Few women opt for frontline combat roles in Australia

Fewer than 20 women have applied for frontline combat roles in Australia since new policies allowing all military positions to be filled on merit rather than gender, officials said Thursday.

The defence force opened up its most demanding and dangerous frontline jobs to women in January in a move hailed as an important step in improving a military culture tarnished by sex abuse and harassment allegations.

In doing so Australia became one of only a few countries to do so. Others include New Zealand, Canada and Israel.

But the take-up has been low so far, with fewer than 20 of the 8,000 women in the defence force applying, said Major General Gerard Fogarty, who is managing the five-year plan to bring women into direct combat roles.

Part of the reason is the extremely hard physical and mental requirements for elite jobs that both men and women have to satisfy.

"Now we've only started since the first of January this year but we were expecting, you know, the type of response that we have received," Fogarty told ABC radio.

"Women who are currently serving in a particular employment category who would now wish to transfer and apply would have to pass the new physical employment standard, and that would be demanding.

"And it'd be demanding for a man too who wished to transfer."

The newly open roles are mainly as frontline infantry and artillery soldiers, naval clearance divers and airfield guards. Women are also allowed to lead infantry units or work as snipers and commandos.

When the new policies were approved by the government in 2011, opponents condemned them as a "political gimmick and a distraction".

But Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick, who oversaw a review into the treatment of women in the military after a number of sex scandals, said Thursday it was a step in the right direction.

"It is about ensuring that the environment, which has always been very male-dominated, is conducive to the inclusion of women, so I think the way they're progressing is the way to go about it," she said.

Fogarty told ABC that people were slowly getting used to the idea of women being on the frontline.

"We've had very little criticism from any segment of the community," he said.