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Female Soldiers as Superiors

As the percentage of women in Western armed forces grows, the topic of women in leadership and superior positions in the military is becoming increasingly virulent. Both within the military and in politics and society in modern Western democracies, it is a highly controversial issue. Positions fluctuate between “Yes, We Can,” on the one hand, and “White Men Can’t Jump” (to be modified accordingly), on the other, to cite a catchy political slogan and a familiar movie title respectively. 

This article focuses on two questions, in particular, that have considerable relevance for the subject at hand:

(1) Do women lead in the armed forces? Put differently, to what extent are they active as military leaders and superiors?

(2) How do women lead? In other words, are there differences in the ways that women perform the roles of military superiors compared to men?

These two questions are examined below in two separate sections, mainly with regard to the German armed forces (Bundeswehr). 

Do women lead?

Since 2001, when the Bundeswehr became fully open to women, the percentage of female soldiers has increased considerably. When the German armed forces only employed female soldiers in the areas of medical service and military music, they made up well under two percent of the total. This percentage is now more than five times higher. According to the Bundeswehr’s website, out of a current total of 178,573 military personnel, there are now 19,480 female soldiers, which works out to 10.9 percent (as of the end of January 2016). 

Most of these women – 39.3 percent – work in the area of medical service. This is followed at a considerable distance by the Joint Support Service (Streitkräftebasis, SKB) with 18.6 percent, and the army with 17.3 percent. A further 10.8 percent of women are in the air force, while 7.3 percent of women are in the navy. Finally, 6.6 percent of women serve in the German Federal Ministry of Defense (Bundesministerium der Verteidigung, BMVg) or in other areas. With regard to status groupings, women participating in the voluntary military service program (Freiwilliger Wehrdienst, FWD) make up the smallest group. Only 6.4 of women are FWD-program volunteers. In contrast, around four out of five women (81.7 percent) are shorter-service professional soldiers (Zeitsoldatinnen) and roughly one in every nine (11.0 percent) is a longer-service professional soldier (Berufssoldatin). In terms of rank groupings, more than half of women hold a non-commissioned officer (NCO) rank. Thus, 37 percent of women are NCOs with portepee and a further 18 percent are NCOs without portepee. Just under one-quarter of the women (24.8 percent) are officers. 20.2 percent of women hold other ranks. (Percentages calculated based on data from the Bundeswehr website as of the end of 2015). 

In light of the above, it can be observed first of all that women take on various superior and leadership roles in the military to differing degrees and with varying scope according to their various ranks. But do they do this to a similar extent to their male fellow soldiers?

 

Dr. Hans-Peter Bartels, Parliamentary Commissioner for the German Armed Forces (Wehrbeauftragter des Deutschen Bundestages), has his doubts. In his latest annual report, he complains that women make up only 4.4 percent of longer-service professional soldiers and he adds: “Women are still significantly under-represented in leadership positions in the Bundeswehr.”1  In the top group of generals, the proportion of women is lower still. Among more than 200 generals in the Bundeswehr, there are currently only two women which means that the percentage of female soldiers in this group comes to just under one percent. Based on complaints received by the Parliamentary Commissioner for the German Armed Forces and his troop visits, he suspects that the reasons for this are firstly possible discrimination against women when it comes to promotions, and, secondly, the difficulties of balancing family life and career with the result that women – far more frequently than men – do not apply to become longer-service professional soldiers. In addition, it seems that women are less often able to tick one particular box on the checklist for military careers: the overseas deployment (see table 1). 

Table 2: Assessment of the behavior of superiors in a gender comparison (in percent)
Operation Theater of Operations Strength Of which women %
Resolute Support Afghanistan, Uzbekistan 895 75 8.4
KFOR Kosovo 660 69 10.5
UNMISS South Sudan 15 - -
UNAMID Sudan 8 1 12.5
UNIFIL Lebanon 116 6 5.2
EUTM Mali Mali 198 17 8.6
MINUSMA Senegal, Mali 219 10 4.6
Atalanta Horn of Afrika 123 8 6.5
EUTM SOM Somalia 9 1 11.1
Operation Sophia Mediterranean 275 23 8.4
Anti-IS Missio (Counter Daesh) Middle East 486 23 4.7
Training Support Iraq Irak Northern Iraq 113 7 6.2
UNMIL Liberia 3 - -
TOTAL   3.120 240 7.7

The search for reasons for the described circumstances is still underway. The German defense minister, Dr. Ursula von der Leyen, has explicitly made it her goal to smooth the way for women to reach top positions in the military. In mid-2015, an “equal opportunities staff unit” (Stabselement Chancengerechtigkeit) was formed within the German Federal Ministry of Defense. According to the annual report by the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Armed Forces, which was mentioned above, this unit is tasked “with the overarching management and coordination of the establishment of equal career opportunities between the sexes.” Under the direction of a female medical staff officer (Oberstärztin), the first step is to produce a situational overview. This has been ongoing since May 2015 and mainly involves collecting valid data. Based on the situational overview, a causal analysis will be carried out which will allow the development of equal opportunities measures and initiatives.”3 Thus, the message to the public, to policy-makers and to the armed forces is: we are investigating the causes and then, based on the analysis of causes, we will do something substantial.

