By Lindy Heinecken. Article originally published on Mail&Guardian on 23 March 2022.

With few exceptions, war is largely waged by men, with less than 1% of all combatants in history being women. Today, women remain a minority in the military, in combat and senior posts, despite active attempts to recruit and promote women. For example, active-duty military women in Nato member nations’ armed forces are less than 12%. This is slightly higher for the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand at about 17%. South Africa stands out with 25% on active duty and 15% serving on peacekeeping operations. Despite this, women continue to face numerous physical, social, and institutional barriers that affect their inclusion.

Although there is now sufficient evidence to show that with the right training, women can participate at a level comparable to men in most roles, the “cult of the body” remains an issue, especially when it comes to those roles that require physical strength, stamina and endurance. There is no doubt that on average men are stronger than women and this physical ability gap places women under considerable performance pressure during gender-neutral training. Accommodating performance disparities leads to claims that high standards are compromised. Those who make such assertions tend to forget that today a wide range of military tasks previously requiring muscular strength, agility and physical endurance in combat have been reduced or eliminated by technology. 

However, beyond physical strength, for women to be accepted as equals, they need to not only meet the physical standards but embrace masculine values, norms and behaviour to be respected soldiers. Hegemonic masculinity is central to the construction of military identity and culture and to be equals, women must assimilate masculine traits associated with the “warrior ethos”. Yet, if one examines what the warrior ethos entails, such as bravery, endurance, physical and mental strength, tactics and use of weaponry, honour, loyalty and selfless service, there is nothing inherently masculine or feminine about these ideals. So why are women still seen to be a threat to military effectiveness and the warrior spirit? The answer lies not in their ability, but another claim, the presumed effect on discipline, cohesion and morale.

Particularly during the 1990s as women became integrated into combat units, they would be seen as having a negative effect on unit cohesion, morale and efficiency. Those opposed to the integration of women in combat units held that they disrupt male bonding, considered central to unit efficiency. Of utmost concern was sexual relationships among soldiers (not unlike gays in the military). However, the experience of women in combat units refutes these claims. On the contrary, numerous studies show that including women as part of the team improves performance. Training and specifically professionalism – not male social homogeneity – are the crucial determinants of cohesion among small groups.

Where women can affect social cohesion is when romantic relationships disrupt task performance or cause conflict or tension within the group or unit. Sexuality in any organisation matters, but perhaps more so in the military. Particularly prejudicial is where a quid pro quo situation exists where women who have relationships with senior ranks get preferential treatment. This links into a much bigger concern, which is how sexuality affects power relations, sexism and oppression. Sexism in the military remains rife, which feeds into various forms of sexual and gender harassment.

Beyond this, women face a range of challenges related to their reproductive roles. Tensions between motherhood, family and the military are one of the main causes of women’s attrition. Unlike military men who are more likely to have a non-working spouse, military women are often single and if not, almost exclusively in dual-career relationships. Studies show that spousal support is one of the most important predictors for commitment to a military career. Women typically find it difficult to balance military and family responsibilities, which affect assimilation, especially where they are expected to work irregular hours, or spend prolonged periods away from home. This affects their willingness to deploy, but even when they do, they face other challenges in terms of their worth.

When deployed on peacekeeping operations, for example, women are seen as “useful” in certain roles based on their “special contribution” linked to unique feminine qualities. They are said to be in a better position to engage with the civilian population, build trust and confidence, prevent, and reduce conflict and confrontation and serve as role models in countries affected by armed conflict. Yet, they are often restricted in these roles, especially where they are seen as vulnerable to capture. Beyond this, the perception exists that women pose a “gendered” security risk, not only weakening the team but making them more vulnerable to attack. This reinforces the old gender stereotypes about women’s suitability or occupational appropriateness to serve in certain roles. Hence, the inclusion of more women in the military is not sufficient to transform gender relations in the military.

So, how can we transform the gender order? 

A good place to start would be to emphasise and value the contribution of women by disrupting the dominant, masculine norms. At present, in most militaries, women’s integration rests on expectations that they assimilate the hegemonic masculine military culture. Due to this, few military women are willing to assert their voice and adopt a radical feminist standpoint to infuse alternative values. Doing so is a risky strategy. The easier position is to conform and comply to allay the effects of social isolation and the potential effect on their military careers. What this means is that instead of dismantling institutionalised sexism and the underlying power relations based on masculine and feminine ideals and values, the status quo remains. 

While one does see a definite shift from “tinkering”, equal treatment of women, and “tailoring” positive action towards the inclusion of women, attempts to bring about “transformation” of existing systems and structures that perpetuate group advantage and inequality, is still a work in progress. Nonetheless, with gender now embedded within the policy frameworks of international and regional organisations and donors, there is evidence that women’s voices can no longer be ignored in the military – meaning that gender is now firmly on the agenda as never before.

This article is based on Lindy Heinecken’s chapter in the Handbook on Gender and Public Administration published in 2022 by Edward Elgar Publishing.