From country girl to a host of leadership roles in the previously male-dominated Australian Defence Force, Major General Cheryl Pearce impresses on all fronts.
Having held a host of leadership roles in the Australian Defence Force, Major General Cheryl Pearce impresses on all fronts..
Joining the military in Australia was not the norm in the early 1980s – especially for a young woman from country South Australia. But that’s exactly what 18-year-old Cheryl Pearce did.
Born in Loxton, SA, in 1966, Cheryl knew from early on that she wanted to do something more than what was on offer in her hometown. “I wanted to have a sense of service and belonging to something greater than myself,” says the now Major General Pearce, whose career in the Australian Defence Force has spanned an impressive 35 years.
Straight out of high school, Pearce joined the Australian Army as an officer cadet. That first decade – which she refers to as her “junior years” – was the most difficult, as there were very few women in the force when the first integrated training of both male and female officers took place. Still, Pearce rose to the challenge, and proved that she could keep up with the men.
“Physicality was a key component of military life during this period and many
of my female colleagues resigned or were discharged because they couldn’t keep up physically, or incurred a permanent injury,” explains Major General Pearce. “What made it easier for me at this time was the fact that I had played a lot of sports through my teen years, and was quite robust. In the male dominated field I was able to hold my own,” she says.
“What was most challenging was finding a balance between my femininity and fitting in with my peers – who were, in the main, men. Every day I had to prove myself through what I did and who I was.”
In her second decade of service, Major General Pearce married and had children, her two daughters now young adults.
“With no role models to show you how to find balance in a job that was demanding 24/7 and didn’t have flexible working practices, it was difficult,” she says. “If I was honest, it was my girlfriends who were my support network around me; who I could drop my daughters off to before child-care opened because I had an early start or I had to go away with work.”
Major General Pearce even found time to complete a number of undergraduate and postgraduate qualifications – something female officers were unable to do when she joined. Her degrees include a Bachelor of Arts in Asian Studies from the University of New England in 2000; a Masters in Policing, Intelligence, and CounterTerrorism from Macquarie University in 2009; and a Masters of Arts in Defence Studies from the Deakin University in 2013.
She has also held over 20 different appointments, though some stand out more than others. From 2003 until 2006 she held the positions of Commandant, Defence Police Training Centre and Commanding Officer of the 1st Military Police Battalion.
“That four-year period was instrumental in transforming my outlook of myself and my career. From trying to be who I thought other people perceived me to be and the self-protection measures I built up, command [gave me] the confidence to be my authentic self, to follow my values, and to hold strong on what is important to me.”
But the role was more than just a personal turning point. Major General Pearce was so successful during her four years in command that she was made a Member of the Order of Australia for her exceptional leadership.
Other especially rewarding appointments include being part of the United Nations’ mission in East Timor in 2002, where she was awarded a Chief of Defence Force Commendation for bravery. She received a Commendation for Distinguished Service for her role as Commander of the Australian Joint Task Force in Afghanistan in 2016; and also spent two years as Commandant of the Australian Defence Force Academy – which she notes was a very rewarding opportunity in terms of developing the intellect and character of future officers in the Australian Defence Force.
Currently, Major General Pearce is Force Commander of the United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP) – only the second female Force Commander in the organisation’s history. Her role is to prevent a reoccurrence of fighting and maintain a stable environment along the 180km-long Buffer Zone that divides the island. Cyprus’ capital, Nicosia, remains the last divided city in Europe.
Major General Pearce says that her career experiences so far have provided her with the opportunity to continue to learn and develop. Looking back over her career, she says she has discovered how perfectionism can sometimes be destructive, and that humility, kindness and empathy are integral to who she is. “Leadership is gender neutral,” she says. “It’s about the qualities and character of who you are … it’s about staying true to your values, and having an optimistic outlook on life.”
According to Major General Pearce, the Australian Defence Force is leading in diversity and inclusion policies and initiatives.
“Having the opportunity to work within a global community, I’ve realised how in comparison, many defence forces have very few females in leadership roles. I feel very blessed that I’ve been on the cusp of change within Australia,” she says. “I know that if we continue to work hard at addressing our organisational framework, its policies and biases – both conscious and unconscious – and look at opportunities to develop further, we will continue to work towards a workforce of choice and attract talented future leaders.”
Her message to other women is to believe in yourself, and don’t allow the inner critic to tell you why you can’t do something. “Back yourself, work hard, and be the best you can be. Understand your strengths, look after your health mentally and physically, and don’t compromise your values.”
With role models like Major General Pearce at the helm, there is little doubt that women in the Australian Defence Force are in good hands.