Military & Aerospace

Women in the Armed Forces: Misconceptions and Facts
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Issue Vol 25.1 Jan-Mar2010 | Date : 09 Mar , 2015

The recent debate about the entry of women officers in the armed forces has been highly ill- informed and subjective in nature. People have taken stands and expressed opinion without analysing the matter in its entirety. It is imprudent to consider it as an issue of equality of sexes or gender bias or even women’s liberation. It is also not a question of conquering the so-called ‘last male bastion’.

That would amount to trifling a matter that concerns the well-being and the war-potential of a nation’s armed forces. Armed forces have been constituted with the sole purpose of ensuring defence of the country and all policy decisions should be guided by this overriding factor. All matters concerning defence of the country have to be considered in a dispassionate manner.

No decision should be taken which even remotely affects the cohesiveness and efficiency of the military. Concern for equality of sexes or political expediency should not influence defence policies.

World Scan

India has limited experience as regards induction of women in the armed forces. The first batch had joined in 1992. Therefore, our knowledge of the complexities and long-term effects of the issues involved is highly limited. On the other hand, women have been serving in the militaries of developed countries for a long time. These countries have acquired a deep understanding of all the issues involved.

The United States

The United States is considered a pioneer and a trend-setter as regards induction of women in the services. There are approximately 200,000 American women on active duty in the US armed forces. They constitute nearly 20 percent of its strength. Women are also participating in Iraq operations in large numbers, albeit in support functions as they are forbidden to be placed in direct ground combat with enemy. They, however, are assigned ‘combat support’ duties on voluntary basis.

Prior to November 1975, if women became pregnant, they were given the option to terminate pregnancy or seek discharge. A number of important steps were initiated during President Clinton’s time. Women were permitted to join as combat aircraft pilots and could also be assigned for prolonged duty on combat naval ships. The scope of combat-risk assignments for women was redefined to open additional appointments to them.


Though Israel has conscription for women (as well as men), a large number of them are exempted for various reasons. Women are generally not allotted active battle field duties. They serve in many technical and administrative posts to release men for active duty. Although they make excellent instructors as well, most women occupy lower and middle level appointments. Only a handful reach senior ranks.


A major enlargement of women’s role in the British armed forces took place in early 1990s. A number of new duties were assigned to them. Today, 71% of all jobs in the Navy, 67% in the Army and 96% in the Air Force are tenable by women. Women are primarily excluded from the duties which require battling enemy at close quarters.

Out of the total strength of 196,650 of the three services, women number 17,900 (3,670 officers and 14,230 other ranks). Thus they constitute 9.1% of the total strength, 11.2% of the officer cadre and 8.7% of the other ranks. Service-wise, the Navy has a women population of 9.4%, the Army 7.1% and the Air Force 11.9%.


For Canadian women it has been a long and slow struggle to be part of the armed forces. For over a hundred years, women were considered suitable only for nursing duties. However, things changed rapidly during the recent past and today women account for close to 13 percent of the total strength of the Canadian forces. Women are permitted in all corps and can rise upto senior decision-making levels.


Bulgaria has adopted a highly flexible model. As per the law, women in Bulgarian Army are appointed to professional military service in the Armed Forces on appointments proposed by the Chief of the General Staff. They have equal training standards and equal professional rights as men. Women constitute about 7 percent of the total force.


Though established in 1955, the Bundeswehr allowed women to join medical units and musical bands in 1975. It was only in 2001 that women won the right to join the Bundeswehr as soldiers. Today, there are nearly 12,000 German women in uniform on voluntary basis as compulsory military service for women is banned by law. Women constitute almost 6 percent of the total strength.

Some Other Countries

In the Australian Army women are still not allowed in the field/battle. In Russia, women generally serve in nursing, communications and logistic support functions. According to some estimates, their number is close to 95,000. Slovenia became an independent state in 1971 and inducted women in its armed forces soon after. Presently, women account for 18 percent of the total strength of the Slovenian Army.

Like all Islamic states, Pakistan does not permit women in the armed forces. It is feared that women would create distraction and cause disruption of internal order. There is also a great deal of concern for the safety of women from the organisational environment itself.

Major Issues Experienced

Women in all militaries are confronted with social, behavioural and psychological problems at all levels. According to many surveys carried out women are not fully satisfied with the ethos of military profession. Some of the major issues concerning women in all defence forces are discussed below.

Sexual Harassment

This is one single concern that has defied solution so far – how to ensure safety and protect dignity of women in the forces. Almost all women view this as their major fear. The American and the British societies are highly emancipated and liberal with women having equal status in all fields. Yet, the level of sexual harassment of women in their forces is startling.

What hurts women most is the attitude of military officials who dismiss complaints as frivolous and due to over-sensitivities of women involved. Even serious accusations of sexual assault are many times treated in a perfunctory manner. Moreover, many officers tend to adopt an attitude of acquiescence by resorting to ‘boys will be boys’ apology. In the US, only two to three percent perpetrators are court-martialled and they are also let off with minimal punishment.