Do women lead differently?

Even if women are currently under-represented in military superior and leadership roles in the Bundeswehr, a number of female soldiers have risen to superior and leadership roles over the course of time. Hence the question of a gender comparison between the way in which these roles are performed can be raised. The findings of a survey by the Bundeswehr Center for Military History and Social Sciences (Zentrum für Militärgeschichte und Sozialwissenschaften der Bundeswehr, ZMSBw) can be used for this purpose. Its data basis comprises almost 1,800 questionnaires returned by male soldiers and over 3,000 questionnaires returned by female soldiers.4 One section dealt with the assessment of superiors’ behavior in a gender comparison (see table 2).

Table 2: Assessment of the behavior of superiors in a gender comparison (in percent)
  Applies more to men Applies to both Applies more to women Applies to neither
Criticizes subordinates in the presence of others        
Women 23.4 26.6 17.5 32.3
Men 18.6 33.0 18.3 30.1
Praises subordinates for good performance        
Women 14.9 54.0 22.5 8.6
Men 19.2 53.7 16.1 11.0
Rejects proposals for changes        
Women 20.3 22.3 14.3 43.1
Men 15.2 28.2 23.5 33.1
Encourages weaker personnel to perform better        
Women 14.2 49.0 24.9 11.9
Men 27.0 47.8 9.6 15.7
Changes tasks without consultation        
Women 21.2 20.6 13.1 45.2
Men 11.1 29.3 21.6 38.0
Helps with personal problems        
Women 9.9 54.4 28.0 7.7
Men 17.4 57.6 14.9 10.1
Takes responsibility for subordinates and their actions        
Women 17.0 57.8 13.2 11.9
Männer 33.3 47.3 6.2 13.2
Harasses subordinates who make a mistake        
Women 15.3 7.5 7.9 69.3
Männer 10.6 9.5 7.7 72.3
Creates a relaxed mood in talks with subordinates        
Women 16.6 47.4 23.4 12.7
Männer 22.2 46.8 19.8 11.3
Inspires subordinates through their dedication        
Women 16,4 46,5 13,9 23,1
Men 28.3 36.0 7.0 28.6
Involves subordinates in important decisions        
Women 10.0 49.9 16.1 24.0
Men 19.6 45.2 9.4 25.8
Reacts positively to subordinates’ own ideas        
Women 11.1 64.9 16.0 8.0
Men 20.1 63.4 8.0 8.6
Is interested in subordinates’ personal well-being        
Women 10.1 53.8 25.6 10.6
Men 15.3 57.0 13.2 14.5
Adapts tasks according to individual capabilities        
Women 10.8 52.2 12.9 24.1
Men 21.8 44.6 5.1 28.5
Is unforgiving        
Women 14.7 14.3 22.2 48.8
Men 9.4 17.7 29.6 43.3

The general pattern of responses that underlies these items appears to be that both male and female soldiers very frequently state that a particular behavior or characteristic of superiors applies equally to female and male superiors. The response “Applies to both [sexes]” forms the largest group in each case for most of the items. This is true for: 

  • “Criticizes subordinates in the presence of others”
  • “Praises subordinates for good performance”
  • “Rejects proposals for changes”
  • “Encourages weaker personnel to perform better”
  • “Helps with personal problems”
  • “Takes responsibility for subordinates and their actions”
  • “Creates a relaxed mood in talks with subordinates”
  • “Inspires subordinates through their dedication”
  • “Involves subordinates in important decisions”
  • “Reacts positively to subordinates’ own ideas”
  • “Is interested in subordinates’ personal well-being”
  • “Adapts tasks according to individual capabilities.”

The second response pattern that can be seen in the data is that there is a tendency to ascribe good characteristics and behavior patterns of superiors to superiors of one’s own sex, whereas there is a preference for attributing negative characteristics and behavior patterns to superiors of the opposite sex. This applies to the positive characteristic descriptions for: 

  • “Praises subordinates for good performance”
  • “Encourages weaker personnel to perform better”
  • “Helps with personal problems”
  • “Creates a relaxed mood in talks with subordinates”
  • “Involves subordinates in important decisions”
  • “Reacts positively to subordinates’ own ideas”
  • “Is interested in subordinates’ personal well-being”
  • “Adapts tasks according to individual capabilities.”

