As the only female lieutenant colonel in the Defense Forces, Jayne Lawlor is unique. “You just get used to it,” she explains.
But of course I would like to see more women in the armed forces. The first is visibility. We need visibility so that girls in school see what women can do in the armed forces. There is a real sense of adventure. I had a less ordinary life for 25 years. I can’t think of any other job that offers the same opportunities.”
The veteran army veteran is the only woman among 135 lieutenant colonels across the country Defense Forces, which includes the Army, Navy and Air Corps.
“We certainly need more women and more diversity. It is said that anything that represents less than 15 percent women in an organization is a symbolic gesture. We’re at half of that in Defense Forces, at 7 percent. That needs to change.”
As the world prepares for International Women’s Day on Tuesday, Lt. Col. Lawlor is aware of flaws within her organization affecting her gender, recently revealed in the women of honor RTÉ Documentary. The program exposed allegations of abuse, harassment and discrimination among former female military personnel.
Secretary of Defense Simon Coveney has set up a judge-led independent review to investigate issues raised by the women, which the women concerned say do not go far enough. This year’s International Women’s Day theme is #BreakTheBias, promoting a gender-equal world that is diverse, just and inclusive.
“I was stationed in Sarajevo when the women of honor program came out and I watched it with colleagues. Well done to the women who took this forward and addressed the issues.
“This is an organization I love, so it’s been difficult. But it’s important that we look at ourselves in the mirror and ask the tough questions. It’s about tackling the culture at all levels. Fortunately, their experience was not my experience. But I’m glad the Defense Forces aren’t sweeping it under the rug.
“I would encourage anyone in this organization – male or female – to come forward if they have had a similar experience. I was surprised. I thought as a society we had overcome what was reported to them. But the Defense Forces are just a reflection of society, it’s no different.”
As a former gender equality officer in the Defense Forces, Lieut Col Lawlor says it’s important that women are now at the table when it comes to policy development within the organization. “Men don’t have the same experiences. It is important that more diversity and more women sit at the table when writing any future policy.”
After returning from a long tour in Sarajevo with EU forces in recent days, the lieutenant colonel was also posted to Afghanistan, where part of her role was to enshrine human rights, and women’s rights in particular.
Like the rest of the world, she has watched the unfolding war Ukraine with a sense of terror. Ireland’s neutral stance is more a matter for “politicians” than for the defense forces, she explained.
“I have the same feeling of helplessness that we all have. I have a background in protecting civilians and human rights. The direct attack on civilians is difficult to observe. It’s almost as if the world has turned on its own axis in recent years. It’s such a fine line in terms of what other countries would do because we don’t know what the consequences would be.”
One challenge of life in the military is the compatibility of family and work, she admits. “It’s difficult, but my friends in other professions face similar challenges. I was fortunate to have a lot of support from my family. But there is no doubt that it is a challenge for women in the armed forces.”
As the only female Air Corps pilot under 80, Lieutenant Lauren Cusack agrees more women are urgently needed to strengthen the defense forces. During her four-year apprenticeship, she felt pressure to perform because of her gender.
“I’ve never seen myself any differently than the men in my class. But as a woman in a male-dominated profession, there was a noticeable pressure to perform. At first I was perceived as different. Then you prove yourself.”
Mentored by other women in the Air Corps, Lieut Cusack feels a responsibility to mentor and encourage other women who come up behind her. “I have a unique position. I have the opportunity to promote the Air Corps. I am that representation now and that is very important to me.”
she first became aware of the Air Corps through her former Dublin City University (DCU) faculty when she was studying aviation.
Having ruled out becoming a commercial pilot, she toyed with the idea of becoming a tutor before joining the armed forces. Since she got her wings in 2020, her daily job has mainly consisted of sea patrols and hospital transfers to the UK for mostly seriously ill children and Covid tasks with the transport 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 the same.
“It was amazing. I come in in the morning and there’s so much variety every day.”
It was difficult for them to watch the Russian invasion of Ukraine and especially the air raids. “Like everyone else, we are just shocked. Knowing how to execute these things really brings it home.”
Petty Officer Sharon Darby, an advanced Navy medic with 21 years of service, has a family history of membership in the Defense Forces. She agrees that the awareness of careers in the armed forces and the visibility of women leave a lot to be desired.
“I think a lot of people don’t know that Ireland has a navy. There is a recruitment campaign going on and I hope awareness will rise.”
She has had the experience of serving as the only woman on a ship. “I was 18 and just out of school. But I was able to travel the world and was sent to college by the Defense Forces. I served on ships and was the only woman.
“The others were actually all very careful with me. But it definitely needs to be more women.”
she is the only woman advanced medic in naval service. Her career so far has taken her around the world, including through Asia, Canada, Syria and serving as a medic in Lebanon to support the army.
As a mother of two, she finds it difficult to let her children travel abroad. But she has never felt discriminated against because of her gender, although she is also aware of the issues highlighted by women of honor.
“I worked hard. I never had any problems. When I worked as hard as the guy next to me, I was treated the same. I know other women have had different experiences. And my heart beats for Thgood women.”
https://www.independent.ie/irish-news/news/as-a-woman-in-the-army-i-love-it-but-we-need-to-hold-a-mirror-up-to-shortcomings-41416004.html As a woman in the army I love it – but we have to hold up the mirror to the shortcomings