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The Role of Women in the Armed Forces of NATO Countries: Military Constraints and Professional Identities.

by Helena Carreiras

The fight to fight and lead wars has until very recently always been considered an exclusively masculine prerogative. With the exception of war heroines and mythological figures, women have effectively taken part in combat only in exceptional circumstances. The “disarmament” of women is prevalent in most societies, even when different forms of female involvement in military operations have been recorded. Where women have been involved in war, it should, of course, be noted that, despite the importance of the roles they performed, women tend to “disappear” from historical accounts of military enterprises (cf. Hacker, 1981).

Even when women participated in military conflicts as combatants, at the end of the war they were expected to give up military roles and return to the domestic sphere. As stated by M. Segal, “what has happened in the past in many nations is that when the armed forces need women, their prior military history is recalled to demonstrate that they can perform effectively in various positions. There is a process of cultural amnesia regarding the contributions women made during emergency situations, until a new emergency arises and then history is rediscovered” (Segal, 1993:84). Moreover, as studies on female fighters throughout history show, when women enter the military domain, it is usually the definition of these particular women that alters, while broader conceptions about women, war, or masculinity are left intact (Macdonald, 1985).

This pattern has, however, been subject to a considerable transformation in recent decades. From the early seventies, most Western armed forces began to admit women. Contrary to historical precedents, this inclusion of women has not occurred in wartime and, no longer auxiliaries, women have risen progressively in military rank, been trained much as men are, and performed functions in areas that are not traditionally feminine.

The challenge these trends have meant to the military establishment is illustrated by former U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman J. Vessey’s observation that “the influx of women has brought greater change to the U.S. military than the introduction of nuclear weapons” (Carrol, Hall, 1993:19).

These changes are usually considered to relate to two wide-reaching social processes in Western democratic societies: the reshaping of military institutions following the end of the Cold War and the changing model for women’s social participation, with parallel transformations in the cultural framework regulating the symbolic system of gender relationships.

In this paper, one particular question will be under scrutiny: the constraints on women’s integration that relate to the structure and policies of the armed forces. Using empirical information produced in NATO countries–especially Portugal–during the past two decades, it will also address the problem of women’s institutional identity and its relation to organizational policies.

Military Constraints and the Politics of Women’s Integration in NATO armed forces

The process described above has been taking place in different rhythms and organizational configurations in the various NATO countries. Indeed, women’s access to certain military positions, namely those related to combat, access to military academies or positions of power inside the ranks is very uneven, and women are still, in fact, largely absent from decisionmaking spheres regarding defense and military issues.

However, by the end of the present decade, despite a strong heterogeneity regarding integration policies, all NATO countries, with the exception of Italy, will have admitted and generally increased the number of women in their armed forces.(2)

Various aspects of military organizational structure have always had a major impact on women’s military roles. Some are macro level variables such as the national security situation or the effects of technological change in society and inside the armed forces. Others are organizational processes in terms of force structure and military accession policies. Despite the decisive influence of other macro-social variables in creating the conditions that have justified the military appeal to women, the origins of the process inside the armed forces are of a relatively more instrumental nature: admission of women has usually been the fruit of recruitment difficulties followed by an imperative need to enlarge the armed forces’ social base. In the words of M. Janowitz, “To a considerable extent, the increasing use of women as support personnel came slowly in military units because women were thought of as a personnel pool that could replace men. Then men could assume combat and front-line duties” (Goldman, 1982:xii). This was specifically the case in the United States, where the end of conscription and the institution of an all-volunteer force raised the concern that the services would not be able to meet their recruitment needs (Binkin, Bach, 1977:10; Holm, 1992:246). It should of course be noted that recruitment difficulties alone cannot justify the observed shift from the strict auxiliary status to a full military integration and the expansion of jobs and career opportunities for women in the armed forces. In other words, while evaluating patterns of women’s integration inside the military, it is also important not to under-evaluate the effective impact of the changing pattern of women’s social and political participation in the direction of greater equity, at least with regard to the formal and institutional criteria for their participation. It is, interesting to note, however, that women have, in effect, constituted a kind of work-force reserve, which the armed forces had to mobilize in order to face the lack of qualified personnel available in the labor-market. Even if present circumstances differ from historical precedents in that women have now acquired full military status and have extended employment opportunities, the impact of the economic factor has always been present and sometimes was even determinant in their military mobilization, as it was during the first and second world wars (cf. Hacker, 1981; Addis, 1994). Growing technological requirements, development of sophisticated arms systems and management principles as well as the increasing tendency to military, professionalization (all-volunteer forces) have all contributed to the demand for more qualified personnel and stressed the armed forces dependency on society at large. In sum, as Segal has stressed, “the demands for military personnel seem to be the single most important factor in women’s military involvement …” (Segal, 1995:760).

