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Civilian stories

Join the New Zealand Defence Force as they celebrate International Women's Day 2024. Hear from Karenza, Louise and Emma about life as a wāhine and as a civilian in the New Zealand Defence Force.

08 March, 2024

Karenza Harris

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Karenza Harris says the New Zealand Defence Force has come a long way since she joined the Navy as an 18-year-old. Now a civilian with Defence Science and Technology, she tells her story:

“I grew up on a lifestyle block in Warkworth. Going to school in the 1980s, I remember thinking about those great women that pushed the boundaries, like Emmeline Pankhurst, Margaret Thatcher and Marie Curie – all great role models for me.

“I joined the Navy straight out of high school because a career in the Defence Force was appealing. I served from 1990 to 1996.

“Back then the women to men ratio was 20 females to 120 males per intake. That was a challenge, but working in a predominantly male industry gave me coping tools, and through my career I have tended towards male-dominated industries.

“I left the Navy and had a family (three daughters and now three granddaughters). I’ve gained a Bachelor of Business (Management) while working and raising my daughters as a single mum. I’ve completed an MBA and I’m currently studying towards Cyber Security Accreditation.

“I’ve come back to Defence as a civilian. I’m what’s sometimes referred to as the Swiss Army knife of Defence Science and Technology - the Operations Manager. My days are truly varied; I do everything from security, finance, contracts, events and I run a team of eight staff that look after the 60 DST scientists.

“From my own personal observations, working with DST provides some challenges in gender diversity as historically a lot of women didn’t undertake Science or Engineering training. That is changing with the university engagement now so we are slowly gaining numbers. I guess the other impact is that people tend to stay here a long time, so the turnover hasn’t been high. That limits the amount of new scientist positions that could be filled by women.

“I hold team meetings every week and make sure everyone at the table has their say. I have learned the power of letting someone get something off their chest, and not needing to jump in and solve the problems, but empowering them to find their own solutions.

“The NZDF has come a long way in the 35 years since I first joined as an 18-year-old. I think investment in mentoring or incubator-type programmes for girls to be able to tap into ‘old minds’, and having more Defence-wide engagement in women’s events or promotions. Mo-Vember is very popular and supportive for men; what if we had something similar for women?”

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Louise came to the New Zealand Defence Force as a civilian in 2017, keen to pursue a career in workplace education and training. She tells her story:

“I wanted to be in an organisation where my skills could contribute to a greater cause.  I am currently in a strategic role as a Principal Learning Advisor.

“I work with many major stakeholders across the NZDF, as well as the wider New Zealand Government and international military partners.  I am involved in course analysis and design, as well as developing initiatives and structures for NZDF learning programmes. I also have the opportunity to be involved in New Zealand and international research for future trends in military education and training.

“Since I have been in the NZDF, I am grateful to have been promoted through various positions in the Learning and Development sector.

“In regards to my professional development, I have received committed support from my leaders. I have recently completed a Master of Education through Massey University - my proudest achievement is graduating my Master’s Degree with Distinction.

“The NZDF is a future-focused organisation which supports its personnel to contribute to New Zealand in multifaceted ways.  I would like to see the NZDF continue to invest in the development of women in the military sector through professional education and career advancement.”

Emma Buurmans

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Emma Buurmans is brand-new to our Defence family, joining the Defence Science and Technology team in Auckland last month. She tells her story:

“I joined fresh out of my Forensic Psychology Master’s degree. I knew that I loved researching human cognition, and wanted to do it in a meaningful capacity. I couldn't think of a better way to do that than by contributing to Aotearoa’s defence! I’ve lived in Wellington most of my life until I moved up here. I like it here but it’s a bit warm!

“I’m a Science Researcher on the Human Sciences team. Because I’ve just started, much of my role so far has been acquainting myself with the NZDF environment — it’s very different from anywhere I’ve worked before! But I also have three or so research projects that I’m working on in various stages so far, relating to team cognition, simulation technology, and cognitive training. I love that I get to do interesting research every day that matters to people in the New Zealand Defence Force and beyond.

“Many of us are involved in a Women’s Health initiative that works to understand and improve the performance, health, and wellbeing of women in the NZDF, and it’s been very clear to me already how much the initiative means to the team as well as to the wāhine they work with.

“Someone who had a huge positive impact on me was my thesis supervisor. She encouraged me to think critically about information I’m given, and to consider it from a range of perspectives. Also to speak up with questions and ideas, no matter who I’m talking to! I’m definitely taking inspiration from her in my work here.

“So far my main achievement has been joining the NZDF, but I’m looking forward to many moments to be proud of in the future!”