Leading ladies: Women in history-making ADF appointments


There’s no doubt 2022 is proving to be a history-making year for leading women in the Australian Defence Force with the appointment of a new Space Commander and Army’s first female Deputy Chief and more.


January saw Vice-Marshal Catherine Roberts, former Head of Air Force Capability, appointed as the ADF’s inaugural Space Commander. This year, Major General Natasha Fox also became the Army’s first female Deputy Chief, becoming the first of Australia's armed services to appoint a woman to such a senior role. Meanwhile three women are leading the way with top Navy engineering roles. 

Head of Space Division: Air Vice-Marshall Catherine Roberts

Air Vice-Marshal Catherine Roberts is a trained engineer, who has served in the RAAF for 35 years and was awarded a Conspicuous Service Cross for her work in overseeing the introduction of major aviation capabilities.

She said she was inspired as a girl to pursue a career in space after watching Neil Armstrong land on the moon.

"In 1969, as a three-year-old, I watched on in awe as Lieutenant Armstrong descended the ladder of the lunar lander and uttered the first words ever spoken on the Moon,” she told a video address to the Women in Leadership Digital Summit in 2020

“It was an incredible moment for humanity and millions of aspiring engineers that were probably created at that moment — I was no different."

Speaking after taking charge of the newly formed Defence Space Command, in a ANU Women in National Security podcast, Air Vice-Marshal Roberts, talked of bullying she endured when she first enlisted in the military and the unconscious bias women still face in the military.

New Deputy Chief of Army: Major General Natasha Fox

Formerly the head of Defence People Group, Major General Natasha Fox’s career has included a variety of key strategic roles since joining the ADF in 1988.

Her early career was focused on logistics, where Major General Fox specialised in combat supplies and logistics planning, and in training positions, culminating with her role as Commanding Officer /Chief Instructor at ADFA, for which she received a Conspicuous Service Cross.

She has been appointed to various roles across the ADF in Forces Command, Joint Logistics Command, Special Operations Command, Training Command - Army, and Defence People Group. She has deployed to Lebanon, Syria, and Israel and was the Chief of Staff for Joint Task Force 633 in the Middle East, where she was appointed a member of the Order of Australia for her service. 

As the Head of People Capability at the ADF, she has played a key role in shaping the Defence workforce structure, recruiting the best talent for the ADF, managing members’ transition to civilian life, and caring for ADF families. 

Women lead the way in Navy engineering roles

(l-r) Rear Admiral Wendy Malcolm, Commodore Rachel Durbin, Rear Admiral Kath Richards.

In a first for the Royal Australian Navy, three women hold the service’s top engineering roles. Rear Admiral Katherine Richards is Head Navy Engineering, supported by Director-General Engineering Commodore Rachel Durbin.Over in Defence’s Capability Acquisition and Sustainment Group, Rear Admiral Wendy Malcolm is Head of Maritime Systems, managing the sustainment of Navy’s surface fleet. 

Rear Admiral Malcolm was not focused on an engineering degree at university. “I was more focused on how I would get to see the big wide world and still do maths and science,” she said. 

“I have always wanted to play with rockets and be a rocket scientist and, through joining the Navy and working as the project manager for the Sea Sparrow missile project, I got to fulfil my dream on that front.”

She said while it was exciting joining the Navy when she was younger there were still many things women couldn’t do.

“My two teenage daughters know that everything is open and accessible to women now: engineering, driving warships, being a diver,” she said.

She said the sky's the limit now, with opportunities in the areas of robotics, autonomous systems, artificial intelligence, cybersecurity, intelligence and nuclear submarines.

“There are just so many opportunities, and they're all available to women. It's kind of like, go choose your own adventure.”

Good work, but still a way to go

In 2021, the rate of women in the ADF reached 19.7% – an increase from 19.2% in 2020. Defence has identified targets to be reached by 2023 for female representation, including 15% for Army and 25% for Navy and Air Force. 

As of 30 June 2021, both Army and Air Force have achieved their targets, with 15.1% and 25.4%, respectively. Navy is improving, with 23% female representation.

According to the Women in the ADF Report 2019-20, the ADF “continues to implement strategic initiatives to improve gender diversity and inclusion” and attract and recruit women including into those occupational groups where women remain under-represented: Combat and Security; and Engineering, Technical and Construction groups.

A strong focus is still needed to improve the proportion of women in senior leadership positions and that the retention of members remains a priority issue for the ADF.

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