Updated: 05-Jun-2002 Women in NATO Forces

26th Annual
in Uniform

26-31 May 2002

Gender Integration in the Armed Forces:
A Cross National Comparison of Policies and Practices in NATO Countries (1)

Helena Carreiras
ISCTE/University of Lisbon
European University Institute - Florence

Working paper: please do not quote

Introduction for Professor Gerard J. DeGroot

Dr. Helena Carreiras is assistant professor of Sociology at the University of
Lisbon (Instituto Superior de Ciencias do Trabalho e da Empresa) since1989. She is also a researcher at the Centre for Studies and Research in Sociology (CIES). During the past decade she has developed extensive research in the fields of Political Sociology, Armed Forces and Society and Gender Studies. In 1994 she concluded a master's thesis on the participation of women in the Portuguese Armed Forces.

Presently she is concluding her PhD thesis, 'A comparative study of the participation of women in the Armed Forces of NATO countries', at the European University Institute in Florence. We of course have a particular interest in this last one and are all anxious to ear your on results. I also understand that this was not an easy task to do in getting the different nations to participate in the submission of data. Nevertheless, Dr. Carreiras persevered and was able to complete her research.

Among other publications she is the author of 'Women in the Portuguese Armed
Forces' (1987) and 'Women in arms: The military participation of women in Southern Europe' (2002)'. Without further do, Dr. Carreiras, the floor is yours.

Dr. Carreiras has agreed present her research results on 'A comparative study of the participation of women in the Armed Forces of NATO.



  1. Factors affecting women's participation in the military: an analytical model
  2. The position of women in military organisational structures: representation and integration policies
    1. Global representation
    2. Occupational distribution and rank structure
    3. A synthetic index of integration
  3. Explaining gender incorporation patterns: a tentative test of hypothesis
    1. Time effects, relative numbers and integration
    2. Military structure and personnel accession policies
    3. The impact of social-economic and political factors: a selective exploration
  4. Concluding remarks


A common observation regarding the current participation of women in the armed forces in western democratic societies is that there is great variation regarding the extent to which the different NATO countries have integrated women. Such variation, ranging from an almost total absence, rank limitations, segregated training and severe functional restrictions, to relatively open career patterns, full integrated training and access to combat roles, is due to complex constellations of factors that in each case have differently affected policies and practices.

However, despite this strong heterogeneity regarding integration policies, all 18 NATO countries (2) have admitted and generally increased the number of women in their Armed Forces. During the past three decades various restrictions have been eliminated; women have progressively been allowed to military academies and obtained access to a wider variety of positions and functions, including those related to combat.

Drawing on existing theories regarding the multiple factors that affect women's military roles, in this paper I start by looking at various indicators regarding the position of military women in the various countries. Comparisons will rely, among other dimensions, on global representation and occupational and hierarchical distributions. The goal of this analysis is to create an 'integration index' regarding the participation of women in the military. This index will then be contrasted against some of the selected independent factors that have been proposed as determinants for the role women play in the armed forces, in order to evaluate the impact of the various factors that may influence gender integration in the military.

1. Factors affecting women's participation in the military: an analytical model

Women's military participation is affected by a wide variety of factors - deriving from military organisational features, social/economic structure and cultural and political values. In one of the very few essays aimed at explicit theory building in this field, Mady Segal has outlined a systematic theory of the conditions under which women's military roles may expand or contract, assessing the relative and combined effects of those variables (Segal 1995).
Drawing on the author's proposal as well as on other theoretical and empirical inputs, I have built an analytical model regarding the various factors and conditions affecting the integration of women in the military. Due to existing limitations to the size of this paper I will not develop the various aspects here (3), but rather refer to the model and its different components while testing the specific hypothesis on the impact of social, political, economic and military factors further on.

Figure 1 - Analytical Model

2. The position of women in military organisational structures: representation and integration policies

2.1 Global representation

In the year 2000 around 280 000 women served as volunteer soldiers in 17 NATO countries (4). Table 1 shows the absolute numbers and percentages of women in each country, as well as its evolution.

Table 1
Figure 2

(All following figures are included into .PDF/206Kb )

From the point of view of service distribution, women's representation is higher in the more specialised services: Navy and Air Force. Women make up for 6.3% of Army personnel, 10,2% of the Navy and 12.2% of the Air Force.

Figure 3

2.2 Occupational distribution and rank structure

The occupational distribution of military women reveals a strong cross-national segregation pattern. Data available for 13 NATO nations (5) shows that more than two thirds (70%) of military women are concentrated in support (personnel/ administration/logistics) and medical functions, 17,5% in technical areas (engineering, communications) and only 7% occupy positions in the more operational areas in combat arms (artillery, infantry, cavalry).
Even if the relative weight of each of these different types of functions in the overall military organisational structure is taken into account, women are clearly over represented in the traditional female areas. In fact, support functions in the areas of personnel, finance, administration and medical services employ an average of 46.1% of military personnel in NATO countries, against more than 70% in the case of women. The opposite happens in technical and particularly operational functions where the asymmetry is also extremely visible: while 22.2% of military personnel occupy operational functions only 7% of women do (Figure 4).

