Amanda Van De Paverd


Since the introduction of UNSCR 1325 in October 2000, defence and security strategies in Australia have started to take note of the importance of integrating gender strategies, with a particular focus on increasing women’s participation. In Australia, legislative exclusions for the Australian Defence Force under the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against women (Commonwealth of Australia, 2000) and the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Parliament of Australia, n.d.) prohibited women from serving in combat roles until 2012, when these clauses where removed (Department of Defence, 2017). Yet, nearly ten years later the debate rages on, with language around the targets to recruit women described as “Shunning Men” (SBS News, 2017) driving negative attitudes and emotional responses. Women have a history of serving in conflict effectively, yet an aggressive resistance persists. This has been a consistent rhetoric across cultures and history with women’s participation in combat kept to a minimum except under dire circumstances. So, what drives resistance to women’s participation; and why do we need to have a more inclusive Defence Force?

The “Why”

In Joshua Goldstein’s War and Gender, Goldstein conducts a thorough analysis of the systematic exclusion of women in combat. He found only two relevant variables which could conceivably drive the systematic exclusion of women from war across cultures and throughout history. These differences amount to “small, innate biological gender differences in average size, strength, and roughness of play; and cultural moulding of tough, brave men, who feminize their enemies to encode domination” (Goldstein, 2001).

The biological differences in size and strength are small enough that the bell curves overlap, meaning some women are as strong as some men on the upper and lower ends of the curve. However, these biological differences, particularly with today’s technology, do not warrant such widespread exclusion of women. As Goldstein points out, even differences in size across races vary as little as those between genders and, through history, size and strength of the race has not always determined the outcome of war. This led Goldstein to conclude that the single most important factor driving the exclusion of women in war, as “cultural moulding and the feminisation of enemies to encode domination”.

Resistance to inclusion in war, particularly from younger, less educated recruits, seems to be emotionally driven, with aggressive responses to the participation of both women and homosexual men in combat, despite homosexual men being of equal size, strength and performance. This reaction, demonstrates the link between war and masculinity.

There is a culturally engrained need for boys to prove themselves tough, strong and dominant men, hence why the effeminates who perform equally is threatening to sense of self and ability to prove themselves worthy of society. Many cultures reinforce this concept through coming of age rituals and participation in demonstrations of strength and dominance.

Goldstein believes that as a society, we have created and perpetually reinforced a system of gender segregation and stereotypes to feed the war machine. The consequence of which include the ensuing and inevitable war or act of aggression to prove dominance.

The feminine as a threat to masculinity

In Western societies, many people seem to have lost their sense of purpose (DeSalvo, 2012). Cavendish (2015) believes that middle age men are feeling lost because they’re caught between confusing social cultural pressures to be of both the masculine and strong but also sensitive. One man she interviewed stated “We are caught between the old model of being the breadwinner and the new model of being the co-washer-upper and feeder, and the truth is we never really mastered either of these roles – old or new – and this has led to a profound sense of crisis in men” (Cavendish, 2015). In some studies of the effects of the empowerment of women in developing nations, a correlation has been found between empowerment and instances of sexual based and/or domestic violence. Though the results vary across nations, a number of influencing factors have been concluded. For example, Hidrobo et al. found domestic violence as an expression of frustration or dissatisfaction, or a way to improve self-esteem (Hidrobo & Fernald, 2013). Goldstein suggests this is because the natural reaction from men who seek to reassert dominance and masculinity, is through violence and rape, just as primates would. The COVID-19 Pandemic has reinforce this theory. As lockdowns caused increased stress, insecurity and feelings of lack of control, there has been increased levels of domestic and family based violence reported by support agencies across Australia; detailing an increase in both the volume and severity of domestic violence cases (Carrington, et al. 2020).

That’s not to say that women’s empowerment is necessary a threat to men’s self-esteem globally, but that in a world where men and women are equal, men need to have built self-esteem, identity and purpose to be secure in themselves. As a significant employer of men, the military needs to understand the impact of the changing culture, to support its workforce as they navigate uncertainty. This provides an opportunity to redefine masculinity and leverage women’s empowerment as a tool to optimise the ADF’s future workforce through increase participation, innovation and performance.

