Vicki Nielsen examines how far women have been integrated in NATO forces.

Giving direction: during the past four decades, the status, conditions and numbers of women in NATO armed forces have changed almost beyond recognition ( © NATO - 82Kb)

Giving direction: during the past four decades, the status, conditions and numbers of women in NATO armed forces have changed almost beyond recognition ( © NATO - 82Kb)

Women in NATO forces have much to celebrate this year. It is the 40th anniversary of the first NATO Conference of Senior Service Women Officers and the 25th anniversary of the formal recognition of the Committee on Women in the NATO Forces by the Military Committee, NATO's highest military authority.

In the course of the past four decades, the status, conditions and armed forces have changed almost beyond recognition. According to statistics from the Office on Women in the NATO Forces, the number of females in NATO uniforms, all volunteers, has jumped from 30,000 in 1961 to 288,000 today. But each military has its own history, traditions and culture and the degree of integration of women varies from one to another. Although women have served in armed forces for many years, the debate about the feminisation of the military continues, even in countries that are farther down the road of integration than others: about how and where women should serve and train, about the extent to which women should be integrated, and even about whether the process has already gone too far.

Since the integration of women takes place at different levels and in different ways, it is difficult to draw up a precise league table among NATO countries. A brief look at some Allies with longer histories of servicewomen, often dating back to the Second if not the First World War, illustrates the point.

Norway and Denmark are in some respects the most progressive countries, where female soldiers are concerned. Norway was the first NATO country to allow women to serve on submarines and women have been allowed into all other combat functions since 1985. Denmark opened all functions and units in the armed forces to women in 1988 after trials conducted in combat arms in 1985 and 1987. Danish and Norwegian servicewomen serve or have served in almost all operational functions in the armed forces, except for the para-rangers and marine commandos, since to date no woman has met entry requirements. No Danish woman has yet served as a fighter pilot, either. In both countries, female soldiers train, work and are deployed on equal terms with men. They can also enrol for national service on a voluntary basis, an opportunity that allows them to gain insight into the armed forces and might encourage them to pursue a military career. There has even been recent debate in Norway about introducing compulsory military service for women as a means to boosting female representation and promoting gender equality.

However, at five per cent of total strength in Denmark and only three per cent in Norway, representation of women is low relative to some other Allies. Norway aims to boost the proportion of female soldiers to seven per cent by 2005. But despite the appointment of the country's first female defence minister in March 1999, few Norwegian servicewomen have advanced to senior ranks. The first female colonel was only appointed in November 1999. One reason is that many female officers change from operational to administrative service after maternity leave, reducing their chances of being selected to study at military academies. Few women have reached the senior ranks of the Danish Armed Forces either, where recruitment and retention of female soldiers is also problematic. In 1999 and 2000, military academies there saw the lowest intake of women in recent years.

From make-up to camouflage: debates about the feminisation of the military revolve around the suitability, fitness and appropriateness of the female for war ( Danish Armed Forces - 42Kb)

The debate continues

Not everyone welcomes the growing influx of women in the military. Some traditionalists continue to argue that there is no place for women in the services. In an exchange in the Millenium journal last year, an ardent proponent of this view, Martin Van Creveld of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, argued that feminisation is part symptom, part cause, of the decline of the advanced military. In their replies, both Christopher Coker of the London School of Economics and Jean Bethke Elshtain of the University of Chicago, challenged the view that the military is in decline. They argued instead that it is undergoing a process of change, which reflects developments in the social, technological and international security contexts, which require the military to be more responsive to certain public pressures concerning civil values and place new demands on the armed forces in terms of skills, particularly for peacekeeping activities.

Caroline Kennedy-Pipe of Sheffield University echoed these views in an article, which appeared in the Journal of Strategic Studies last December. Pointing to the definition of the future warrior offered by Christopher Bellamy in Knights in White Armour, she argued that technological innovations have changed the nature of contemporary warfare, making old-fashioned close combat less likely and leaving the role of the modern warrior more gender neutral than ever. As a result, few good military reasons remain for denying physically and mentally competent women positions in the armed forces. Moreover, she proposed that the debate move beyond whether women should be fully integrated in the military and instead address "how and where they can best serve in the new wars that require new warriors".

