Women in the Defence Forces say the organisation has not brushed allegations under the carpet
As the only female lieutenant colonel in the Defence Forces, Jayne Lawlor is unique. “You just get used to it,” she explains.
“But of course I want to see more women in the Defence Forces. The first thing is visibility. We need visibility so that girls in school realise what women can do in the Defence Forces. There is a real sense of adventure. I’ve had 25 years of a life less ordinary. I can’t think of any other job that gives you the same opportunities.”
The seasoned army veteran is the only woman among 135 lieutenant colonels across the Defence Forces, which spans the army, navy and air corps.
“We certainly need more women and more diversity. It is said that anything under 15pc representation of women in an organisation is a token gesture. We are at half that in the Defence Forces, at 7pc. That needs to change.”
As the world prepares to mark International Women’s Day on Tuesday, Lieut Col Lawlor is aware of shortcomings within her organisation that impacts her gender, recently exposed in the Women of Honour RTÉ documentary. The programme exposed allegations of abuse, harassment and discrimination among former female members of the military.
Defence Minister Simon Coveney has established a judge-led independent review to examine the issues raised by the women, which the women affected say does not go far enough. The theme for International Women’s Day this year is #BreakTheBias, promoting a gender equal world that’s diverse, equitable and inclusive.
“I was based in Sarajevo when the Women of Honour programme came out, and I watched it with colleagues. Well done to the women for bringing this forward and raising the issues.
"This is an organisation I love, so it was hard. But it’s important we look ourselves in the mirror and ask the hard questions. It’s about tackling the culture at all levels. Luckily, their experience hasn’t been my experience. But I’m glad the Defence Forces is not brushing it under the carpet.
"I would encourage anyone in this organisation — men or women — to come forward if they have had a similar experience. I was surprised. I thought as a society we had moved past what was reported they experienced. But the Defence Forces is only a reflection of society, it’s no different.”
As a former gender equality officer in the Defence Forces, Lieut Col Lawlor says it is important women are now at the table when it comes to drafting policy within the organisation. “Men don’t have the same experiences. It’s important that when all future policies are written, there is more diversity and more women at the table.”
Having returned in recent days from a lengthy tour in Sarajevo with EU forces, the Lieut Col’s career has also seen her posted to Afghanistan, where part of her role was helping to enshrine human rights, and rights for women in particular.
Like the rest of the world, she has watched the unfolding war in Ukraine with a sense of horror. Ireland’s stance of neutrality is a matter for the “politicians” rather than the Defence Forces, she explained.
“I have the same feeling of helplessness we all have. I’ve a background in the protection of civilians and human rights. The direct targeting of civilians is difficult to watch. It’s almost like the world has turned on its axis the past couple of years. It is such a fine line in terms of other countries taking action, because we don’t know what the consequences would be.”
One challenge of a life in the military is combining family and career, she acknowledges. “It is difficult but my women friends in other careers face similar challenges. I’ve been lucky to have a lot of support within my family. But there is no doubt it is a challenge for women in the Defence Forces.”
As the only woman pilot among 80 in the air corps, Lieutenant Lauren Cusack agrees more women are badly needed to bolster the Defence Forces. During her four years training, she felt pressure to perform because of her gender.
“I never saw myself as being different to the men in my class. But as a woman in a male-dominated profession, there was a perceived pressure to perform. Initially, I was seen as different. Then you prove yourself.”
Lieut Cusack was guided by other women in the Air Corps and now feels a sense of duty to mentor and encourage other women coming up behind her. “I have a unique position. I have an opportunity to promote the air corps. I am now that representation and that is very important to me.”
She only became aware of the Air Corps through her Dublin City University (DCU) lecturers, who were former members, when she was studying aviation.
Having ruled out becoming a commercial pilot, she toyed with the idea of becoming a private instructor before joining the Defence Forces. Since she got her wings in 2020, her daily job consists primarily of maritime patrols as well as hospital transfers to the UK for mainly gravely ill children, as well as Covid duties involving the transportation of samples to Germany.
She is also involved in repatriation and deportation flights for An Garda Síochána.
What she loves most, she says, is that no two days are ever the same.
“It’s been amazing. I come in in the morning and it’s so much variety every day."
Watching the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and in particular the air strikes, has been difficult for her. “Along with everyone else, we’re just shocked. When you have knowledge about how these things are carried out, it really brings it home.”
Petty officer Sharon Darby, an advanced paramedic in the navy with 21 years’ service, has a family history of membership of the Defence Forces. She agrees that awareness about a career in the Defence Forces, and visibility of women leaves a lot to be desired.
“I think a lot of people don’t know Ireland has a navy. There is a recruitment campaign and I hope awareness is rising.”
She has had the experience of serving on a ship as the only woman. “I joined up when I was 18 and just out of school. But I’ve been able to travel the world and I’ve been put through college by the Defence Forces. I’ve served on ships and been the only female.
"The others actually all really looked out for me. But there certainly needs to be more women.”
She is the only female advanced paramedic in the naval service. Her career so far has brought her all over the world, including tours of Asia, Canada, Syria and deployment to assist the army as a paramedic in Lebanon.
As a mother-of-two, she has found it difficult leaving her children to travel overseas. But she has never felt discriminated against on the basis of her gender, though she too is aware of issues highlighted by Women of Honour.
“I worked hard. I never had any issues. If I worked as hard as the guy beside me, I was treated the same. I know other women had a different experience. And my heart goes out to those women.”