Ideological and cultural factors have also been identified to explain recruitment difficulties: in a context where the armed forces suffer from a crisis of legitimacy that makes military life less attractive to young people and lowers the prestige of the military profession, opening the ranks to women “represents an increase of available resources and the possibility to recruit educated personnel at lower costs, due to the gender differences in the labor market” (Reynaud, 1988:30). Moreover, to the technological and cultural aspects a third demographic factor should be added, that is, declining birth rates, which were among the factors that influenced mid-term military personnel policies at the beginning of the process.

Therefore, the relevant question is to evaluate the weight of all these factors and their interaction with other societal variables in concrete historical situations; indeed, recruitment difficulties have not emerged with the same intensity in different countries, depending, for instance, on the existing system of military service–conscript or volunteer; nor has the process followed similar patterns, had identical rhythms, sequences, or results. It is thus crucial to distinguish between the first recruitment of women or the increase in their numbers and the conditions and circumstances for statutory change (equalization of status, hierarchical progression, uniforms, salaries, suppression of all-female corps, etc.); access to jobs, specialties, and combat positions; and opening up of military schools and academies to women.

Women’s Recruitment, Force Structure, and Military Accession Policies

Recent studies have clearly confirmed that shortages of qualified men tend to increase reliance on women to fulfill military recruitment needs. Some authors have strongly argued that nations considering a transition from conscription to a volunteer system tend to include plans to expand women’s military participation. These are the conclusions of Haltiner’s study concerning the end of mass armies in the West, which emphasize the importance of the Women Ratio (WR, the percentage of women compared with the total armed force) as “an excellent indicator of the Army format.” Since all countries included in this study recruit women on a volunteer basis and volunteers are mainly assigned to technologically complex tasks that cannot be fulfilled by conscripts serving on a short-term basis, the WR is also an indicator of the technological standard of a particular force. In addition, the fact that women are generally overrepresented in the air force and navy suggests that WR may also serve to measure the structural differentiation of a nation’s armed forces.

A negative correlation has been identified between the degree of women’s participation and the mass-army format: “the higher the WR, the lower is the mass army format of a force and the higher the degree of organizational role differentiation and specialization” (Haltiner, 1998:54). Consequently, the author anticipates that “the degree of women’s participation . will only substantially increase if conscription is abolished and the personnel will have to be recruited entirely on the labor market” (Haltiner, 1998:60). The author further believes that the existence of conscripts is the largest obstacle to an increase of the Women Military Participation Ratio. Whether this belief is sustainable is a question for empirical scrutiny, and may be subject to criticism. Segal, for instance, describing the same global tendency, claims that, “regardless the method of accessing personnel, the crucial determinant of the number of women brought into the armed forces is whether the supply of men meets the number needed to fulfill the military’s mission(s). The greater the need beyond available male labor, the greater the number of women” (Segal, 1995: 766).