The highest representation of women in the armed forces on active duty is found in the United States (14 per cent) and Canada (11.4 per cent). The breakthrough for US servicewomen came with the creation of the All-Volunteer Force in 1973. At the time, disillusionment with the military in the wake of the Vietnam War meant that fewer men were willing to serve so female recruits were welcome. Today, 8.6 per cent of US troops deployed world-wide are women. More than 11,200 female soldiers have supported NATO peacekeeping operations and 37,000 served in the Gulf during Operation Desert Storm in 1991. US servicewomen are also making inroads into the highest ranks. To date, four have risen to the three-star equivalent rank of lieutenant general/vice admiral.

Not all posts are open to women in the US forces, however. In theory, only posts involving direct ground combat remain closed but, in practice, current assignment policy rules mean that several other positions are effectively male-only, so that 80 per cent of jobs are open to females. Canadian servicewomen, on the other hand, have been able to serve in almost all functions and environments since 1989. The only exception was on board submarines and even that restriction was lifted in March this year. The first women are expected to start submarine training in the autumn. Nevertheless, most women in the Canadian Armed Forces remain concentrated in more traditional areas and there has been little success integrating them into the combat arms occupations — infantry, artillery, field engineer and armour — where representation remains low at 1.9 per cent.

The armed forces of France, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom also have long histories of recruiting female soldiers and women represent more than eight per cent of personnel. Generally, few female soldiers have risen to the senior ranks. Women remained segregated in women's corps in both the Netherlands and the United Kingdom until the early 1980s and early 1990s, respectively. France granted female soldiers equal status in the early 1970s, but it was not until the 1980s that serious steps were taken to improve the integration of women and quotas remained in place until 1998. Recruitment of French servicewomen is expected to rise with the end of compulsory national service in 2002. The Dutch Armed Forces' new target of 12 per cent female personnel by 2010 may prove hard to achieve, given difficulties encountered trying to reach current levels and problems with retention.

In theory, all positions are open to women in both Dutch and French militaries. In practice, however, access to some specialities remains restricted, usually on the grounds of physical requirements and combat effectiveness, or for practical reasons, as in the case of submarines. Most women deployed continue to serve in logistic and combat-support units, though operations in recent years have demonstrated the ability of women to operate effectively in war zones.

Some restrictions also remain in place in the United Kingdom, but many changes took place in the early 1990s, when women were allowed to serve at sea in surface ships and in all aircrew roles. Now, over 95 per cent of posts are open in the air force, along with around 70 per cent of posts in both the army and navy. UK servicewomen serve alongside their male counterparts in nearly all specialities, except in units whose primary duty is "to close with and kill the enemy", where it is felt their presence would impair combat effectiveness. Such restrictions are consistent with a European Court ruling that allows women to be excluded from certain posts on the grounds of combat effectiveness, leaving it up to national authorities to decide which. UK servicewomen are also barred from serving in submarines or as mine-clearance divers in the Royal Navy for medical reasons.

Belgian servicewomen were later to arrive on the scene, with the armed forces only opening to women in 1975. But today they make up over seven per cent of the total force and their numbers continue to rise, including in the higher ranks. They are fully integrated with all functions open to them, though the majority occupy administrative or logistic posts. In Luxembourg, which has no air force or navy, women were not allowed to serve in the army until 1987 and today make up only 0.6 per cent of personnel.

Most Mediterranean countries started opening their armed forces to women in the 1980s and 1990s, though some were already employing women in the medical services. Greece admitted female non-commissioned officers to support functions in 1979. Military academies remained closed until 1990 and access to military education remains restricted. Women are still excluded from combat tasks but the first Greek women served at sea in 2000 and the first female pilot cadet is expected to enter the Air Force Academy in 2001. Representation is about four per cent. Spain started recruiting women in 1988 and Portugal in 1992 and female soldiers now make up around six per cent of total strength in both countries. Most functions including combat positions are now open to women in the Spanish Armed Forces, though restrictions remain in some specialities, and over half of Spanish servicewomen are employed in administrative posts. Portuguese servicewomen can in theory apply for all posts, though in practice the marines and combat specialities remain closed.

In Turkey, women were accepted into military academies in the late 1950s, but a drastic change in policy in 1960 meant that they were not admitted into military education again until 1982 and no female cadets were allowed in miltary schools until ten years later. Turkish servicewomen, who make up only 0.1 per cent of total strength, can only serve as officers and are restricted from serving in armour and infantry branches as well as submarines.

In the new NATO member countries, preparations for EU accession helped spur the introduction of equal opportunities in the military in the 1990s, which also saw the opening up of military education to women in all three countries. Today, servicewomen represent 3.7 per cent of the total force in the Czech Republic and over nine per cent in Hungary, but they tend to remain in traditional roles and few have risen to higher ranks. In the Polish Armed Forces, representation is low at 0.1 per cent and is likely to remain so due to current restructuring. Practically all women serve in medical posts.