War provides an opportunity to prove masculinity, strength and to commit to serving a higher purpose. This is supported by figures that demonstrate men during defence service have lower suicide rates than the general population, 53% lower for men serving full-time, 46% lower for men in the Reserve, yet 14% higher for ex-service members (The Australian Institute for Health and Welfare, 2018). The question remains whether the increase in suicide rate post separation stems from disillusioned sense of identity, lower employment, lack of respect and understanding culturally from the general population of their perceived feats in war and becoming disconnected to the defence network of relationships. These issues are compounded by the sense that members have sacrificed for the organisation, often putting it as the first priority for the duration of service, frequently resulting in relationship breakdown and little friendship connections outside of the organisation (the recently announced Royal Commission into Veteran Suicide will no doubt illuminate some of these issues). The separation from service life can therefore, leave people feeling lost, angry and frustrated. These feelings can be further agitated by women’s contribution being seen as equal, further undermining the sense of value of their contribution in masculine terms.

The evidence implies that aggressive and defensive responses to women in combat are a reaction to “threats” to masculinity, self-esteem and a cultural system that reinforces throughout the generations images of the masculine war hero and the nurturing, gentle women (Goldstein, 2001).

The media plays a large part in perpetuating the stereotypes and exasperating the divide through images of the masculine warrior and portraying females as victims or through other stories suggesting women to be inferior (SBS News, 2017). Although the shift in culture over the last 60 years has been significant, the cultural delineation and expected norms of boys and girls continues to exist and is what feeds the perceptions and insecurities of future adults. This is what continues to provide resistance. Established gender norms reinforces a fear in boys of being soft or girly, through teasing, bullying and behavioural moulding, which instils insecurity and necessitates the need to prove ones’ masculinity. The inclusion of homosexuals and women, who represent the effeminate are perceived threats to the achievement of manhood, by diminishing the masculine value of participation in war.

Proven effectiveness

Regardless of perceptions regarding the inclusion of women and homosexuals, the reality is, inclusion in the military across all roles, is strategically necessary. As with the experience of the Red Army in WWII, the Israeli Defence Force in the War of Independence and with The Special Operations Executive known as ‘Churchill’s secret army’ (which included approximately 3200 women (Wikipedia, 2018)), the inclusion of women is an operational necessity.

Women have also proven to be involved and effective in terrorism throughout history and across multiple contexts–from the People's Will and the assassination of Tsar Alexander II, to the suicide bombers or Black Widows of Chechnya, to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) (Spencer, 2016). According to Speckhard (2015), one in five foreign fighters recruited by ISIS were women. In a study of all known suicide bombers between 1981 and 2008, attacks perpetrated by women were more lethal than those carried out by men (O'Rourke, 2009).

This not only demonstrates the effectiveness of female combatants but also how gender bias, remains a critical vulnerability. While Men continue to see Women as powerless victims (Aolain, 2013), both in terms of their potential to be effective contributors to Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) and as potential perpetrators of violence, security forces remain blinded to critical strategic opportunities and potential threats.

Workforce and organisational impact

Since 2001, Australian women in the 18-54 year age group have been consistently more likely than men to have attained a Bachelor Degree or higher qualification. In 2015, 30% of men compared with 40% of women aged 25-29 obtained a Bachelor Degree or above (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2016). War has evolved from trench warfare, and as technology continues to reshape the nature of the battlespace, the military needs educated and diverse minds to lead and operate the technological equipment for the future of war.

Women make up 46.2% of Australia’s labour force (Workplace Gender Equality Agency, 2017) and in a survey of 1,800 professionals, 40 case studies, and numerous focus groups and interviews; diversity had an overwhelming positive correlation with organisation performance. Companies with diverse leaders were 45% more likely to report a growth in market share over the previous year and 70% more likely to report that the firm captured a new market (Hewlett, Marshall, & Sherbin, 2013). Preparing for the wars of the future is increasing about using innovation, leveraging technology and complex problem solving. Innovation was one of the Australian Defence Force’s core values (Department of Defence, 2017), and remains a strategic priority, demonstrating the importance to achieving capability. Diversity in a group increases the information available for problem solving and enhances the ability of the group to generate effective and creative solutions to problems (Anconda & Caldwell, 1992; Bantel & Jackson, 1989).