One should of course notice that indicators like the Women Ratio refer to a limited aspect of women’s military participation, that is, their relative numbers, leaving undiscussed qualitative variables such as the specific roles that women are assigned to within military forces. These are sometimes considered to depend more on other types of variables such as cultural values on gender equality (Segal, 1995). In any case, the fact that, in general, modern nations with volunteer forces (notably Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States) have also been increasing women’s military roles more rapidly than those with conscription seems to be undeniable.(3)

Other aspects of force structure help to explain women’s involvement in military operations. The Combat to Support Ratio and the nature and utilization of the reserves are among the most important. It has been noted that women’s involvement is negatively affected by the proportion of combat jobs. As seen before, technological developments account for a major trend toward a higher proportion of support personnel in the armed forces. The likelihood of international deployments presents an additional factor. While warfare at home can count on civilian infrastructures, engagements away from home require the deployment of support personnel. Segal has argued that as long as women remain mainly occupied in support functions, their number and roles will to rise as the number and proportion of personnel with primarily support functions rises (Segal, 1995:764). The impact of this variable on women’s roles may, however, vary depending on which positions are open to them and which ones they actually fill.

The second variable–the structure of the reserves–is closely articulated to the combat-to-support ratio. Segal has developed the hypothesis that “to the extent that support functions are concentrated in the reserves, compared to active duty forces, women will have higher representation in the reserves. The greater the reliance on reserves for support in wartime mobilization, the greater women’s participation in such mobilization” (Segal, 1995:765). She illustrates this effect with the case of the United States during the Gulf War, when women constituted larger percentages of reserve forces deployed than active duty forces. Identically, in Canada women constitute a larger percentage of the reserves than active duty personnel. Whether the prediction of a co-variation between increasing support functions and women’s involvement will hold true in the future also depends on how certain new organizational trends develop. As a result of mission redefinition and multinational deployments to peacekeeping operations, a renewed emphasis on operational tasks has been observed. The same trends are affecting the specific role of the army, which seems now to regain some of its former importance, in comparison to the other branches (Boene, Dandeker, 1998). These changes, if prevalent, may function as countervailing forces to the increase in support functions and thus contribute to limiting women’s participation.

Institutional Orientations and Women’s Professional identity

In the previous section it has been shown that the extent to which the armed forces of most western countries have increased the recruitment of women has depended largely on military requirements such has the volunteer character of force structure and military accession policies (even if these aspects are themselves ,affected by global macro-social and organizational trends). Moreover, women’s military roles have been enlarged in the context of growing technical specialization and “occupational” pressures within the armed forces, during the last three decades. This tendency is congruent with the assumption that the role of women is extremely limited in an institutional type of military organization, while the shift towards a more occupational pattern is associated with expanding employment opportunities for women. Empirical research has indeed shown that the armed forces of Western countries have regularly increased the number of women in their ranks during the last two decades. A strong relation has been revealed to exist between this tendency and the degree of specialization of the armed services (namely the growing need for qualified personnel to fulfill new technically demanding functions). Results of early research have revealed that the goal of rising the force qualification had indeed been met, at least in the case of the United States. The American experience has, in fact, demonstrated that women’s presence promoted an increase in educational levels, as on average women who volunteer to the armed forces are better educated than men. The country’s ability to maintain an all-volunteer army was even considered to depend on the effective use of female labor (Binkin, Bach, 1977:71).

Most of the researchers who have dealt with this problem have thus tried to understand how organizational change interacted with individual orientations: if at macro and meso analytical levels the trend towards occupationalism seemed to characterize both civil-military relations and organizational recruitment policies, what happens with women’s orientations? What kind of values do women bring to the military? Is it possible to identify, among them, a specific value pattern when compared with their male counterparts? Are women motivated by economic related aspects, by an institutional sense of calling, or by “pragmatic professionalist” values?

It has been predicted that, due to their usually disadvantaged position in the labor market, women would tend to adopt, more than men, a “market oriented” approach, seeking to maximize economic advantages in terms of salaries, fringe benefits, or job security. Despite the fact that historically women have always proved to be “institutionally” driven, conceiving military service as a vocation or a “calling” (as it was the case of military nurses during the World Wars I and II), the new context is seen as potentially revealing a different motivational pattern. “According to the occupational thesis, variables such as wages and unemployment are critical in explaining enlistment, attrition, and reenlistment. If these variables are effective at predicting female military participation patterns, they would certainly support the contention that women are attracted to the armed forces for occupational reasons” (Shields, 1988:103).

