A rights-based approach to women in combat

The sun sets behind a C-17 Globemaster III as Soldiers wait in line to board the aircraft taking them back to the United States Nov. 17 at Joint Base Balad, Iraq. C-17s can carry payloads up to 169,000 pounds and can land on small airfields. The C-17 is deployed from the 437th Airlift Wing at Charleston Air Force Base, S.C. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Erik Gudmundson)

Of the Defence issues raised over the past 12 months, none has been more controversial than the government’s decision to lift a ban on gender discrimination in the military which means women are eligible to serve in close combat units, including special forces.

In Australia, we value the principles equality and fairness and the right of the individual not to be discriminated on the basis of race, religion, age or gender. But there are specific challenges to applying a rights-based approach to the profession of the arms. This is because there are strong historical and cultural legacies surrounding ideas of the military, warfare and masculinity.

Historically, the military and warzones are not imagined and understood as a context for women as soldiers. Australian women appeared in support roles such as nurses, drivers, workers, mothers and later carers of returned soldiers. In this sense, gender reform is not just about enshrining the equal rights for women in the military but must, over time, break down traditional, cultural and historical understandings of warfare, the military and masculinity.

This is challenging because in the military, while the individual is important, the “group” (that is, the military) and survival of the nation and its interests are paramount. Continue reading

All of the Teams! On CST, FET and Lioness Teams

A quick note on female teams in Afghanistan and Iraq. There is an excellent interview with a female member of a US Cultural Support Team (CST) and Special Forces enabler who deployed to Afghanistan. It sheds light on women in combat from first-hand experiences, but tells us very little about CSTs.


At present there is only limited publicly available information of CSTs’ function and deployment conditions. Objective analysis of their challenges or efficacy is scarce.

There has been however an increase in academic research into Female Engagement Teams (FETs). When I wrote this piece in February last year, there was little analytical material, just media releases and news coverage.

In supplement to my piece earlier this week on research and women in combat, here are some articles for those interested in FETs:

  • Stephanie K. Erwin, ‘The Veil of Kevlar: An Analysis of the Female Engagement Teams in Afghanistan’, March 2012, available here.
  • Keally McBride, Annick T. R. Wibben, ‘The Gendering of Counterinsurgency in Afghanistan’, Humanity: An International Journal of Human Rights, Humanitarianism, and Development, Summer 2012, see here.
  • Thomas W. Moore et al, ‘Opinion Dynamics in Gendered Social Networks: An Examination of Female Engagement Teams in Afghanistan’, December 2011, PDF here.

Like FETs, Lioness Teams were established to engage the population, particularly women and children, during Operation Iraqi Freedom. There are news stories and even a movie about their work, but only a few academic articles:

  • Major Sheila S. McNulty, ‘Myth Busted: Women are Serving in Ground Combat Positions’, Air Force Law Review, July 2011, PDF here.
  • Major Karen J. Dill, ‘Removing the Rose Colored Glasses: Exploring Modern Security Environment’s Effect on the Army Assignment Policy for Women’, US Army Command and General Staff College thesis, 2009, PDF here.

McNulty’s chapter documents the history of the US Army’s Lioness Team program and the development of the Marine Corps equivalent, as well as discussing FETs in Afghanistan. Dill’s thesis analyses the documentary ‘Team Lioness’ to demonstrate how the understanding of women’s roles in the military have evolved.

In summary, this is still a developing area of academic literature, and I’m sure there are some references I’ve missed, so feel free to supplement this with suggestions. Happy reading!

Image by US Army SSG Russell Lee Klikam, courtesy of Flickr user USAJFKSWCS.

Blame Canada! On women in combat and research


A few quick points about developments in women in combat. An article published this morning quotes Chief of the Defence Force General Hurley as saying that, as a result of examining the Canadian experience, all combat arms would now likely be opened up to women at the same time.

At Senate Estimates in May General Hurley stated the following lessons learned from the Canadians:

  • A targeted proportion of women in combat arms will not define success;
  • It is better to recruit 1 or 2 women into combat arms rather than wait until a critical mass is formed;
  • Don’t separate women into a distinctive group; they’re there to be part of a team.

The ADF was smart in engaging and hosting a Canadian military delegation in May and has now formulated a cautious approach informed by these experiences.

The bottom line is that, political decision-making aside, this issue is being developed in Australia via research. While women in combat continues to provoke emotional debate spurred by anecdotal exchanges based often on legitimate concerns, there is a lot of research available related to women in combat  that could usefully inform discussion. The following are but a few:

  • Cawkill et al, ‘Women in Ground Close Combat Roles: The Experiences of other Nations and a Review of the Academic Literature’, UK Ministry of Defence, 2009, PDF here.
  • Felman and Hanlon, ‘Count Us In: The Experiences of Female War, Peacemaking, and Peacekeeping Veterans’, Armed Forces & Society, April 2012, available here, research based on experiences of Australian female veterans.
  • Fasting and Sand, ‘Gender and Military Issues: a Categorized Research Bibliography’, The Norwegian Defence University College, 2010, PDF here.
  • Harrell et al, ‘The Status of Gender Integration in the Military: Analysis of Selected Occupations’, RAND Corporation, 2002, available here.
  • Major J. Rogers, ‘Gender Integration in the New Zealand Infantry’, US Army Command and Staff College thesis, 2001, available here.
  • Nuciari, ‘Women in the Military: Sociological Arguments for Integration’, Handbooks of Sociology and Social Research, 2006, available here.
  • Lindstrom et al, ‘The Mental Health of U.S. Military Women in Combat Support Occupations’, Journal of Women’s Health, 2006, available here.

After a decade of Afghanistan and Iraq, I’m sure we’ll see more Australian-based research emerging. Until then, some valuable thoughts from Canadian military delegation member, Lieutenant Colonel Jennie Carignan:

“The (main) lesson learned from our integration adventure is that operational effectiveness is only related to leadership and the actions of the leader. We had this twisted around, and this was another message we had for the ADF: Operational effectiveness has nothing to do with the gender of the folks composing your force.”


Image by Gary Ramage, courtesy of news.com.au

Nancy Wake isn’t enough: the challenges of ADF gender reform

Now women are to be allowed to serve on the front line becoming an infantry officer is a real possibility. But there are hurdles for the Australian military to overcome in these challenging, yet hopeful times.

Politics and policy

First, we cannot separate the politics from the policy. The Minister for Defence has declared that the policy of opening all ADF roles to women will be rolled out within five years.

I believe in gender equality in the armed services, but we should be clear about the timing of the announcement and its impact on this deadline.

Continue reading

The strategic implications of a gender equal ADF

In the wake of the decision to open all roles of the ADF to women, much attention has lingered on the physical and psychological dimensions of close quarter combat. There are legitimate concerns about this, and I will examine them in forthcoming posts, however less attention has been given to the strategic implications of opening up all roles in the ADF and the contribution of female personnel.

Continue reading