Women have been accepted in the armed forces, but the vulnerability stereotype remains
In recent decades, women gained more space in the armies of many countries, reaching positions once restricted to them as well as being often deployed to conflict zones. In the United States army, for instance, female members currently make up for about 16.3 percent of the active troops, against 9.8 percent in the 1980s. A similar growth trend can be identified in the United Kingdom. In 1980, 4.8 percent of the Regular Forces officers were women, against 10 percent in 2014. Women are now in larger numbers than officers of black and minority ethnic groups (7.1 percent) in the British military. But how do women tend to be perceived in the military post-2000s?
Since the 1980s, women have been challenging the stereotype of victims and vulnerable individuals in war zones, either as part of the military or as activists in security issues. Outside the battle field, organizations such as the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) successfully advocate for “women’s rights and protection, participation in conflict and peace situation”. On the ground, on the other hand, female officers are usually excluded from important positions, many of them in the combat units.
Even in Israel, where military service is compulsory both for men and women, female officers are banned from the frontline posts. Although women integrate combat battalions in the country, they are discharged from all services after getting married or giving birth, as Uta Klein, professor of Sociology, Gender and Diversity at the University of Kiel (Germany), highlights. In this sense, their exclusion from the armed forces is directly associated with their gender and the official enforcement of the woman’s social role as a maternal figure.
The Israeli case serves as an example of how women have been introduced into the military, but not entirely accepted as agents of violence. The ban on combat positions, as Laura Sjoberg and Caron E. Gentry argue, limits the amount of violence women are allowed to display in comparison to men, creating a dichotomy: female officers are trained and dominate the use of weapons, but are not expected to utilize them. They are also highly qualified, but portrayed as incapable of defending themselves.
These stereotypes, among other factors, prevent women from competing with men for combat positions that could earn them the skills needed to reach top command positions in the military as well as in wars. Limiting the spaces women can occupy in the military negatively impacts their careers, contributing to the small proportion of women in the battle field in post-2000 wars. Take NATO’s coalition in Afghanistan as an example: there were only some 4,000 women among an overall troop of 52,686. Only 4.7% of them had command positions.
Even in the few countries where women can integrate positions in the frontline, the number of female soldiers in such posts tends to be small. This indicates that lifting up bans may not be enough to integrate women in the military if the culture of the institution remains male dominant. In Canada, for instance, only 310 women were deployed to Afghanistan in combat posts between 2001 and 2011, or 8.3% of the Canadian soldiers.
Despite some clear advances in gender equality, the military culture continuous to be male dominated – and this can become a predicament to women. A study with 450 male and female Israeli soldiers from a combat battalion showed that women in the army can experience rejection, discrimination and prejudice as well as higher levels of stress in the service. The report also mentioned that in the Australian military academy, women were not being welcomed in a hospitable environment nor receiving equal treatment from their male counterparts. Men were, actually, angry and believing that their profession had lowered its standards.
Women are, therefore, seen as outsiders in military and war. Another report with 106 Australian female veterans of peacekeeping and warlike operations (56 of them participated in post-Vietnam missions including assignments in the 2000s) found that women faced conflicts with their “unconventional” military career. Female soldiers with young families at the time of the deployment had significant levels of anxiety, associated with the stress to sort out the arrangements for their children, partners and relatives. Besides that, in warlike situations, female officers reported having to adapt their behaviour to perform some tasks. The changes included dressing “properly” and bringing a man to “do the talking” while dealing with contractors outside the military base. There were also complaints about the feeling of isolation since women were a minority in these operations.
Therefore, the advances accomplished by female officers have not yet resulted in equal opportunities within the armed forces of North American and European countries or Israel. Women are still exposed to gender biased environments in which, for instance, pornography is shown before missions. The career progression of many female officers continues to be affected by bans on positions of combat as well as by stereotypes. Thus, the road to gender equality in the military also implies building a more respectful internal culture for women.
This article is part of a special series on gender in warfare. The next article will discuss women as the agents of violence in conflict zones.