Driving greater gender equity and inclusion in the Defence industry

Building a more diverse and inclusive workforce for future female leaders.

Engineering and Defence are two sectors where traditionally female participation in the workforce and, consequently female leaders, are underrepresented compared to the general population.

To tackle this issue, the Australian Department of Defence and Aurecon forged a strategic partnership in 2020 with a shared vision: to actively cultivate gender equity and inclusion by empowering their high-potential women leaders.

Acknowledging the importance of accessing external expertise to ensure the highest standards in design, delivery and evaluation of a leadership development learning experience, the Department of Defence and Aurecon chose to engage Inkling Group.

Through a process of close collaboration and consultation with both organisations, the Ascend program was developed.

Supporting high-potential women to step into more senior roles and accelerate their path to leadership.

Research underscores the transformative impact that structured, evidence-based leadership programs can have on women’s career progression, confidence, and visibility at senior levels. Drawing on this evidence, Inkling collaborated with the Department of Defence and Aurecon to design a learning experience that would not only empower individual participants but also serve as a strategic investment in cultivating a more diverse, resilient, and innovative workforce.

Ascend offers participants a developmental journey wherein they uncover and understand their strengths while acquiring tools and techniques to overcome barriers to their success and fulfillment. Ascend also aims to ensure senior leaders play a significant part in driving positive change, as research highlights their influential capacity in removing cultural and structural barriers for underrepresented groups.

A key component of Ascend is its Sponsorship element, wherein participants are matched with senior leaders in their home organisation to engage in active sponsorship activities. This fosters advocacy, strategic acumen, and network expansion among participants.

Through its comprehensive design and collaborative approach, Ascend equips participants with the tools, knowledge, and support necessary to lead inclusively and effectively navigate their leadership journey within their respective organisations.

Empowering women to build the resilience and capability to confidently lead with success and fulfilment

  • 95%

    of Ascend Alumni report they are confident to take the next steps to progress their careers

  • 100%

    of Ascend Alumni report they feel confident in their leadership capabilities

  • 71 Net Promoter Score

    indicating overwhelming satisfaction and endorsement from program participants (2020-2023)

Ascend has become a driving force in reshaping the Department of Defence and Aurecon as more inclusive workplaces.

Since launching in 2020, 92 women across Australia have participated in Ascend, with an additional 24 taking part in 2024. Ascend has successfully created an environment where future female leaders collaborate, learn from each other, develop strong supportive networks, and advance the diverse thinking required to solve some of society’s toughest problems.

This initiative provides both Aurecon and Defence a meaningful way for our female future leaders to collaborate and learn from each other. Simultaneously, this will enable our high potential women to develop supportive networks and relationships.” Defence First Assistant Secretary Monique Hamilton.

Overall, the Ascend program has yielded commendable outcomes. These include a marked improvement in retention rates, a notable enhancement in diversity across leadership roles and project delivery teams, and a significant increase in female representation, both in self-nominations and participation within Defence industry award programs.

An enduring legacy with long-lasting impacts into the future.

Now in its fifth year of delivery, Ascend demonstrates the Department of Defence and Aurecon’s recognition of its pivotal role in fostering gender equity and inclusion. Both organisations are committed to serving as role models for others, showcasing the value of investing in women’s leadership development and the positive impact it can have on organisational performance and culture.

Looking ahead, the focus for Ascend remains on cultivating strong relationships, advocating for diversity, and empowering leaders to effect tangible progress within Aurecon and Defence.

In recognition of its transformative impact, Ascend received the Australian Institute of Project Management (AIPM) award for Best Transformational Projects in 2022 and has been nominated as a finalist for Best Diversity & Inclusion Program in the Defence Connect Defence and National Security Workforce 2024 Awards, with winners to be announced in late 2024.


"Ascend has really improved my confidence levels and how I see myself as a professional and leader. I came into the program struggling with imposter syndrome, unable to back myself. I have now come away with increased confidence and the tools to effectively advocate for myself and my career."

- 2023 Ascend Participant

"This year, the person I sponsored was full of self-doubt. Her transformation has been incredible and inspirational. She is someone who supports so many people yet doesn't advocate for herself. To see her using the tools she has learned in Ascend and apply them has been incredible."

- 2023 Ascend Sponsor

"Prior to Ascend, I felt inferior and incapable because of differemces between my leadership style and other senior leaders, but Ascend has taught me that yes, I manage differently, but that's OK. We need different approaches, and a diversity of views and opinions. I've changes my mindset from "my input isn't wanted" to " I have value to offer". Thank you Ascend!"

- 2023 Ascend Participant

"I was extremely pleased to see the development of my Sponsee over the course of the program. After having some initial doubts on the program benefits, I believe she has advanced significantly in her own self-development, awareness and overall confidence in day-to-day work and future ambitions. A strong relationship has been formed and I am looking forward to seeing her further develop and advance in the business."

- 2023 Ascend Sponsor