Figure 4

As far hierarchical representation is concerned, nearly half (49.9) of all servicewomen in NATO are concentrated in the enlisted ranks, 36% in the NCO's and only 15 % belong to the officers' category.
Unlike their distribution in terms of occupational areas, the representation of women throughout the various ranks is much more balanced when compared to the overall personnel rank structure: they are only slightly underrepresented in the officer's and NCO's ranks and over represented among the enlisted. (figure 5).

Figure 5

However, if we look at relative percentages within each hierarchical category a different reality is highlighted. Due to their very low absolute numbers, women have an extremely limited representation in the various ranks. Contradicting the widespread idea that women's representation is particularly limited in the officer's ranks if compared to the enlisted force, data shows that there is not a large gap between those categories: if we exclude from the analysis those countries that impose rank restrictions (Poland, Hungary, The Czech Republic, Greece and Turkey) women represent in average 11.1% of the officers and 12.6% of the enlisted personnel in NATO forces.

There are relevant differences between countries (Figure 6). Two patterns emerge: a first one referring to roughly half of the countries consists of a lower representation of women in the officer's ranks and a higher representation among enlisted personnel if compared to women's overall percentage in the force. Here, the percentage of enlisted women more than doubles their weight in the officer's categories (Belgium, Denmark, Netherlands, Luxembourg, Portugal, and Spain).

A second pattern refers to countries where there is a more balanced representation between categories and even higher percentages of women in the officer's category than in the enlisted ranks. Belonging to this group, Norway is a clear 'deviant' case in that women officers constitute 5,3% of the officer's category, only 1,5% of enlisted and 3.2% of the total force. In Canada, the UK and the US women are represented in the officer's category in slightly higher percentages than in the overall structure; the same happens in Greece and the Czech Republic, which in this case may result from existing rank restrictions, since women are excluded from the enlisted category.

Figure 6

2.3 A synthetic index of integration

Despite the lack of information for some of the countries, the available data - both in terms of precise statistics and more qualitative analysis of policies - allows the construction of a global integration index. Considering the macro-analytical level of this analysis, it is more accurate to talk of an index of 'formal' integration since the available indicators refer mainly to global statistics and formal mechanisms and rules. Different indicators have been chosen to build the index, including organisational structure and organisational policy indicators (table 3).

Table 3

Structural variables refer to the overall representation of women in active duty forces (1), occupational sex segregation (3) and rank distribution (5). These indicators are usually considered of major importance to determine the extent of women's roles in the military. The impact of related policies is also captured through the inclusion of indicators pertaining to the existence of segregation practices (6), and presence or absence of formal limitations in occupational (2) and hierarchical terms (4). Hence, beyond the question of relative numbers, other dimensions of the integration process are included that concern respectively the structure of opportunities and power distribution. This is why, together, these indicators contribute with more than 70% to the indexes' overall weight.

Finally, the index includes two additional indicators relative to existing programs or policies aimed at confronting erosion factors, such as those derived from the difficult conciliation between family and a military occupation (6) or sexual harassment and gender equity monitoring (7). Since it has been recognized that these factors have a strong impact over integration processes, attention given by policy-makers to 'quality-of-life' areas should be taken as important elements for the qualification of women's presence in the military (6).

It is important to note that this index is not supposed to reveal absolute positions, from total exclusion to complete inclusion. While having a low score means almost total exclusion, having the highest score by no means signifies full integration; a concrete score merely indicates a relative position between countries. The country with the highest score is just the one that has reached the highest level of gender integration within the selected set of countries. Figure 7 presents a graphic representation of the countries' scores.

Figure 7

3. Explaining gender incorporation patterns: a tentative test of hypothesis

3.1 Time effects and relative numbers

A commonly stated belief is that time has a positive impact on both quantitative and qualitative dimensions of women's military integration. According to this perspective, unequal gender representation is not necessarily the result of discriminatory practice or 'glass-ceiling' effects, but mainly a consequence of the limited amount of time women have served in certain circumstances. From here follows the pretension that time constitutes a major factor in eliminating discriminations and bringing nations with lower levels of integration to reach the more progressive countries. A link is thus established between time and relative numbers: in general, countries with a longer experience of female recruitment should also be those where percentages of women are higher.