Germany's Bundeswehr restricted the employment of women to military bands and the medical services until recently. As a result, female representation remains low at 2.8 per cent. But thanks to the lonely struggle of a woman wanting to serve in a maintenance-support team and a ruling of the European Court of Justice in January 2000, all posts are now open to female soldiers. A year later, the first women were recruited into the lower ranks and as noncommissioned officers, to be followed by the first officers in July 2001. To date, the integration of women has proceeded smoothly and women in all career groups are already serving in the NATO-led operations in the Balkans.

Italy was the last NATO member to exclude women from the military. But in September 1999, the Italian parliament passed a bill allowing women to serve in the armed forces following years of campaigning by La Associazone Nazionale Aspiranti Donne Soldato (the association of aspiring women soldiers), which won wide popular support and the backing of Admiral Guido Venturoni, chairman of NATO's Military Committee. To celebrate this landmark decision and the first intake of female recruits in 2000, the annual meeting of the Committee on Women in the NATO Forces in June 2001 was, at Italy's request, exceptionally held in Rome, instead of a city in the Netherlands, the country holding the chair at the time. Italy is adopting a gradual approach, focusing initially on integrating women into general support rather than operational positions and there are restrictions on enrolment to military academies. It is hoped this will facilitate integration and give male military personnel time to adapt.

Drilling recruits: a key challenge in today's competitive job market is recruitment and retention of skilled personnel
( US DoD - 42Kb)

Promoting women in NATO forces

Forty years ago, in June 1961, delegates from Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway, the United Kingdom and the United States gathered in Copenhagen, Denmark, for the first NATO Conference of Senior Service Women Officers, which was organised by the Danish Atlantic Association. They expressed the desire to meet regularly and the hope that the appropriate NATO and national authorities would consider employing women more widely in the armed services.

But it was not until 1976, 15 years later, that a Committee on Women in the NATO Forces, was formally recognised by NATO's Military Committee. The number of NATO countries sending delegates or observers to Committee meetings rose gradually over the years. There are now 18 delegates from all NATO countries except Iceland, which has no armed forces. Canada holds the chair for the next two years.

An Office for Women in the NATO Forces was given permanent status on the International Military Staff at NATO headquarters at the end of 2000. It supports the work of the Committee and its three subcommittees in the areas of training and development, recruitment and employment, and quality of life. The Office also seeks to act as a repository for information and research on such issues and to promote awareness of the effective employment of women in the military among NATO and Partner countries.

The German and Italian militaries have the examples of fellow NATO Allies to follow as they start down the road of integrating women more widely and can benefit from lessons learned and best practice built up elsewhere. Clearly, the interaction between the armed forces of different members of the Alliance during military exercises and operations or peacekeeping activities plays its part in promoting the cross-fertilisation of ideas and practices on gender issues.

But NATO countries where women have already been employed in the military for many years can also learn from one another, as the armed forces struggle to recruit and retain skilled personnel in a competitive job market. In Norway, for example, as part of the defence ministry's strategy for gender equality, extensive mentoring programmes have recently been launched to encourage women to stay and compete for senior positions in the armed forces. Mentoring is also used to differing extents in some other countries, including the United Kingdom and the United States. Both Canada and Denmark have embarked on a diversity-management approach. Denmark hopes to boost female recruitment by the adoption of gender-differentiated basic physical standards, while keeping requirements for physically demanding functions gender neutral. But there is a growing trend towards adapting physical standards to the requirements of the job rather than applying different standards for each sex.

Improving the quality of life for all military personnel and their families is a key priority in the United States and several other countries. Belgium and the Netherlands, for example, are experimenting with opportunities for parttime work to make it easier for mothers of young children. A family policy action plan for the Norwegian Armed Forces, due to be published this summer, focuses on support for families with members deployed on international operations. And in Denmark, all personnel are given as much influence as possible over their own work situation and duty cycle to minimise strains on family life, including possibilities to take a temporary downgrading without jeopardising future career possibilities.

Women have come a long way in NATO armed forces during the past 40 years. However, female under-representation, especially in the senior ranks, has a devastating effect on attrition and remains a key issue. On this point, NATO headquarters has failed to set an example, as only three female officers currently serve on the International Military Staff. But as women continue to rise through the ranks and make their mark on the military, the picture may be very different in the not too distant future.

More information on women in NATO forces can be found at and also on p.34 of this number of the NATO Review (PDF/78Kb).