Empirical research carried out in Europe and the United States during the 1980s seemed, however, to highlight an opposite tendency. Drawing on the results of studies on enlistment motivations, Patricia Shields shows that, paradoxically, women don’t see the armed forces as another employer but rather are attracted by unique characteristics of the military such as discipline and adventure. One of these studies, conducted by Shields on American military women, revealed that the possibility of travel and the feeling of being different from civilian women were among the most important motivations for enlistment: “Theirs wasn’t just another job–it offered excitement, adventure, discipline and structure” (Shields, 1988, p. 104). While job security is a relevant reason for enlistment, the more “institutional” characteristics of the armed forces (absent in the context of other civilian organizations) are dominant. E. Reynaud pointed to the same effect in the case of the French military, underlying the weight “the search for a structured environment and an organized life” as well as the need to escape routine had among women’s motivations (Reynaud, 1988). In a study of the first one thousand women to join the Portuguese Armed Forces (including officers, noncommissioned officers, and lower ranks) carded out in 1993, these results have also been confirmed to a certain extent (Carreiras, 1997). In this research, 16 indicators were used to measure I/O motivations. The results are shown in Table 2.

Table 2. Military Women’s Motivations for Enlistment–Portugal (1994)

Motivations                               Important       Not        

Institutional factors (core dimension)                               
  Attraction to discipline and the                                   
  structured atmosphere of the armed                                 
  force                                       87.9         12.1      
  Will to serve my country                    87.2         12.8      
  Possibility of developing a                                        
  prestigious activity                        84.5         15.5      
  Access to a good civic training             79           21        

Occupational factors                                                 
  Possibility of a safe job                   74.5         25.5      
  Better professional opportunities                                  
  than in civilian life                       75.4         24.6      
  No employment alternatives                  42.1         57.9      

Institutional factors (life-style                                    
  Possibility of doing something                                     
  different previously closed to women         84           16       
  Escape routine and live an active                                  
  life                                         68.7         31.3     
  Attraction for the uniform                   57.6         42.4     
  Possibility of traveling and                                       
  knowing other places                         48.8         51.2     

Circumstantial factors                                               
  Leave parents' home and                                            
  start an independent life                    24.3         75.7     
  Military influences among friends or                               
  family                                       29.1         70.9     
  Failing access to university                 21.1         78.9     
  Possibility of training/education                                  
  without financial burden                     20           80

Source: Carreiras, H. (1997) Mulheres nas Forcas Armadas Portuguesas, Lisboa, Cosmos. These data indicate that some of the items included in the core “institutional” dimension have acquired major importance. “Attraction to the discipline and the structured environment of the armed forces” is indeed the reason most commonly given to justify the enlistment decision. It is immediately followed by the “will to serve my country” and the “possibility to develop a prestigious activity.” One of the “life-style” dimensions of institutional factors has also a strong weight: “the possibility of doing something different, previously closed to women.” As in the earlier cases cited, Portuguese military women seem to have been attracted by the uniqueness of the armed forces more than by mere circumstantial factors or the search for labor/economic security. More than a job or an “occupation,” military service is above all a challenge and a distinctive activity where structure and innovation coexist. That seems to be the main conclusion, but occupational dimensions are not absent: almost three-fourths of the women still consider job security or the chance to find better professional opportunities than in civilian life an important reason to join the armed forces. If only the initial motivations to enlistment are considered, it is thus possible to identify the common presence of “institutional” and “occupational” features, a pattern that has been defined in theoretical approaches as “pragmatic professionalism.”

