Women have served in the armed forces for decades, so why is it still a man’s world?

Women have served in the British armed forces for over a century, in every war since World War I. They currently represent around 11% of the regular forces and, as of 2018, can apply for all military roles.

But a recent report by the House of Commons Defense Committee found that the Defense Department is still unable to provide female soldiers with suitable uniforms and equipment – among a host of others. difficulties.

The report is the result of an investigation that gathered testimonies from current serving veterans and military women as well as civilian experts. While he praises the Department of Defense for recent progress, he makes it clear that there is still a long way to go before a level playing field is reached for British female soldiers.

The report details the many challenges that female soldiers face at every stage of their military careers – from ill-fitting body armor and unavailability of menstrual products to bullying, harassment and sexual assault from their peers and male commanders. . The willingness of some officers to ignore or cover up the physical and emotional abuse of women in their units means that the chain of command too often supports perpetrators instead of soldiers who are brave enough to press charges.

Committee members punctuated their report with expressions of shock and surprise at their findings, but these issues are neither recent developments nor unique to the British armed forces. Research into the experiences of female soldiers around the world has been ongoing since at least the 1980s and shows great consistency both over time and across national boundaries.

A global challenge

In the United States, recruiting women was a critical component of the shift from the recruiting force to a fully volunteer force in the 1970s. However, generations of female soldiers, from the first wave of mass recruiting during the United States War Vietnam to women who served in Iraq, faced relentless hostility from their male comrades in arms.

In a 2011 case, a US judge ruled that the US Department of Defense cannot be held responsible for the extent and severity of sexual harassment and physical abuse in the military because rape is a “risk. professional ”for women in the armed forces.

Researchers have identified a dominant “warrior culture” among many male soldiers in the Canadian Armed Forces, especially those in combat arms. Adherence to this way of thinking equates women with weakness, excess emotion and the need to be protected. By extension, the acceptance of women in the military implies the weakening of the institution, which is why Canada’s female soldiers continue to be felt, marginalized and the victims of harassment and abuse by their members. male counterparts more than 20 years after first being licensed to serve in combat roles.

Despite Sweden’s reputation for promoting gender equality, an in-depth study of Swedish female officers found that many faced intimidation, harassment and threats from male officers. Even in Israel, where women are subject to conscription, they do not serve on an equal basis with men. Women serve for shorter periods than men, both in active duty and on the reserves, and are concentrated in administration despite the recent opening up of some combat roles to women.

Why do the military have such a hard time tolerating the presence of women, even as they seek to recruit more?

The UK committee report rightly identifies the prevailing culture and attitudes within the forces, as well as leadership failures, for the extent and persistence of the problems. It recommends a long list of specific and sensible measures to address this, such as providing uniforms and suitable equipment for all female service members, removing the chain of command for complaints of harassment or sexual assault, and funding more specialized services for female veterans. .

A world of men



Women and femininity do not ‘fit’ the military in the same way as men and masculinity, leaving them permanent strangers.

But while institutional cultures and attitudes can be changed and leadership enhanced, there is a more fundamental factor preventing the military from truly welcoming women into their ranks.

The association of warfare, the military, and soldiers with men and certain types of masculinity such as “normal” or “natural” is deeply rooted in social attitudes. This connection dates back to ancient Greece and the ideas of men as citizen-warriors while women remain in the private sphere of the home and family. This means that women looking to become soldiers can still be disappointed, despite extensive studies showing that women can fill roles across the military.

Women and femininity do not “suit” the military in the same way as men and masculinity, leaving them permanent outsiders. This lack of “fit” with the model British soldier is also experienced by LGBT soldiers and those from black and ethnic minority communities.

This creates a particular problem for the British armed forces, which must tap into the skills and capabilities of the widest possible talent pool, as they grapple with the challenge of developing a new institutional identity.

The Commons Defense Committee deserves praise for its thorough investigation and report. The solutions she proposes would improve the working lives of female soldiers and perhaps also lead to an increase in the number of women recruited into the services.

Research has shown that male soldiers who have professional interactions with their female counterparts are more likely to develop positive attitudes towards women in the military. Such discoveries give hope that the British army will not always be a man’s world.

Jennifer Mathers is Senior Lecturer in International Politics at Aberystwyth University. This article first appeared on The conversation.