Controversies in Military Ethics & Security Policy
Gender Diversity & Inclusion in Armed Forces - Ethical Perspectives on Operational Effectiveness
For decades debates on gender integration in the armed forces of key NATO members have revolved around a few contested themes. Preeminent among them has been the impact of women’s presence in the ranks of armies, air forces and navies on operational effectiveness. Faced with recruitment problems the military and political leadership tended to treat the question primarily as a matter of a functional imperative with ethical perspectives of secondary relevance. Would women be able to perform adequately, physically and psychologically? If women participated in combat, even ground close combat, would their chivalrous impulse drive men to put their own lives at risk in order to protect women?
In countries like Canada, the UK or the US such doubts were revived each time more roles were opened up to women in the long process that led to the complete removal of gender-based exclusions over the past decade. A country like Germany seemed to be spared such repeated debates. After a judgment of the European Court of Justice in 2000 in favour of the plaintiff Tanja Kreil women could apply for all roles in the Bundeswehr; they had served in the medical services at officer rank since 1975 and all medical ranks and the music corps since 1988.1
By opening up in one fell swoop in 2001 the Bundeswehr, however, only delayed controversies around operational effectiveness. When asked as part of a 2014 Bundeswehr study about women’s aptitude to serve in combat 52 per cent of men claimed that women lacked the physical capabilities2 and were a risk to operational effectiveness because “men always wanted to protect women in the group and could therefore not concentrate on their operations”.3 In common with female service members in other NATO forces, women in the Bundeswehr have experienced bullying, sexism, sexual harassment or even assault; yet their male peers accuse them of being privileged.
So what is going wrong? NATO’s armed forces are officially committed to gender integration. Britain, Canada and the US, but also Germany have been making big strides over the past decades. Yet, there are deep seated obstacles to the full integration of women. This essay argues that a fundamental problem lies in the separation of ethics from functionality. They cannot be separated, because ethics give function meaning beyond the mere exercise of force or application of violence. Indeed, ethical conduct on operations is dependent on ethical behaviour within the armed forces.
In order to explain this, the essay will first explore the link between function and ethics by asking whether failing to adapt organisational processes and cultures signals the opposite of official commitments to Diversity & Inclusion (D&I), that is, exclusion through ‘othering’ language or processes. It then discusses briefly the linkage between internal practice of ethical conduct and commensurate external behaviour. In the subsequent section it illustrates the manifold unethical consequences of the practice or even only perception of gender-segregated fitness standards. Without addressing the ethical dimensions of apparently functional issues or ensuring that new policies avoid creating them militaries will impair the ability of minority personnel to make the best possible contribution to teams, units, services and the organisation as a whole.
Ethics and Function – The Dangers of Othering
It is ethics and function together that shape internal organisational cultures, inter-personal behaviours and processes, as well as external behaviours, that is, how and to what ends militaries apply force. A military that tolerates unethical behaviour in daily interactions cannot be expected to know how to behave ethically on operations where stress and stakes for individuals are much higher.
How an organisation treats its people thus matters. The processes and systems in place to facilitate their work are not neutral. They too communicate immaterial and normative messages. Systems and processes are put in place by people whose perspectives signal who or what is included in or excluded from the design. That this matters a great deal in the area of equality, diversity and inclusion can easily be demonstrated on the example of seemingly small issues.
When Dr Heike Groos, Oberstabsärztin (Medical Staff Officer Surgeon) in the Bundeswehr, arrived in Afghanistan she quickly discovered that sanitary pads or tampons were not available in Bundeswehr stores. Her luggage allowance was insufficient to take enough for the duration of the tour. So she had to have them sent from Germany.4 Women in the British Army have experienced the same. It is able to deal with the logistics of providing sun screen and insect repellent, but not sanitary products. If women ran out in theatre, they had to “[turn] to using socks and bits of paper when they [got] their period”.5
Logistics processes which disregard needs that are specific to women signal a lack of consideration for the whole work force and in this case for potential sensitivities surrounding menstruation and indulge its tabooisation. In a male dominated environment underplaying their female attributes can be a survival strategy for women, a way of seeking their male peers’ acceptance as a fellow professional. The last thing they want to do is draw attention to their difference. Where being male is the standard of professionalism and its measure, ‘outing’ oneself as female is an ‘admission’ of deficiency.
This reduces status in the informal power hierarchy and can create vulnerability. If women have to make a special request for sanitary products or any other gender or sex-specific provision, they are forced to risk being denigrated, especially if they have to ask a man for emergency supply in an organisation where strong taboos surround menstruation and the menopause.6 If they find a quip unfunny because it is demeaning, they are likely to be accused of a sense of humour failure, a further alienation.