Our view of women in combat has been shaped by traditional gender perspectives, consistently warrior women who don’t fit conventional gender roles have been marginalized, delegitimize, or, like Joan of Arc, sanctified after martyrdom (Markowitz, 2018). Gender perspectives shape our attitudes and inferences about war. When a young man gets recruited to Islamic State (IS) he is a combatant, yet when a woman makes the same choice, the narrative becomes different. She is called a victim, tricked, manipulated, taken advantage of. Laura Sjoberg (2018) found that with regards to the Iraq and Syria conflict, as has happened throughout history, women have unwittingly been characterised as victims of “masculine violence”. She found that a formal survey of stories of women involved in the conflict demonstrated that women combatants opposing IS were either silenced or sensationalised and females who joined IS were routinely portrayed as brainwashed and emphasized manipulation and/or helplessness (Sjoberg, 2018). Many stories can be found where female victims are characterised as helpless and in need of protection, facing terrible abuse from IS a continuation of the traditional war propaganda, inciting the male hero to come to the rescue - Join the War on Terror, save your helpless women. Sjoberg (2018) found that news stories of females contained stereotypical assumptions about women’s helplessness, even if those ‘victims’ have taken part in fighting. Effectively, these narratives remove choice from female perpetrators. By removing the responsibility of women to choose her role as a combatant, we remove accountability and thereby fail to respond appropriately to risk. This perspective puts our forces at risk of underestimating female combatants and also ensures that females within our militaries consistently receive the message that combat is not place for a woman, equally reducing opportunity to better respond to the changing needs of war. As our enemies successfully recruit and leverage women within their forces, we must recognise and embrace lessons from history.

How do we move forward?

Australia’s National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security 2021-2031 sets the agenda for move forward with aims to deliver on four outcomes:

  1. Supporting women’s meaningful participation and needs in peace processes
  2. Reducing sexual and gender-based violence
  3. Supporting resilience, crisis and security, law and justice efforts to meet the needs and rights of all women and girls
  4. Demonstrating leadership and accountability for WPS

With greater recognition of women’s capacity to mobilise into terrorist/combatant roles, more must be done to encourage women to represent a greater footprint in conflict zones, security policy and leadership. This is for both practical/cultural necessity posed by the need to engage with and search women, but also for the strategic opportunities presented by a diverse perspective.

Our societies play a part in reinforcing gender roles throughout childhood with rough-play, toughing up boys, encouraging competition and segregation. When making vast changes to this long-standing, culturally groomed system of war, analysis needs to consider all who are impacted. In order to successfully achieve integration, analysis on gender perspectives needs to include the impact of masculine perspectives.

Importantly, the concept of gender roles is a psychological and socially constructed set of ideas that are malleable to change (Levant & Wilmer, 2011). Through education, meaningful connections and integration; together we can start to shift perspectives. To do this we must reflect and challenge our own bias to understand other perspectives. We must embrace each other’s strengths and weakness by recognising as a team our differences are complimentary not divisive. We must support our (male/female/other) counterparts through the change journey for the benefit of a more effective force. We must recognise that challenging a construct which has been socialised and reinforced throughout history will create a sense of loss, disenfranchisement and anger in some people, which we will need to confront and move through together. We need to acknowledge this is a difficult process for everyone involved and it may not be a smooth journey but it’s necessary. We simply don’t have the numbers or skills to available to exclude people based on bias. For Men this process can challenge a historically enforced sense of identity, achievement and success but can be redefined through education, empowerment and purpose.


With the changing demographics of tomorrow’s soldier, resistance needs to be acknowledged so that the change process can be managed more effectively. Hence, understanding gender perspectives in war includes recognising that men will be impacted by women’s presence, specifically because it challenges their view of women, war, masculinity and identity. To effectively change such an enduring system of exclusion, the narrative must change to embrace gender (all) perspectives and respond to the broader needs of a modern workforce and to modern warfare. Continuing to operate through traditional gender stereotypes blinds forces from potential threats and impede efforts to recruit the best possible fighting force of the future.

The evolution of combat, technology and society has made women in combat a necessary strategic requirement to building a sustainable, competitive force into the future. Women throughout history have proven that they have the courage and resilience to support and participate in combat. Allowing women to serve in combat roles isn’t about political correctness or equity, it’s about having the best possible workforce for the future.

About the author

Amanda is an experienced Executive Human Resources and Project Leader specialising in creating and implementing business and workforce strategies, leadership development, transformation and change initiatives. Senior management and consulting experience across energy, mining and resources, health services, financial services and Government both in Australia and overseas.

Professional Experience

Amanda joined the Air Force in 2007 at a PCO, with a drive and passion for innovative people solutions. Over the course of her career she has acted as a leader in organizational design and development by helping to shape the organizational structure to meet the needs of the future. She has conducted deep dives into capability outputs across the workforce to respond to: new technologies, changing financial and political environments, and to build an agile, flexible and responsive workforce. She has done this within AFHQ, HQAC, HQCSG and HQACG. Since leaving the permanent Air Force in early 2014 Amanda has pursued a career in consulting specialising in change and transformation.


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