Interestingly though, empirical results do not confirm this general hypothesis, or at least seem to support it only partially and for a specific cluster of countries. Data shows a very low correlation between time and relative numbers (R² = 0 .26; Sig., 0.05). A graphic representation helps to visualise this (Figure 8). If there was a high correlation, countries should cluster along a diagonal linking the upper left and lower right side of the graphic. This does not seem to happen. If, besides, we eliminate the extreme cases, where the relation seems to hold (Italy, Canada and the US), there is a rather chaotic pattern relating the length of female presence in the forces and their relative numbers (R² = 0.02).

Figure 8

If we try to look beyond numbers and strict quantitative representation, there are reasons to believe results could be different. The fact that the military is an organisation where time is usually an important criteria for assessing statutory positions (rank progression, promotions) makes it reasonable to admit that time almost 'automatically' affects various circumstances that define women's positions.

The relation between the length of female recruitment (Yearstart) and the index of gender integration (IWMI) shows, in effect, a significant, if moderate, negative statistical correlation (R² = 0.41; Sig.- 0.01): the earlier countries started to recruit women the higher their score is in the integration index. Figure 9 portrays countries' scores along both dimensions.

Figure 9

Partial conclusion:
In sum, results show that time is correlated to some extent to the degree of women's integration, but this does not hold true for those countries that score low in integration. Against common beliefs, data supports the idea that time, by and in itself, does not automatically foster gender integration and especially does not have a relevant impact on representation.

3.2 Military structure and personnel accession policies

Drawing on previous theoretical assumptions (Segal, 1995, 2000) and empirical findings (Segal, 1999; Haltiner, 1998a, 1998b), this research assumes the hypothesis that military variables are major determinants of women's military roles. Characteristics of force structure are supposed to condition both representation and other more qualitative variables regarding the process of gender integration in the Armed Forces (e.g. role differentiation/segregation).

In order to test this general hypothesis (or better, to check its prevalence for recent years and for the NATO universe), I have selected, as independent variable, one indicator pertaining to the organizational format of the military and commonly used as criteria to define the mass-army character of a force: one related to personnel accession policies - the conscript ratio (CR - percentage of conscripts in total active force).

Results show that there is a negative correlation between the weight of conscripts in the total active force and the representation of women in the ranks (women ratio - WR) (R² = 0.518; Sig. - 0.01). This confirms general research findings in this area that relate the percentage of women and the organisational format: the higher the mass army format of a force, the lower is the WR (figure 10).

Figure 10

Figure 10 shows that the representation of women is higher in countries that have voluntary systems of military service or consider transition from conscript to all-volunteer forces and face actual or potential recruitment shortages. Inversely, countries based on conscript military systems and no recruitment difficulties tend to have the lowest representation of women.

If we relate the CR with the integration index, results still point to a significant negative statistical correlation between both variables: the higher the conscript ratio, the lower the level of integration. However, this is a moderate correlation if compared to the previous one (R² = 0.45; Sig. 0.01).

Partial conclusion:
We may conclude that organisational format (measured by the CR) may be a good predictor of women's representation but does not seem to have the same influence on overall integration. At the light of this data, we may admit the hypothesis that other external variables will probably help to better explain the 'quality' of the process (the level of integration).

3.3 The impact of social- economic and political factors: a selective exploration

A basic hypothesis that has been proposed concerning the influence of social-economic factors over women's military participation is that the higher the levels of women's social and political participation and the more receptive to gender equality a society is, the less asymmetric should the situation of women in the military be.

Two sub-hypothesis were tested:
Sub-hypothesis 1: 'the greater the percentage of women in the labor force, the larger will be their representation in the armed forces',
Sub-hypothesis 2: 'the more gender-egalitarian a society and the more 'qualified' women's presence in the system, the more 'inclusive' will be women's military participation' .(In the absence of serious threats in terms of national and international security, the degree of gender inclusiveness and women's 'qualified presence' (Phillips, Jonasdottir, 1990) in the social and political spheres would affect the degree of gender inclusiveness in the military).

a) Considering the impact of women's presence in the labor force (sub-hypothesis 1):
Against theoretical expectations, results show that, for this particular universe, 'women's economic activity rate' (7) does not affect their numerical representation in the Armed Forces (R² = 0.03) nor does it affect integration (IWMI) (R² = 0.144) (8).
This result seems to indicate that women's 'simple presence' or attendance of the system does not seem to be sufficient to influence their representation or integration levels within the military.

b) Considering women's 'qualified presence' in the social and political spheres
Among the various possible indicators of women's 'qualified' or 'controlling' presence I have opted for testing a composite measure of gender inequality: UNDP's 'Gender Empowerment Measure'. This measure combines participation and decision-making indicators in the economic and political spheres as well as an estimate of power over economic resources (UNDP, 2001: 244-245) (9).