Indeed in Britain ‘Paula Edwards, a mental health therapist with the female veterans charity Salute Her, said: […] “They go to someone of a higher rank to ask for help and they’re made to feel like they’re stupid and embarrassed about the situation – so they say nothing.”’ She also stated that “women have reported being bullied over their periods and have been told that they smell. Having to use other kinds of materials instead of sanitary products has also led to infections and health problems, which then go unreported”.7
The same signal of ‘you are different and not part of us’ is sent to members of other, such as religious or ethnic, minorities, if they have to ask for provisions that are essential to their lives, but not to those of the majority population. Nariman Hammouti-Reinke had endless difficulties being supplied with food that did not contain pork or during Ramadan.8 The meal containers were labelled “Muslim” in large letters for all to see that it was a special request. In an organisation that prizes standardisation in line with a strong dominant population, and thus devalues diversity, standing out as a ‘mis-match’ is highly undesirable for the individual.
Why does this matter? If decisions on the scope of gender integration fail to appreciate problematic ethical implications, gender integration will remain a bone of contention. Women, or ethnic, religious and other minorities, will not be accepted as equals to their male or white and Christian peers who are treated as a standard measure. They will be seen consciously or unconsciously as a weak link, in the informal power hierarchy at the receiving end of transgressive behaviour and as less trustworthy.
This poses risks to inter-personal relations and the all-important factor of trust horizontally within units and vertically along the chain of command. This harms the organisation and its operational effectiveness and in addition can prevent service members’ and especially women’s ability to develop their full potential as team members and leaders. Last but not least, a lack of appreciation of ethical implications can lead to trauma or worse unnecessary loss of lives.
It cannot be overemphasised that the issue is not always or only one of individual or even small group behaviour. If the overall system and processes permit discrimination and undermine integration or signal a lack of consideration for the diverse needs of the diverse populations the organisation claims to want and need in order to improve its effectiveness in the operational environment of the 21st century, the most determinedly inclusive individual leader will also be set up to fail.
For example, uniforms which are designed for men and make no provision for women’s bodies are a common problem for female service personnel. On operations the problem is even worse. It is one thing to have to make small adjustments of kit that is basically designed around a standard body shape, as men whose physique falls outside the margins of the norm have to do. It is also not unusual for service personnel to have to or choose to make private provisions, but to expect women to develop a tolerance for working with kit that is not designed for them undermines their ability to be operationally effective and may even put their lives at risk. This is not a sign of the procurement system’s and military leadership’s respect or due care for them.
The 2021 Atherton review by a parliamentary committee into the experience of women in the British armed forces found that because “body armour makes no provision for breasts […] a much larger size has to be worn” and concluded that this can lead to immediate injury, increase further the constraints on physical movement imposed by ill-fitting uniforms and undermine both the safety and operational effectiveness of women.9
Dr Heike Groos experienced virtually the same in Afghanistan. She had to wear body armour that was so big and long that it hurt in the groin and got in the way when she knelt down, a position generally needed when caring for wounded. She had no choice but to get used to it.10 And women do, but the level of discomfort and risk reported across national militaries should have been deemed unacceptable long ago.
Interdependence of Internal and External Ethical Behaviour
For armed forces that at least aspire to use force to ends and in ways that seek to preserve a modicum of human dignity for themselves and in others and that aim to contribute to creating conditions from which civilians might construct a better peace, both the internal and the external dimensions of the ethics-function nexus are interdependent.
NATO recognised in its 2017 policy on integrating gender perspectives in support of UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1325 of 2000:
“NATO forces must internally and externally uphold and adhere to high moral and human standards. Any form of abuse, exploitation and harassment should never be accepted. A soldier abusing or mistreating colleagues internally, cannot be trusted conducting tasks properly externally. Commanders and forces are obligated to prevent and respond to such conduct within their sanctioned power and authority.”11
UNSCR 1325 initiated the Women, Peace & Security Agenda, a body of UNSCRs which recognise that gender and gender relations shape causes of, experiences in and conditions for overcoming violent conflict. NATO policy demands that national chains of command punish unethical, e.g. sexually transgressive, behaviour. It also talks about prevention. That is sometimes narrowly viewed as deterring through punishment after offences have already occurred. Though important, too often militaries fail to do this effectively. Indeed prevention starts much earlier.