Among the negative characterizations, this applies to both of the following: 

  • “Rejects proposals for changes” 
  • “Changes tasks without consultation.”

However, the following items are interesting exceptions:

  • “Takes responsibility for subordinates and their actions”
  • “Harasses subordinates who make a mistake”
  • “Inspires subordinates through their dedication”
  • “Fails to adopt an appropriate conversational tone”
  • “Is unforgiving.” 

With the first characterization mentioned, “Takes responsibility for subordinates and their actions,” women break the pattern as they more frequently state that this characteristic applies more to a male superior than that it tends to apply to a superior of their own sex. Looking at the item “Harasses subordinates who make a mistake,” men and women more frequently say that this applies more to a male superior. The character description “Inspires subordinates through their dedication” is more frequently said by women to apply more to male superiors in a gender comparison. For the item “Is unforgiving,” both male and female soldiers ascribe this characteristic more to female superiors.

Overall, the survey results sometimes reflect common stereotypes, yet these initial empirical findings in no way indicate serious differences in the ways that male and female soldiers shape their superior and leadership roles. The leadership style described by both sexes can be summarized as “participation: as far as possible; leadership: when necessary.” Thus, the rising number of women who are military superiors in the Bundeswehr is not likely to lead to the deep-seated change in the Bundeswehr that is feared by some and hoped for by others.

Concluding remarks

Particularly since the complete opening up of the Bundeswehr in 2001, increasing numbers of women are serving as soldiers in the Bundes­wehr. With the corresponding lead time, they are increasingly reaching superior and leadership positions in the military. The little empirical data that exists so far does not indicate that female soldiers perform these roles in a fundamentally different way than male soldiers. However, women are still under-represented in these military leadership positions. A causal analysis is underway. 

The Bundeswehr is a state institution and as such, it is required to comply with the German Basic Law (Grundgesetz, GG) to the letter. It is therefore obligated to reduce and eliminate discrimination within its ranks. Thus, in contrast to the private sector, where according to current media reports women on average earn one-fifth less than men, in the armed forces, for example, there is no gender-based difference in pay. With regard to the under-representation of women in superior and leadership positions in the military, especially in top positions, however, equal opportunities – to use the name of the new staff unit in the German Federal Ministry of Defense – could be somewhat more difficult to establish than in the monetary area with regard to pay. One of the findings of the study by the Bundeswehr Center for Military History and Social Sciences (ZMSBw) mentioned above was that the proportion of male soldiers who are of the opinion that women are unsuited to superior positions in the military increased from 15 percent in 2005 to more than 22 percent in 2011.5 One can therefore eagerly await both the results of the causal analysis and the measures derived from this by the German Federal Ministry of Defense.

1 Unterrichtung durch den Wehrbeauftragten. Jahresbericht 2015 (57th report). Deutscher Bundestag, 18. Wahlperiode, Drucksache 18/7250, January 26, 2016. Berlin, p. 62.

2 Percentage of women calculated based on data from the Bundeswehr’s website. As at the end of February 2016. Source: http://www.bundeswehr.de.

3 Unterrichtung durch den Wehrbeauftragten. Jahresbericht 2015 (57th report). Deutscher Bundestag, 18. Wahlperiode, Drucksache 18/7250, January 26, 2016. Berlin, p. 62.

4 Kümmel, Gerhard (2014), Truppenbild ohne Dame? Eine sozialwissenschaftliche Begleituntersuchung zum aktuellen Stand der Integration von Frauen in die Bundeswehr. Gutachten 1/2014. Potsdam: Zentrum für Militärgeschichte und Sozialwissenschaften der Bundeswehr (ZMSBw), pp. 40ff.

5 Ibid., p. 26.

Author

Foto_Kuuemmel.jpg

Gerhard Kümmel is a political scientist. He gained his doctorate under the supervision of Professor Wilfried von Bredow at Philipps-Universität Marburg. In the fall of 1997, he joined the Social Sciences Institute of the German Armed Forces (SOWI) in Marburg as a research associate. Following the merger of SOWI with the Military History Research Office of the German Armed Forces, he is currently head of the “Transformation of the armed forces” project area in the military sociology research field at the Center for Military History and Social Sciences of the German Armed Forces in Potsdam, and in charge of the project “Women in the armed forces.” His most recent publications include, together with Angelika Dörfler-Dierken (ed.): “Am Puls der Bundeswehr. Militärsoziologie in Deutschland zwischen Wissenschaft, Politik, Bundeswehr und Gesellschaft” (2016) and, together with Phil C. Langer (ed.): “Wir sind Bundeswehr. Wie viel Vielfalt benötigen/vertragen die Streitkräfte?” (2015).

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