing up in. This would no longer be an abstract problem for me.
I realised that, rather than feeling defensive, it was time for decent men to clear their names.
I began to question exactly what a decent man was in this context and identified that there is a sliding scale. Simply put, on one extreme you have men like Michael Flood, Jackson Katz and others that are taking an active stand against gender inequality. On the other extreme you have perpetrators of the problem. In the middle you have a range of men who do not condone this behaviour but might also not do a great deal to discourage it. I feel that this group of men is not only the majority but the group that can make the biggest difference.
I became deeply interested in the bystander effect and saw this as a real opportunity for good men to make a contribution to demonise sexism and promote gender equity.
I began to understand that sexism was the foundation that enables sexual assault, gender violence and other very serious, and everyday, misogynistic behaviour.
I began to develop a better understanding of sexism and the part that all men play in it. I began to consider what the likely response of a man would be if a sexist comment was made about his sister/partner/daughter/mother. I then thought what the response would be if the same comment was made to a stranger passing by. I concluded that in many cases, men would react very differently.
I began to consider the possibility that most decent men, despite their moral position, are somewhat apathetic toward this problem. I began to explore why this might be and started to suspect that it is more than just men feeling threatened by change or fear that women will take over the world.
In the Army we define courage in two types: physical and moral. Physical courage comes relatively easy to a lot of men; after all we’re well renowned for our risk taking tendencies. Moral courage is a little tougher to crack and that’s what is required to stand up against these behaviours.
I reflected on my experiences at DCA and how they have shaped my perceptions. I looked back on previous instances in my life when I had responded defensively to gender inequality or everyday sexism, and wondered how many other men have reacted similarly.
I now realise that it is problematic to attempt to engage men who are on the defensive when it comes to everyday sexism. Instead, it may be more productive to ask questions and promote discussion of these issues.
Fortunately, my time at DCA has allowed me to immerse myself in these ideas but not everyone will have this same opportunity. My experience has taught me that decent men need to reflect on their own perspectives, and importantly, take the courage to challenge sexist behaviors in their own lives.
For me, the Army’s core values of courage, initiative, teamwork and respect as a gauge of "manliness" is central to all aspects of my life. Perhaps men who breach these values and perpetrate sexual assault, gender violence and sexual harassment, should no longer be referred to as men?
After my experience at DCA, I would certainly think so.
Dan Priems, Warrant Officer Class Two
Dan joined DCA in June 2014 as a participant in the Australian Army’s Outplacement Program. The Outplacement Program is intended to expose Army’s future leaders to inclusive, diverse and successful leadership and management practices in high performing organisations for a six month period. Dan’s Outplacement is intended to support a mutual exchange of ideas, knowledge and skills between DCA and soldiers. He provides a different perspective on a diverse range of topics and is contributing to a number of different projects for DCA.
Dan enlisted into the Australian Army as a vehicle mechanic and has served for over 17 years. He has served from Far North Queensland to Southern Victoria in a variety of roles, predominantly in the maintenance and training fields. Prior to his placement at DCA, he managed a repair and maintenance workshop in Holsworthy Barracks.
He has been fortunate to serve his country on operations in Timor Leste, Iraq and Afghanistan, predominantly in training/mentoring and maintenance roles.
He is excited with the prospect of contributing to DCA’s projects and hopes his perspective can provide a positive influence for DCA; at the very least he is enjoying the new view from his office over Sydney’s CBD far better than the view of Holsworthy Barracks.