Are the armed forces READY for gender neutrality?

Are the armed forces READY for gender neutrality?


Women as officers in combat and in other support roles are a reality. We had better embrace it and prepare to employ women in deserved roles across the organization, says Air Marshal PV Athawale, PVSM, AVSM, VSM (retired).

In August of this year, the Supreme Court ordered that women be allowed to take the National Defense Academy exam.

The court ruled that restricting women’s entry into the NDA amounted to “discrimination on the basis of sex”.

A month later, the court rejected the Defense Ministry’s request to postpone the candidates’ exam until May 2022 and allowed them to take the exam on November 14 of that year.

Once gender neutrality in the armed forces, including women officers in combat arms, is accepted as an inescapable requirement, the entry of women into the NDA should be a non-issue.

As stated by the court, the same will happen in the institutions that feed new entrants into the military.

Women could not have been kept away from the NDA for a long time – the court order was to follow. The case should have ended with the only official concern that the system had little time to plan and prepare for the admission of women into the NDA.

Most reactions to the court orders have been favorable, albeit reluctantly.

However, the comments, usually coming from veterans, have a common concern. They hope that no concessions will be made in the institution’s entrance qualifications and rigorous physical standards.

This is an aspect that again raises some questions, not only on entry into the NDA but also on the broader issue of women in the armed forces.

Six years ago, I wrote a column Beyond the Fighter Pilot Glamor, in which I stressed that women should be included at all levels of the armed forces and not be limited to the officer level. This is a concern that is still not taken into account, even today.

Society is understandably excited to see female infantry officers, submariners and fighter pilots.

But why are we not concerned that women are joining the armed forces at lower officer ranks as combatants, clerks and technicians?

Women go to court for matters that carry glamor, not for positions that also involve hard work in the field, without authority or charm. The courts therefore make orders relating to the petitions.

However, the armed forces must take into account the need for organizational balance.

Inclusion of women below the officer level is a Herculean task. However, it will have to be done someday. So why not plan and prepare well instead of waiting for court orders?

The nature of the demands on the armed forces calls for implicit obedience to authority. They have a strong and clear method for seniors to give orders and juniors to recognize them.

Firm orders and their compliance are essential to the achievement of objectives.

Each, at different levels of the chain, fulfills both the functions of receiving and transmitting orders.

Havildars and subedars to senior officers in the Army, and equivalent ranks in the Navy and Air Force, all take pride in their appointed command positions on a specific group of soldiers.

A few related questions come to mind:

  • In the name of gender equality, should women only be admitted to command, as officers?
  • Are subedars, chief petty officers and warrant officers supposed to take orders only from women? Shouldn’t women be employed in all ranks? It should be common for a warrant officer, for example, to have women under his charge as well.
  • Shouldn’t we be looking at gender justice for men?
  • Finally, do we sincerely believe that the same standards can be maintained for men and women?

As women have gone to court to be included in combat arms as officers, do we ever consider the following facts?

No woman goes to court for being included with men in lawn tennis, badminton or golf tournaments.

No woman asks to be included in a men’s cricket team, following the same physical standards.

Let us not make false promises that we will not compromise on their standards vis-à-vis those of men. No matter what, physical standards will never be the same.

Additionally, there will always be social issues and tactical concerns for military commanders to consider when employing women in combat. The role of women will have to be adjusted according to their capacities.

In any profession, we can offer equal opportunities and the necessary training, but selection at all levels should be based on merit for the job.

Failure to do so has considerable implications for the culture, efficiency and longevity of the system.

Applied to the armed forces, this means that the stakes are high if the excellence of the system is compromised.

It is a common understanding that people should be employed in roles in which they are both interested and capable. This is when a system achieves its goal.

The purpose of the armed forces is to defend the country.

Women as officers in combat and in other support roles are a reality. We are more accepting of it and preparing to employ women in deserved roles across the organization.