Women in uniform. . . Don’t expect change to come from the ‘old boys’

The Israel Defense Forces are a prime example of integrating women in the armed forces says the defence minister of the Netherlands.

Dutch Defense Minister Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert visits Afghan soldiers (photo credit: REUTERS)
Dutch Defense Minister Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert visits Afghan soldiers
(photo credit: REUTERS)
At the 50th Munich Security Conference I called for a more robust European front on foreign interventions. My message: reliability means that partners don’t pull out of joint military commitments at five to 12. A message that resonates. Just like my pledge to break through Europe’s “old boys’ network.” Caused by... a tweet.
During the conference I had a chat with my female colleagues from Norway and Sweden as well as Ursula von der Leyen, our new German counterpart. I asked someone to capture the scene with my phone and put it on Twitter. The tweet went viral.
A lot of people commented that the image heralded a new era in which even the last bastions of male privilege were no longer closed to talented women. I think that’s perhaps taking it a little too far. I don’t think the military officers we work with see us any differently than if we were men. And if they do, they don’t show it. But there is public debate about women taking more influential political roles, and that’s healthy.
The Dutch politician Neelie Kroes once said to me that old boys’ networks are the oldest form of cartels we have in Europe. No mistake about that. She was right, but things are changing, and women can do the same things now. But how do we get there? It is clear that these old boys are not going to solve it for us. In other words, we as women have to make the move! The fact is that, in Europe, we have many ambitious and talented women. And the major challenge for them is to show those ambitions.
Do not expect others to arrange things for you. Do not expect that they can read minds. We as women have to take the initiative. And dare to take risks! Women in combat units? I think there is no discussion about the value of having women in the armed forces. It improves the output of our military forces. It improves the quality of our missions and also increases the safety of our troops. The Israel Defense Forces are a prime example of integrating women in the armed forces.
But what about women in combat units? This has been a more hotly debated topic. In 1991, Robert Barrow, a former Commandant of the US Marine Corps, advocated against women in combat positions, using the emotional argument that women are supposed to “give life, sustain life, nurture life; they don’t take it.” I don’t agree with this.
In 2009, the British Ministry of Defense performed a study comparing the experiences of various countries with women serving in ground combat positions. Conclusion: the presence of women seems to have no adverse effect on the combat performance of men. The countries which had women in fighting roles reported no problems. The British researchers also looked at situations in their own armed forces in which women became involved in combat incidents. This showed that men saw them as a normal part of the team and the women did not experience any sense of not belonging fully to the team.
But what about women in leading – military – positions? The fact that Europe counts four female ministers of defense is a good thing. But would a picture with four male ministers have drawn that much attention on the social media websites? I don’t think so. I appreciate it, but it also shows that a woman as a minister is not seen to be as normal as a man in that position.
And we need more women at the top! Mirjam van Praag, professor of entrepreneurship and organization at the University of Amsterdam, conducted research that showed that mixed teams generate more sales and higher profits.
The question is how to get more women in influential positions. Should we introduce quotas? I don’t think so.
The introduction of quotas is still a much-disputed instrument. To me, it would definitely not feel right. Quotas are for fish, not for women. I don’t believe in enforcing this kind of numerical standard.
Professor Van Praag’s research confirms my opinion. She showed that quotas are counterproductive. What matters is to get the right women in the right jobs. In practice, imposing quotas has proven not to benefit quality and profitability.
Take risks
All things considered, I am not at all pessimistic about the position of women in Western society. The number of highly educated women among the younger generations in the Netherlands now exceeds the number of men with the same level of education.
The effect this has on the number of women in managerial positions will not be seen overnight, but women are indeed gaining ground. And that advance will need to go hand in hand with a great deal of self-awareness, the urge to make a difference and the courage to take risks.
That will not be easy. But persistence pays.
And that is precisely what seems to be lacking sometimes.
Maybe I should tweet about that.
The author is defense minister of the Netherlands.