Air University Press


Women and Gender Perspectives in the Military: An International Comparison

  • Published

Women and Gender Perspectives in the Military: An International Comparison, edited by Robert Egnell and Mayesha Alam, Georgetown University Press, 270 pp. 

The role of gender perspectives and women in the military is a critical but often glossed-over topic in security and defense. Robert Egnell and Mayesha Alam use a multipronged approach with chapters discussing the experience, status, and progress of women and gender perspectives in the military around the world: Sweden, the Netherlands, Canada, the US, the United Kingdom (UK), Israel, Australia, and South Africa. Additionally, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is featured in a chapter that champions the alliance’s progress in integrating gender perspectives into the core institutional framework. These chapters range in scope, research methods, evidence, and target subjects but all focus on the central questions of how and why to advance the role of women and gender perspectives overall in the military. Together, they successfully uncover many of the common obstacles that women face in the military and the consequent challenges that states face in shifting the balance. This latter challenge, in particular, is often self-inflicted as many states demonstrate their lack of interest via absent funding or complacent leadership. They conclude by summing up lessons learned, considering different approaches, and cautioning against overgeneralizing any challenges or successes as the standard. 

The title of Charlotte Isaksson’s chapter “Two Steps Forward, One Step Back,” may well be the rallying cry of the book—women and gender perspectives in the military are generally moving forward, but progress is stubborn, stilted, and slow. The agenda is often reliant on the agency of motivated individuals or specific organizations such as NATO and seemingly falls dormant when these enlightened leaders move on or when political institutions change tack. 

Discrimination, abuse, and access to combat roles rear their heads as the usual suspects plaguing female service members and directly degrading both retention and recruiting efforts. There is a discussion about whether the offenders are simply bad apples like any other organization might have or whether a rotten barrel is infecting previously equality-minded members. Women perceived themselves as held to different social and cultural standards. For example, obstacles that stand out include a British officer whose command officer rebuked her because “[his] wife would not behave like that” after her professional relationship with her senior noncommissioned officer was incorrectly interpreted to be sexual by her colleagues. (p. 144) Even when women are included, they must still function according to hypermasculine military culture and norms, as honorary blokes or one of the guys, not as the professional female warriors they are. The respective action, or lack thereof, by direct supervisors, leadership or the military and political institutional responses is another common theme. In support of research on these experiential factors, several authors comment on the critical nature of leadership to instill, model, and uphold cultural values of equality as Clare Burton argues that “discrimination issues are leadership issues first and foremost.” (p. 191) In the all too common situation where “institutional commitment is more rhetorical than real” (p. 195), the desired progress is slow and inconsistently applied. 

Despite the continuing frustration with the slow pace, lack of initiative, and entrenched cultural obstacles that stymie efforts toward gender perspective integration and equality, success has come in many forms. In the UK, women are not recognized indiscriminately by their male marine counterparts, but rather are “accepted as ‘equivalents’ [and] ‘sisters.’ ”(p. 145) These marines are appreciated for building capacities the unit previously could not provide. Elizabeth Kier and Robert J. MacCoun’s research recognizes that the current military relies on members’ professional skills to execute effective teamwork, meaning women do not have to share a social or gender background with male colleagues to be considered full team members. The Australian Defence Department (ADD) advocates that “diversity leads to better team decision making and therefore more effective operational capability” and therefore cannot rest on its laurels as an otherwise superior organization while lacking in gender equality and integration. (p. 190) The drive to include women is not merely toward equality but more effective operations. In fact, the ADD’s 2016 white paper specifically recognizes the need to continue forward motion on reforms because “gender equality and increasing female participation in the Defence workforce and in senior leadership roles is fundamental to achieving Defence capability now and into the future.” (p. 192) NATO stands out as an organizational model, not completely transformed but institutionally committed to gender equality. The alliance went so far as to require potential NATO Headquarters to demonstrate necessary gender perspective integration capability and capacity before being certified operational. The South Africa chapter shows progress, bringing female participation to 14 percent of deployed peacekeepers and a quarter of the standing South African Defense Force (SADF). Additionally, targets such as 30 percent female participation in decision making at all levels of operations and peace keeping maintain a focus on gender perspectives. Other recommended improvements include Egnell’s work, which is cited in the SADF chapter, advocating for gender advisor efforts to focus internally to enhance mission effectiveness. He advocates specifically focusing on female participation in operations execution, enhancing authority within the local community, and promulgating deeper cultural perspectives, will show that the internal gains significantly outweigh and outlast any efforts to employ gender equality values to increase local women’s rights or community approval. 

In focusing on women as a key factor for operational effectiveness, this diverse volume succeeds in championing a niche topic and brings it out of the realm of feminist theory where anything gender-related is often relegated and into the more military-approachable area of security studies. The variety of sources, research, and individual authors meld well to show a unified position toward the critical nature of improving equality and employing gender perspectives with the goal of longer-lasting, more stable peace through better military and peace-building operations and more effective institutions. 

Maj Caitlin Diffley, USAF 

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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