Here again, data shows no significant relation between gender inequality (measured by GEM) and relative numbers of women in the military. However, unlike what happened with activity rates, there is a significant correlation between this participation indicator and gender integration in the military: the higher the GEM (and thus the more 'qualified' the social and political presence of women), the higher is the integration index (R² = 0.50; Sig. = 0.01). If, additionally, one of the most deviant cases is eliminated from the analysis (Germany), the correlation becomes clearly the higher obtained till now (R² = 0.724, Sig. = 0.01) (Figure 13).

Figure 13

Partial conclusion:
This reinforces an underlying distinction in this research: that between quantitative indicators or the 'simple presence' of women and their 'qualified' presence, that is the actual access to a wider set of opportunities and exercise of power. These two dimensions are frequently collapsed and it is not always clear whether scholars refer to relative numbers alone or to broader 'inclusiveness' dimensions. Additionally, external variables related to the 'qualification' of women's social and political participation - more than their economic participation alone - have a crucial impact on the second dimension ('quality').

4. Concluding remarks

If we consider the previous results, a few conclusions can be highlighted:

  • Time is not a good predictor of women's representation in the military: a longer presence of women in the ranks does not imply a consistent increase in their relative numbers. Although time is positively correlated to some extent to the overall degree of women's integration, this only seems be true for the group of countries that score higher in integration. Against common beliefs, data supports the idea that time, by and in itself, does not automatically foster gender integration, or contribute to eliminate existing discriminations in terms of occupational or hierarchical de-segregation.
  • As far as military related factors are concerned, evidence shows that, as expected, a specific military factor - the 'organisational format' measured by the 'Conscript Ratio' - has a significant relation with representation. This means that the more a force relies on volunteer personnel, the higher is the percentage of women. Inversely, the closer a military is to the mass-army format the lower is female representation.
  • In opposition to what happens with organisational format, some 'external' variables related to the social-economic and political structures seem to have a negligible influence over numerical representation of women in the military but a significant impact on their global integration. Still, here one must distinguish between those factors that concern women's 'simple presence' in the system, which are not responsible for relevant variation in the qualitative status of military women and those referring to women's 'qualified' presence, which instead seem to influence gender integration to a reasonable extent.

Taken together results suggest that changes in the organisational format of the military may foster change in the human landscape of the Armed Forces, but some external variables, specifically those concerning women's 'qualified' presence in the social and political realms seem to have a much stronger impact than sometimes expected on gender integration.

Even if extrapolating somehow beyond available results, I would hypothesise that change towards greater gender equality in the Armed Forces will not occur automatically as a consequence of time or the increase in relative numbers. It will probably depend much more on the existence of specific policies and the extent to which external variables, such as women's 'controlling' presence in society at large, will determine policy orientations and decision-making processes within the Armed Forces.

  1. This paper presents partial results of an ongoing research leading to the author's PhD thesis. The investigation has been possible due to the organizational support of the Committee on Women in the NATO Forces and the financial support of the Portuguese Ministry of Science (FCT/MCT).
  2. Except Iceland, that has no Armed Forces.
  3. A complete overview of the various factors and associated hypothesis can be found in Carreiras:2002.
  4. Island doesn't have Armed Forces and Italy started female recruitment in 2000.
  5. Data on this variable has been particularly difficult to obtain. Paradoxical as it may seem if we consider the bureaucratic nature of the military, many countries do not have systematized information on the functions that women occupy, and thus national delegates have failed to provide it in the survey. Methodological problems related to the complex issue of classifying occupations also exist that harm the accuracy of comparisons. Nevertheless, after multiple attempts to obtain this information through additional personnel contacts and by using multiple sources, it has been possible to collect data regarding thirteen of the seventeen NATO nations that employed women in their forces in 2000 (Island and Italy excluded). Unfortunately it has not been possible to obtain information regarding percentage of women within the various occupational areas.
  6. Even if in some cases it could be argued that the actual over-regulation of procedures regarding for instance sexual harassment does not necessarily facilitate integration and may, instead, have negative collateral effects, we assume that the absence of institutional channels and rules to identify and solve those problems does not eliminate them or their damaging consequences for the overall process of gender integration.
  7. For this indicator I have used data for 1999 (the most recent available) from the United Nations Development Report (UNDP, 2001).
  8. If we use a different source, data for 1999 from the UN (Report of World Development) on female activity rates, these results are even more accentuated; that is, there is no relation between female activity rate and the two indicators of women's military presence I have been using. (Act.rate/Percent women: R² = 0.03; Act. Rate/Index of integration: R² =.144)
  9. GEM is a combined index measuring gender inequality in three basic dimensions of empowerment - economic participation and decision-making, political participation and decision-making and power over economic resources. It includes the following indicators: 'seats in parliament held by women', female legislators, senior officials and managers', 'female professional and technical workers' and ' ratio of estimated female to male earned income' (cf. UNDP, 2001: 244-245). It varies between 0 and 1.

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