Low Acceptance

Acceptance of women in the military has not been smooth in any country. Every country has to contend with sceptics who consider it to be a counter productive programme. They tend to view it as a political gimmick to flaunt sexual equality, or, at best, a necessary liability.

Additionally, every country has to mould the attitude of its society at large and male soldiers in particular to enhance acceptability of women in the military.

Lack of Job Satisfaction

Most women feel that their competence is not given due recognition. Seniors tend to be over-indulgent without valuing their views. They are generally marginalised and not involved in any major decision-making. They have to work twice as hard as men to prove their worth. Additionally, a woman is always under scrutiny for even minor slip-ups.

Many women complain that despite their technical qualifications, they are generally detailed for perceived women-like jobs. Either they get routine desk work or are asked to perform duties related to social minutiae.

Poor Comfort Level

Most women accepted the fact that their presence amongst males tends to make the environment ‘formal and stiff’. Mutual comfort level between men and women colleagues is low. Men miss their light hearted banter which is considered essential to release work tensions and promote group cohesion. They consider women to be intruding on their privacy.

Doubts about Role Definition

The profession of arms is all about violence and brutality. To kill another human is not moral but soldiers are trained to kill. They tend to acquire a streak of raw ruthlessness and coarseness. This makes the environment highly non-conducive and rough for women.

Women, in general, are confused about the way they should conduct themselves. If they behave lady-like, their acceptance amongst male colleagues is low. On the other hand, their active participation in casual repartee carries the danger of their losing colleagues’ respect.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Maj Gen Mrinal Suman

is India’s foremost expert in defence procurement procedures and offsets. He heads Defence Technical Assessment and Advisory Services Group of CII.

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19 thoughts on “Women in the Armed Forces: Misconceptions and Facts

  1. Hello Sir,

    Few concerns from my side regarding the above article:

    1st issue faced: sexual harassment: Isnt it very sad for a country to know their male soldiers are nothing but rapists and that they cant even see their fellow soldiers as partners in protecting the nation but as sexual objects to fulfill their sexual greed. Will not the country people doubt the ability of the system who actually recruit these male soldiers. Has our recruiting system become this incapable. This is a shame Sir. And i am deeply hurt to know this side of Indian Soldiers.

    2nd issue: Poor comfort level: Maybe this was the scene decades before but i think todays men know how to handle women at work and also how to be completely fine with their presence.If not Sir, they will learn eventually as this will help them to become a better person and definitely a better soldier.
    “Men miss their light hearted banter which is considered essential to release work tensions and promote group cohesion. They consider women to be intruding on their privacy”- Sir, this sounds more like your personal opinion than the reality. As per studies, after spending ample amount of time with each other humans become friends and are totally comfortable with each other presence, there is no exception of men and women here.
    what i fail to understand is why all these above issues are raised by you from a “shy , introverted and not open to any kind of change ” male soldier perspective? Please sir, a humble request to reconsider the above article and please try spreading thoughts that will boost up morale and not lower it down.

  2. The duties referred above claiming can’t be done by women officers is being performed by them each day. Fitness standards are different but it can’t happen that worst of the male officer is better than the best of the lady officer to get PC n pension. There are many obese male officers also. I agree that our gender has restriction but someone deserving n proving herself n after being accepted by troops n colleagues should not be denied her right only because she is a female. Because only people who haven’t had enough exposure with them n themselves remained in confined environment with their restricted thought can’t take it.

  3. Interested where you got your facts about American women on active duty in the US armed forces. In March, according to the U.S. Department of Defense, more than 214,000 women are currently serving in the military (both active duty and reserves) and this accounts for 14.5% of the force.

  4. It is nice to note that male officers in the Army have the mettle and guts to face war and militants which the female officers do not have. Can someone tell me – out of the thousands of male officers serving the Army, how many of them might have faced war or took part in militant combing activity at least once in their service.
    I am sure that there should be many of them who might have retired without seeing even one war or might not have the opportunity to face the enemy at least once in their service. But does that mean that they have not been of any use to the Army ? Dear sirs, does serving the Army only mean facing war and militants, or do you have a lot many things to do during your service. How many departments are there which do not participate in front line war but are offering essential services without which you cannot thing of war ? I suggest that those who are commenting in these posts should keep in mind an overall and holistic knowledge of the Army and its functioning before you post your views. Or else you will be sending out wrong messages to people who wish to serve the Army. So if there are a lot many things to do, then what difference does it make whether it is a male or a female ?
    Gentlemen, today even in civilian offices, one cannot think of offices without females because it would be a much boring place to even visit such places. Can one truly discriminate between male and female contributions towards services? I say, there are equal number of male and female employees who do not deliver the services as expected just as there are an equal number of both sexes who deliver excellent services to their organisation.
    So stop talking about this woman thing and start learning to support, encourage, respect and accept women officers as one among you, just as you had accepted them in school and college. They may not have what you have in you but they certainly have something to give to the Army which only they can give. Good Greeting to all of you.