Effective diversity and inclusion starts with the general work climate. Diversity is relatively easily achieved especially if it is seen as a matter of visible differences, such as gender or ethnicity. Inclusion is an entirely different matter. To be actually inclusive an organisation needs to hear, incorporate in its daily workings, whether they are routine or exceptional, and address the needs of the diverse individuals or groups that make up the staff. That also means that members of minorities with visible or invisible characteristics need to be treated in such a manner that they feel respected for their professionalism, the contributions they make and the perspectives they bring.
This requires treating diversity as an asset, as the official policies claim to do, and a matter of affording each other human dignity, rather than treating representatives of minorities as deviating from the standard and thus a problem. It is then more difficult to establish informal power hierarchies on the basis of characteristics people cannot change. As informal power hierarchies are a major facilitator of unethical behaviour by powerful group members against the weak, removing opportunities to establish them is an important part of preventing it. It means not tolerating sexist or bullying language, which can take the form of ‘jokes’ that are in fact demeaning group members, as this creates an environment which sexists, or racists, can read as permissive of more serious offences.
Effective prevention of discrimination and criminal behaviour based on gender, or for that matter other characteristics, depends on the systems, processes and norms that govern inter-personal behaviour horizontally, e.g. within teams, and vertically, i.e. along the chain of command. For many militaries, which have traditionally prized communality if not standardisation, this kind of adaptation can be a tall order, but it is essential if integration and inclusion are truly aims of the organisation.
The British MoD’s Diversity and Inclusion Strategy for 2018-2030 acknowledges the fundamental importance of this, but it also recognises that success demands dedication, vigilance and long-term, persistent commitment.
“There needs to be a much greater focus on embedding D&I as part of normal business and making it part of the culture and behaviours of the whole organisation.
We need to continue to work to ensure our policies and processes take account of D&I opportunities and impacts.
We need to ensure that inclusion is more firmly embedded in Defence culture and behaviours.”12
Although it might be regarded as yet another official foray into improving the MoD’s performance on D&I, again emphasising the need for a change in military culture, the past decade has seen significant improvements. Well into the 2000s the British military, as for example its US counterpart, denied that there were problems on the ground. The 2009 Andrews-Watts report did flag up misogyny and inappropriate behaviour in the British Army, but the response was that these were problems of the past. Over time it became clear that there is no problem, if one does not ask the right questions or the right people, for example women; in 2014 the Bundeswehr was incidentally suspected of applying a similar obfuscating strategy on the matter of sexually transgressive behaviour against women.13
In Britain, after incidents and informal surveys made denials increasingly impossible, the MoD and armed forces had to take the problems seriously. Evidence on their scale and nature was collated most recently by two MoD commissioned reports, the 2019 Wigston Review on inappropriate behaviours,14 the Gray Review of 202015 on the implementation of Wigston’s recommendations and including further recommendations, and the House of Commons Defence Committee’s 2021 Atherton Report16.
Each report has noted some progress, but also flagged up much room for improvement. Making D&I effective remains a work in progress, but one must not underestimate the importance of such systematic reviews. Without them organisations cannot identify the problems or learn about asking the right questions. Without such a systematic approach and consistent scrutiny of the military’s effectiveness in improving the practice of D&I and military culture, internal ethical behaviour will always fall short. This is likely to have negative consequences for its external behaviour.
Armed forces and the legitimate authorities, that is governments, constitutionally empowered to authorise their use are bound by international law, first and foremost the Law of Armed Conflict or International Humanitarian Law. This includes gender dimensions. Whilst not themselves being international laws UNSCR 1325 and follow-on resolutions link directly to these legal frameworks via the obligation to protect civilians in violent conflict. The link established by NATO’s 2017 policy discussed above has thus more general implications for militaries.
The ability of individual service members to live and act in ways that are commensurate with these obligations depends in large parts also on their own military ethos. All of the armed forces referenced here have codes of conduct, expressed in their oath of service as well as service-specific values. These include generally a commitment to the mission, integrity, respect for others, selfless service, loyalty and moral courage. Acting in congruence with these values lies at the heart of a, if not the, key precondition for the operational effectiveness as well as physical and moral sustainability of functioning armed forces: Trust.
Trust is a very precious interpersonal state as well as, and this is sometimes underappreciated, a process. Trust needs to be earned. It is always important for constructive relationships and interactions between people. In the military it is the essence of a functioning organisation both vertically along the chain of command and horizontally within and across teams. This does not preclude rivalries and serious, but ultimately playful competition between units, branches or services, but building and maintaining trust demands that each service member respects the dignity of the other. The following section will examine the close linkage between trust, ethics and operational performance.
