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.

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