    • You are right, serving in armed forces doesn’t only mean fighting war and combating militants. But for Combat Arms, it almost always meant facing war and the terrorists. Most officers and men in combat arms especially infantry and artillery have directly or indirectly faced theses situations during their service. It becomes the matter of killing or get killed and this is where women might become a weak point for women clamouring for combat arms.

  5. Why is it not the political parties are making way for women join Indian Army through recrutiment process too. Some would say women can’t play the rough role of jawans(base of Indian Army) how is it expected that they can lead men. To be precise Officer’s leadership depends whether the orders he giving, can he himself do that job, if not then in long run troops can loose their trust/morale on incapcitated Officers.
    Even if women are trained on par with men so that they posses equal physical and mental qualities alike there would be needed large techinical investment in training.
    Few may say that we can loose some terms for women to help them grduated for Infantary Officers it will be direct insult of Directive Principles of State that clearly states that eveyone will be given equal wages for equal work, will Indian Army pay less to women in convergence of equal pay equal work.
    Even from the economic point of view considering opportunity cost. Why will I not prefer naturally strong males than train women tougher by draining more money.
    We can fill the ranks of offficers by providing promotion to JCO’s, NCO’s who with experience can be trusted for heavy responsibility duties.
    Moreover they are threatening our brotherhood, while they themselves are having niche well protected. I mean to say their are especial women colleges but men colleges have become co-ed becuase they were accused as gender biased. A separate Army must be built for women so that they can fulfill their fantasies, may be they think it is fantasy, joining Indian Army as Officers well they can, why dont they compete in recrutiment too that is where women empowerment shall trully happen.
    And yes, babus and media will find one more way to insult males/indian Army beacuase Seaxual harrasement cases fake/real will definetly find its way, the issue of love affairs, sex scandals will these complexities will not simply drain mental energies of generals towards only law/order situation.

  6. Why are Olympic Standards, Football teams etc are separate for men and women? Let them first have equal standards in these disciplines then only can they demand equal opportunities in the armed forces especially the army which is very serious business.

  7. Women are well motivated and dedicated to the service they join. I have come across women officers and have been quite impressed with their enthusiasm. However certain issues need to be addressed:-
    a) Women officers must undergo full training at the military academy including the IMA. They should be brought up the standards of the male cadets. Physical standards for women cadets can be different and they cannot be expected to be as physically tuned as men.
    b) Women officers need to go through a psychological counseling about what to expect since it’s mainly a male dominated society. I have seen them not take very well to a dressing down by a senior officer.
    c) They should be given all appointments in the Army including that of platoon commanders and company commanders. In Infantry Battalions they can be employed as Specialist platoon commanders in Sub-units that will not be directly in contact with the enemy. They can do MTO, Mor Pl Commander and so on.
    d)Their dignity and respect as a woman has to be maintained and that our responsibility as commanders and we must ensure that at all times.
    e)The male officers also need to be psychologically sounded off on the issue and need to be more acceptable to the idea of having women serving alongside them.

  8. Indian Army is ready to give Lady Officers a chance to serve in difficult terrains and inhospitable areas.But not a single Lady Officer will be ready to take up the challenge.Howmany Ladies will volunteer for a Rashtriya Rifle posting where they have to face the militants on daily basis during cordon and search operation? What will be their plight if apprehended by militants?Sitting in AC environs one can put lot of questions on the deployability of Lady officers.When reality bites only Male officers are wanted to deal with the situation.The role of a DGP inPolice Force cannot be compared with Army Officers.Howmany DGP can serve like Army officers in inhospitable terrain? None.So pls do not compare.It does not mean they are not serving the people.All have their own specified duties.We should think about ground realities and persons suitable for the job rather than political expediency to earn brownie points during an election.

  9. Did the author interview in currently serving Female officers/enlisted? Or are the issues he post simply what he found on-line? I also noticed that he failed to include any positive ‘issues’; was this a deliberate choice or did he decide that the positive were simply not worth addressing?

    • Dear Patrick,
      The author has given out absolutely clear view on the issue.
      One has to decide about the entry of women into forces keeping his emotions aside and having a clear idea of what duties are being performed or can be performed by them.
      The dissatisfaction among the male officers is growing day by day due to most of the peace and good postings being increasingly reserved for the lady officers. Most of the male officers besides a few among those married to lady officers are against the idea of ladies being inducted into armed forces.
      All issues brought out in the article are true facts.

      Ladies are not suited for the requirements of the defence services. Feeling satisfied by saying that we are giving them equal opportunity is like a bird burying its head in sand and feeling that the predator(cat) has gone away.

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