It should of course be noted that such tendencies might vary depending on the positions individuals occupy within the organizational structure. Traditionally, officers trained in military academies and schools or those in combat-oriented positions tend to score much higher on institutional features than do other personnel. Even if women are under-represented at the top of the hierarchy, they may be expected to develop institutional orientations as they move into higher ranks. To the extent that they are excluded from these positions, their future “institutional” orientation may be diluted. Referring to career combat soldiers, Shields argues that “the values that tie these men together and produce unit cohesion are institutional. Hence, as long as women are excluded from this inner circle, their institutional orientation in average, will not reach its full potential…. the military is giving women a message that undermines female institutional values and, by implication, promotes an occupational orientation” (Shields, 1988:110).

The Portuguese case is an example in which it is indeed possible to observe an interesting tendency when the question of change over time regarding motivations or expectations is addressed. Corroborating previous research findings, the results of this study have also highlighted a stronger emphasis on the core dimension of institutional values by women cadets of military academies–those who will become officers–as well as by those in “operational” specialties (pilots, paratroopers, air police). Despite this tendency, these groups of women are exactly those among whom greater awareness of obstacles to women’s integration has been reported. Moreover, even if these data do not allow a longitudinal analysis, it was also possible to identify an increase in critical evaluations over time. The longer a woman had served in the military, the more likely she was to report being discontented, considering leaving, or anticipating problems in the near future.

Considering the existence of both types of motivations, a hypothesis has been raised that explicitly addresses the possibility of change: institutional orientations may not be sustained or at least may suffer some erosion in the absence of material/economic incentives. Especially for those women who remain in the military and proceed with their military careers, the maintenance of high levels of institutional affiliation may thus depend, to a large extent, on the existence of guaranties in the fields of material security and economic reward. This supposition does not apply exclusively to the case of military women. In an analysis of the potentialities of the I/O model in policy making, Wood has argued that only if minimum material requirements are met will individuals accept the hardships associated with the military, as long as they perceive themselves as working for the common good of society (Wood, 1988). To the extent that the objective is diluted or material conditions are considered to be particularly deficient, their commitment will suffer and they will tend to adopt the occupational orientation characteristic of the specialist.

In the case of military women, however, the conditions under which a specific orientation may develop–and potentially influence role performance, career paths, attrition, or reenlistment decisions–are related to other variables that seem to affect them in ways not confronted by men. It is thus important to ask: which factors influence changes in professional orientations? What are the effects of institutional location (rank, type of job, etc.) and social characteristics (age, class, race)? What relationship is there between motivational patterns/expectations and women’s carrier development? Beyond the scope of policy decisions that define women’s roles at the organizational level, social structure dimensions, such as family and maternity, as well as cultural aspects must be considered. Some of these variables are crucial to explain women’s military roles and should be under particular scrutiny in future comparative studies on women’s presence in military organizations.

Table 1. Women in NATO forces (1998/99)(*)

Country                      Total number          %                 

Belgium                          3121             7.2                
Canada                           6663            10.8                
Czech Republic                   1646             7                  
Denmark                           912             5                  
France                          27092             8.1                
Germany                          3810             1.1                
Greece                           6155             3.8                
Hungary                          2172             4                  
Italy                              --            --                  
Luxembourg                        (**)          (**)                 
Netherlands                      4073             7.4                
Norway                            891             5.04               
Poland                            167           (**)                 
Portugal                         2954             6.2                
Spain                            3486             3.4                
Turkey                            754           (**)                 
United Kingdom                  16146             7.7                
United States                 220 000            14.4

(*) Numbers refer to active duty forces (**) Information not published

Source: The Advisory Committee on Women in the NATO Forces, Women in the NATO Forces–year in review 1998, Brussels, 1998


(1.) Sociologist, Assistant Professor at ISCTE (University of Lisbon) and researcher at the European University Institute (Florence). E-mail:

(2.) Recently, however, there have been attempts in some countries to limit the number of women in the ranks, as well as to impose new exclusionary regulations, concerning, for instance, the prevention of marriage among military personnel or mixed-sex groups during military operations (Moskos, 1998).

(3.) The often-cited case of Israel, where both men and women are conscripted, is also a good example of the severe limitations to women’s military roles. Israeli women are not allowed to participate in combat; they fulfill strictly support functions.


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