The Perils of Two-Tier Systems
In the armed forces of Australia, Canada, the UK and the US women in combat roles has been a hotly contested issue for over a century.17 In 1941 a Women’s Royal Naval Service Officer responsible for gunnery trials had to be accompanied by male officer to give 'fire' or 'cease fire' orders.18 Similar restrictions applied to women in other NATO militaries. In Germany the prohibition on women serving under arms was enshrined in the Basic Law until the ECJ ruled it illegal in 2000.19
Excluding women from combat roles maintained a two-tier system which became increasingly problematic. It underscored a gender-based power hierarchy with women, already in a minority, kept at an inferior status and potentially vulnerable, because by dint of their gender they were prevented from applying for combat roles. Air forces and navies dropped these exclusions well before armies opened up ground close combat roles to women. General Dempsey, then Chief of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, acknowledged this informal hierarchy and its role in making women vulnerable to military sexual assault when the US Department of Defense announced in 2013 that women would no longer be excluded from ground close combat roles.20
There is nothing in women’s gender that makes them less capable. There are differences between the average men’s and women’s physical strength and physiology, but women who are keen to qualify for roles in which extraordinary physical performance is required can overcome them. All applicants, regardless of gender, have to start training and preparing well in advance for especially demanding roles and many men cannot achieve the requisite level of fitness and resilience either.
This is starkly illustrated by the 100 women who have qualified as US Rangers since the first two successfully passed the course in 2015.21 The course is one of the toughest in the US military with a very high failure rate in the initial Ranger Assessment Phase, which 61 per cent of applicants, the vast majority men, failed in 2016.22 It appears that diversity has truly arrived, but there is reason to be concerned that it as well as true inclusion are being undermined by a renewed debate about physical performance standards in some militaries.
The US Army is considering re-introducing aspects of gender-specific standards.23 The Bundeswehr makes allowances in evaluating women’s performance in the initial aptitude and in-service basic fitness tests,24 and sporting achievements.25 Male members of the Bundeswehr indeed perceive their female peers as privileged and physically less capable, because they have to achieve higher performance standards for official sports awards than women; in Lieutenant Nathalie Falkowski’s view a particular problem for women in combat units.26
Gender segregated fitness standards, however, perpetuate or re-introduce a two-tier system with the associated risks to women, teams and the organisation.27 It is important not to privilege those physiological values that have traditionally been used to measure men’s fitness, but to assess the ability to perform the required tasks. Some team members will be able to over-fulfil, others just meet minimum standards, whether the team is homogenously male or mixed. Individuals have different training routes to required fitness standards. Gender does play a role here. For example British Lieutenant Colonel (Retired) Diane Allen has argued that training regimes designed for men may be less effective for, and more likely to lead to injury in women.28
The tests and the conditions under which they are taken must be fair. In 2021 the Atherton Report demanded “that fitness tests across all Services have due regard for temporary or arbitrary factors that can hinder performance, including hormonal changes linked to pregnancy and menopause and ill-fitting kit”.29
Organisations like the military with a purpose that is as morally complex as it is personally challenging and politically relevant have a duty to enable personnel to perform to the best possible standard, one that must be derived from the requirements of the challenges soldiers will meet and not necessarily regimental tradition or a variation thereof. An example of such function and output orientated fitness standards is the Canadian Force Evaluation model. It distinguishes between standards for basic and specialty trades, but each set of tests and standards applies to all personnel irrespective of gender.30
It is essential to recognise the ethical dimensions here, but they are often overlooked. Why are women disadvantaged, if they do not have to perform to the same level as men or their peers have the perception that they do not? First, they are sent into combat or other dangerous situations in which they are likely to face risks to body and life, but may have to assume that they are unlikely to succeed in discharging their responsibilities and protect themselves. Second, perhaps even more importantly in terms of military ethos, they may fear that they will be unable to support their peers adequately and pull them out of danger, a key motivator for military personnel in combat.
As a consequence, third, their peers are unlikely to trust them, because they too fear the female soldier next to them cannot keep them as safe as a male peer, especially if trained performance standards have to be pushed. Fourth, male soldiers are less likely to respect their female peers already in training. Deploying teams that have trained together can be very beneficial for gender integration, but not if the male population carries a lack of trust into theatre. Fifth, if women cannot perform to the mission requirement, this can harm the operational effectiveness of the unit or larger formation; the same would of course apply to men if the performance standards did not match the minimum requirements expected in real life situations.31
Sixth, women in command of subordinates will have the same responsibilities for them as men. They will expect themselves and be expected to bring back from operations as many of their people as whole in body and soul as militarily possible for an ethically aware leader. Not being seen to be as physically prepared as men for these roles will again set women up for failure. Their subordinates may lose trust in them and reject them as leaders. There is therefore a risk that, seventh and lastly, their own superiors who are writing their reports will also see them as sub-optimal leaders and that will negatively affect their career prospects.
