Join the Navy and see a new world

By Joanna Mathers

Captain Corina Bruce at Devonport Naval Base. Photograph by Ted Baghurst.
Captain Corina Bruce at Devonport Naval Base. Photograph by Ted Baghurst.

It may have a reputation as a bastion of masculinity, but the 21st century Navy is anything but. Twenty-two per cent of the Navy is now made up of women, and this year marks the 30th anniversary of women being allowed to go to sea along with the blokes.

The work can be challenging and hard, but the Navy can offer women a unique opportunity to train, travel the world, and reach the top of their chosen field.

"When I joined the Navy I had just a small professional goal and the Navy expanded my opportunities, exponentially. If I could achieve what I have starting back then when the Navy was a completely different place, imagine how many more options there are for women joining now."

Captain Corina Bruce started her navy career straight out of university in 1983. Graduating with a Bachelor of Science, she saw her contemporaries move into roles in banks or accounting firms - not something that excited her. "I was looking for something where I could use my scientific training; the Navy was advertising for people who could help bring new digital technology to ships and this seemed far more exciting."

Her role helped usher in a paradigm shift for the navy: "There was really an opportunity to do everything. I worked across platforms, installed and tested technology on ships. This was before women were allowed to go to sea and it was quite a challenging experience at times."

As the only woman among up to 250 men, she stood out like a sore thumb. Specialising in weapons systems, she spent a lot of time in the Hauraki Gulf and further afield ensuring the onboard technology was up to scratch.

They were day trips. Back in the 80s women weren't allowed to spend the night on board a ship. Though Bruce says she felt like a "privileged guest" as opposed to one of the crew, her gender helped smooth the way when it came to efficient execution of her assigned roles. "They were very welcoming and everything was focused on me achieving my goals," she says. "They basically wanted me in and out as quickly as possible. I also had a fair bit of respect because I was the lady looking after the forward facing five-inch gun."

Bruce became a lieutenant, being awarded a commendation by the Chief of Naval Staff in 1987 for the work she did on a gun fire control system. But family life was calling and she decided to leave the Navy in 1992 to have children. "But every six months someone from the Navy would knock on the door, literally, to ask when I was coming back. So I ended up re-joining in 1996."

Bruce's star rose quickly. In 1998 she was promoted to Lieutenant Commander, and she took over the management of the Fleet Operational Software Systems Authority the following year. The 2000s saw her promoted to Commander and sent to Wellington to take up the post of Director Naval Information Systems, before reaching the apex of her career as the Commanding Officer of the Devonport Naval Base.

Though there have been some high-profile cases involving harassment in the Navy, Bruce is positive about the steps being taken to stamp out bigotry within its ranks.

"Operation Respect was launched this year," she says. "This has been set up to address issues of discrimination in the Navy. The organisation is committed to supporting all the people who work here, irrespective of their gender, race or sexual orientation."

She feels that it's a great place for women to advance their careers.

Lieutenant Commander Alex Houghey agrees. She too started her Navy career fresh from university, following in the footsteps of her sister Chloe. "I was still at university and she was having a great time in the Navy, earning good money, travelling the world, making great friends," she says. "I thought 'I could do that too'."

Starting with basic training after graduating from Victoria University, she went on to specialise as a warfare officer. She gained more warfare training with the Royal Navy in the United Kingdom, part of the time was spent on the water around the Falkland Islands. She did a stint in Bahrain, and was off the coast of Africa when the New Zealand Navy made two significant drug busts, intercepting ships laden with heroin.

She's currently a staff officer for maritime operations.

"I look after the needs of all the 11 ships at sea," she explains. "I fully understand their limitations and capabilities, and I'm the first port of call for any issues they may have."

When asked what makes the Navy a good choice for women, she says: "It's the same thing that makes the Navy a good career choice for anyone. It's not for everyone, you need to be able to take orders and have the desire to serve your country. But if you do well you will keep getting opportunities to advance."

This month the Royal NZ Navy celebrated the 30th Anniversary of women at sea.

- NZ Herald

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