Norway’s Gender-Neutral Draft

June 23, 2016

During the last week of July, several hundred 19-year-old Norwegian women will do something they never expected to do: They will put on military uniforms and become conscripts. They are, in fact, the first female conscripts in any NATO country. In an audacious move that other countries are closely watching, Norway is introducing gender-neutral military service.

“Our goal is to get the most suitable and most motivated young Norwegians as conscripts,” Kjersti Klæboe, the head of the Norwegian Defense Ministry’s personnel department, told me. “We don’t have a quota or set number for the number of female conscripts we want, but we believe that there are many motivated and well-suited girls out there that the Armed Forces need.”

There are. Indeed, Norway’s 2016 conscript class is the closest the developed world has ever come to gender-neutral armed forces. (While Israel still considers a teenager’s gender in assigning him or her to a unit, the Norwegians will be completely gender-blind.) Earlier this year, all boys and girls born in 1997 completed the armed forces’ physical examinations and mental aptitude tests. As in previous years, the armed forces have picked their 10,000 favorite youngsters, with the difference that this year it had some 60,000 rather than the usual 30,000 candidates to choose from. Of the successful candidates, 32.7 percent were women. The largest contingent of new conscripts reports for duty during the final week of July.

Norway has a long tradition of drafting its men for military service; today the country has professional soldiers as well as conscripts and career officers. And unlike most other countries’ armed forces, the Norwegian military enjoys a stellar reputation on the labor market: In a recent poll of university students’ favourite employers, the military ranked fifth among information technology students (beaten only by Google, Microsoft, the country’s largest phone company, and a consulting giant).

As a result, Norwegian teenage girls have not been terribly alarmed at the news that they too will have to perform military service. I asked Cecilia Hagen, a 19-year-old who is currently serving in the Brigade North armored battalion and belongs to a smaller group of conscripts drafted earlier this year, how she felt about having been drafted. “I wanted to do military service because it was something completely new for me,” she said. “And you get to spend a lot of time outdoors.” Hagen asked to be placed in the armored battalion where she was joined by two other female conscripts.

The Norwegian military has some experience with gender-neutral warfare. For the past 31 years, women have been able to serve as volunteer conscripts, professional soldiers, and officers and in every specialty including the infantry and submarine units. In 1995, the Norwegian navy appointed the world’s first female submarine commander, and its general Kristin Lund is the United Nations’ first female peace-keeping commander.

Today women make up 10 percent of Norwegian soldiers and officers. Female candidates undergo the same admissions= exams as male soldiers, perform the same duties, and sleep in the same tents and bedrooms (no partitions), though they do have their own showers. When the military first introduced mixed-gender bedrooms several years ago, Klæboe was sceptical. “When I heard about it the first time I was shocked,” she said. “I thought, this is never going to work. But I’ve realized that the soldiers see one another as buddies, not potential dating partners. In a sense, sharing bedrooms desexualizes them.” At a recent officer entrance exam observed by this writer, male and female candidates performed an identical set of fitness tests before heading out to the forest for a mock exercise. None of them appeared uncomfortable sharing a small tent with members of the opposite gender.

Since there’s no quota for female conscripts, the military had to plan the practical details in the dark. While the bedrooms would not require alteration, until last month the planning staff had no idea how many female-sized uniforms and boots they would need to order.  Navy Captain Per-Thomas Bøe, the armed forces’project manager for gender-neutral conscription, who has led the preprations for the revolutionary step, told me that male toilets are currently being converted to unisex ones, and the military has also converted barracks in order to accommodate the larger share of female soldiers. Many barracks, Bøe explained, were built in the 1950s when Norway only had male soldiers who showered once a week. But it’s not just because of the new female conscripts, he insisted: “Now we have both sexes and this generation showers twice a day. We’re converting the barracks for practical reasons, not because the female soldiers expect higher standards.”

But uniforms and shower stalls are a minor detail compared to male and female combat duties. Opening all military specialties to women, let alone extending the draft to women, is not uncontroversial. Especially in the infantry, which requires soldiers to carry heavy equipment over long distances, women’s typically smaller body frame may pose a challenge. In Norway, though, more than 20 percent of the conscripts admitted to the infantry this year are women, according to figures given to me by the armed forces. And Lieutenant-Colonel Aleksander Jankov, the Norwegian army’s spokesperson told me that enlisted and volunteer conscript female soldiers already serving in the infantry are often as good or better than their male colleagues.

Indeed, Norway’s gender-neutral conscription addresses a global concern: young people’s increasingly sedentary lifestyle. “Today’s average teenagers are less fit than they were a generation ago,” said Bøe. “There are larger differences between young men who are fit and those who are not than between our enlisted men and women, because teenagers who exercise are very fit.” Unfit youngsters are posing a serious challenge to Western militaries. In the United States, a recent study reported that one third of young adults in America are too fat to enlist. In broadening its conscript pool to women, Norway is giving itself more fit candidates to choose from.

Not surprisingly, other countries’ armed forces are watching the Norwegians closely. “All militaries watch each other, and Norway’s move may hold particular interest given that the Senate Armed Services Committee in the United States has just approved the proposal for American women to be subject to Selective Service,” explained Joanne Mackowski, an expert on women in the military at RUSI, a London security think tank. “It will be interesting to see how well the female conscripts function — with the demands of the job and with each other — when they have been required serve rather than having volunteered to do so.”

Female warriors are a fast-growing trend, with most Western countries now removing bans on women in combat. Norway and Israel were first, opening combat positions to women 31 years ago. In 1988 Denmark passed a total-inclusion law, opening every military specialty to women. Sweden and Canada followed the year after, though Canada kept submarine warfare all-male for another 11 years. As of January, every specialty in the United States armed forces is open to women, and the British government has announced plans to lift all restrictions on female soldiers as well.

But as the Norwegians have found out, even when women have the right to serve in every military specialty, their numbers remain low. Currently the rate of female soldiers in the U.S. armed forces is around 15 percent, and most other countries are in the same range. For most women, the military is not an obvious career choice.

That’s why Norway’s gender-neutral draft makes sense. Not only does it give commanders a wider pool of conscripts to choose from, but it also introduces far more women to military life. Many of the female conscripts, the thinking goes, will subsequently opt for a military career.

Norway’s female conscription may fail to create a 50-50 gender division among officers and professional soldiers, but at the very least it will serve as a laboratory for other countries. And in the meantime, it will give Norwegian commanders their pick of conscripts and thus future reservists. Facing her first day of military service, Hagen confessed to having no idea whether a military career might appeal to her. But she told me that  her parents were proud of her having been chosen for military service.

 

Elisabeth Braw is a London-based Senior Consultant at Control Risks and a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council. She also contributes to Foreign Affairs and writes the Transatlantic Connection blog for the World Affairs Journal. Views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of her employers.