From an organisational perspective these are extremely undesirable effects. As long as they persist in some form or other, they are symptoms of unethical leadership. It is not commensurate with the aspiration of treating people with dignity or the notion that the organisation and chain of command has a duty of care to its people. It is unfair on men and women. It undermines team spirit and unit cohesion because it undermines trust or prevents it from being developed in the first place and maintained through trying times. Last but not least it subverts any policy whose declared aim is to ensure that women are promoted to higher ranks. They can not only be important role models for other women, but are also an important signal of an organisation’s commitment to gender integration.
The analysis has demonstrated that understanding the ethical dimensions of women’s inclusion into armed forces is a necessary prerequisite for maintaining and even improving operational effectiveness in a gender-integrated organisation. Armed forces, their civilian masters, i.e. the government, and service members must reflect on the genderedness of underlying assumptions that still shape policies, from procurement systems to fitness standards, and behaviours that shape cultures.
Without this reflection there will be no recognition that what is seen as naturally an aspect of function is, on closer inspection, based on masculine attributes, approaches or requirements. In order to maintain or enhance all aspects of organisational and operational effectiveness, from fitness over cultures to kit, it is necessary to separate these gendered dimensions from output and then adapt the approach to a mixed-gender organisation. That means recognising that a diverse population will accomplish tasks and produce output at least to some degree in non-standardised ways. That is the strength of diverse teams.
For teams and their members to be able to capitalise on their individual and diverse strengths inter-personal relations need to be based on and suited to facilitating trust in a continuous process. For this it is essential that team members respect each other, acknowledge the validity of their diverse experiences and perspectives in their quest for the common purpose and refrain from denigrating each other. This is not to suggest that every decision needs to be subject to a democratic vote, but it is to suggest that organisational systems, processes and policies must support individuals, especially those in leadership positions, in facilitating changes in military culture to bring about truly inclusive culture.
Those designing systems, processes and shaping policies as well as their implementation need to be self-reflective and interrogate their thinking from the perspective of members of minority populations. Othering language, supply chains or standards whether they relate to kit or personnel, must be identified and overcome. Otherwise gender integration will continue to cause controversy. Women will be systematically, if perhaps unintentionally, prevented from maximising their potential. They will continue to have to fight for respect and recognition when they have to fear simultaneously that their lives and their ability and commitment to protect the lives of their peers, male and female, are undermined by the very organisation and people they are there to serve.
Ethical leadership means not giving, for decades, such a low priority to adapting uniforms and kit that women who are now serving in roles where their lives and those of their colleagues depend on their ability to perform their professional duties may be prevented from doing so to the same level as their male peers.
The same reasoning applies to fitness standards. They must demand that all members of a team regardless of gender fulfil the minimum requirements for the role they will be expected to perform in theatre. If they are wrongly perceived as discriminatory on the basis of gender, then the organisation must counter and rectify such perceptions. Anything short of this will not only undermine women’s trust in themselves and thus their performance, but also unjustly diminish the trust others, team members and leaders, have in them.
If women are thus at lower levels of the informal power hierarchy, they are furthermore at higher risks of ethically and sexually transgressive behaviour. This then is not only a substantial barrier to a diverse and inclusive military organisation that functions effectively from the smallest unit up to the senior leadership. It is also a serious hindrance to acting on ethical principles and with meaningful regard to gender perspectives on operations as mandated by the UN, NATO and its member states.
1 Behrend, Hans-Günther (Hg.) (2020): Erinnerungsorte der Bundeswehr. Personen, Ereignisse und Institutionen der soldatischen Traditionspflege. Berlin, p. 130.
2 Kümmel, Gerhard (2014) (ed.): Soldatinnen in der Bundeswehr – Integrationsklima und Perspektiven. Potsdam. p. 12.
26 Falkowski, Nathalie (2014): Ich. Diene. Deutschland. In: Bohnert, Marcel and Reitstetter, Lukas (eds.): Armee im Aufbruch – Zur Gedankenwelt junger Offiziere in den Kampftruppen der Bundeswehr. Norderstedt, p. 98.
Dr Andrea Ellner lectures in the Defence Studies Department, King’s College, London. Her research combines historical with contemporary perspectives on gender, armed forces, war, military ethics & moral injury. She is on the Euro-ISME Board of Directors and a Core Member on Gender of the King’s Centre for Military Ethics. She recently published “Gender Stereotypes in the Media: Are Ukrainian women really only helpless victims?”