Women face an ‘extra responsibility’ in the armed forces
28 Aug 2019|

The challenge of how to increase female participation in peacekeeping forces is currently under the international spotlight, as reflected in recent debates in the UN Security Council and in the EU. Deploying more women in the field is recognised as being urgently needed, particularly in places where conflict-related sexual violence and sexual exploitation and abuse are prevalent.

The main obstacle to increasing the number of women in peacekeeping is often simply the lack of women available in the national militaries of troop-contributing countries. This is as much of a problem in Western liberal democracies as it in other states. Research conducted by the Institute of Security and Global Affairs at Leiden University on women in the military found that non-European countries such as South Africa, Israel, Mexico and Argentina had a higher percentage of women in the military than almost all EU states.

Addressing this problem requires understanding how women experience military life and how women’s performance is affected by gendered conceptions of what it means to be a ‘good soldier’. Research on those questions would help identify the constraints women face that prevent them from staying in the military and progressing in their military careers.

Part of the problem also lies in working out how to attract more women into the military in the first place, to increase the gender balance and in turn help to normalise the idea of women as soldiers.

While the literature on women in war and peace is limited, two recent books by women on life in the US military provide insights into the hurdles women have to overcome to gain credibility with senior military officers, or acceptance among their peers. Mary Jennings Hegar (currently running for the US Senate in Texas), notes in her book on serving as a pilot for the US Air National Guard that she was asked several times by her superior officers why she wasn’t at home looking after her husband. Her book makes it clear that her gender was viewed as a handicap to her promotion in some instances. Kayla Williams recounts her experiences as a sergeant in a military intelligence unit in Iraq, and her story is woven with examples of the sexualisation she and her female colleagues faced from their male counterparts.

Interviews I conducted recently with female peacekeepers revealed that they often worried about how they compared with their male colleagues, particularly in terms of physical strength. This remains the case even though we’re rapidly approaching a time when wars will be won more through technology and less through physical battle.

One commented, ‘I beat myself up over the fact that I was just not as fast on the assault course as my male colleagues. Then my husband went to the course with me on the weekend and pointed out that it was designed for men—the spacing of the monkey bars, the height of obstacles, for example. It was no wonder I was so challenged.’

Another said, ‘You always want to prove yourself. So you think, you men can run a marathon; so will I. And you do it.’

These stories indicate that many women are faced with an ‘extra responsibility’ in the armed forces: feeling the need to justify their right to be there owing to their gender. Of concern is that this view may be shared by their male colleagues; a 2014 survey of male members of the German armed forces found that 40% didn’t believe women should serve in combat. Daniel de Torres, head of the Gender and Security Division at the Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces, attributes this problem to the fact that the archetypal soldier is still viewed as a strong, muscled man.

To counter negative beliefs about the appropriateness of women in the military, more rigorous research is required to show how and where women perform well on military skills, and, concurrently, more historical work is needed to reveal the hidden history of women at war. Normalising women’s participation in battle may help women understand that they have a contribution to make when considering joining the military and may help alleviate the concerns of women currently serving about their abilities and their right to be there.

Much of the evidence we have of military women’s skills—for example, in shooting and asymmetric warfare—is anecdotal, but new data is emerging.  A recent study has found that women are safer pilots than men. A decade of research reveals that while 10 out of every 100 US Army helicopter pilots were women, they were responsible for only three out of every 100 accidents. The (male) author of the report argued that it’s not ability holding women back in the military but a hypermasculine military culture that ‘presupposes women’s physical inferiority and lack of psychological and emotional coping mechanisms’.

An experiment run by the University of St Gallen found that women perform better than men under stressful conditions. A quantitative study of tennis players revealed that, under stress, men’s performances declined more quickly and to a much higher degree than women’s. Studies in other environments (public speaking and other sports) have also found chemical evidence that suggests the cause of this: testosterone declines more steeply after a setback in men than in women. The mental toughness and endurance skills of women that these studies point to are something one would assume would be useful on the battlefield.

Historical research has highlighted how women have been fighting since the dawn of history, but also that their participation has largely been obscured. Gerard DeGroot gives the example of British female soldiers who participated in active combat during World War I, by aiming the guns as part of mixed-gender anti-aircraft batteries. At the end of the war, men were rewarded for their bravery, but the women working alongside them in battle were not because they weren’t deemed to have engaged in combat.

While some research is being undertaken on how to increase women’s participation in peacekeeping militaries through the Elsie Initiative Fund, more is needed. The numbers of women currently serving in militaries around the globe still reflect the myth that soldiering is for men only and women cannot and should not compete. The implications of this assumption are obvious for peacekeeping. In addition to research, national militaries must find new ways to increase not just female participation, but also their sense of inclusion.