German army losing luster for female members | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 26.01.2014
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German army losing luster for female members

Women currently make up around 10 percent of the German military. All functions within the army have been open to them since 2001, but many still find integration difficult and the working environment hostile.

The German army has lost some of its appeal as an employer of women over the past years. According to recent surveys, only 57.3 percent of women serving in the Bundeswehr, the German armed forces, say they would choose their job again. By comparison, the figure was nine percentage points higher in 2005. Additionally, only 34.6 percent said they would recommend this path to a female friend.

These are the results of a study by Federal Ministry of Defense, based on surveys carried out by the Center of Military History and Social Sciences of around 5,000 members of the Bundeswehr, male and female, in 2011. The key questions posed were: "How well are women integrated into the army?", "Are they accepted by their male superiors and comrades?", "Are they vulnerable to sexual harassment?" and "What career opportunities do they have?"

Negative views among men

"The result is ambivalent," said project head and author of the study Gerhard Kümmel, adding that the integration assessments have "worsened" in some areas. Of the surveyed men, 34 percent think that women aren't suited to the "hash conditions" in the field - in 2005, it was just 28 percent. Over half of the males also stated that women are not suited to physically challenging activities. And only 77 percent are convinced that men can work well together with women in the army - a drop from 83 percent. More than half of the male respondents also said that women are evaluated too positively and receive preferential treatment.

Female German army officers undergoing armed combat training

Many men in the Bundeswehr feel that women should not take part in armed combat

Among the women, however, the desire to integrate and perform is still very high. Around 88 percent believe that all army sectors should be open to women - in contrast to just 62 percent of men. Among the males, 40 percent would like to see women excluded from combat operations, but only 28 percent of the women call for the same thing.

Sexual harassment and poor work-life balance

A big gap could be observed in the answers to questions concerning sexual harassment in the workplace. Every second female officer claimed to have experienced it, whether in the form of jokes, contact with pornography or unwanted physical contact. Sexual assault and rape, however, were only reported by 3 percent of the women. The men, on the other hand, did not report having experienced any sexual harassment.

There were only small differences in responses to questions on the subject of balancing work and family life. Both genders expressed an increased level of dissatisfaction. In 2011, only half of the respondents believed that army service and family life could be easily combined. Both sexes reported relationship problems resulting from Bundeswehr commitments.

Shortly before Christmas, German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen announced a push for more family-friendly conditions at the Bundeswehr as a result of mounting complaints. She stated that her aim was to make army service more appealing to people with families and to make the Budeswehr the best-liked employer in the country. Her ideas for doing so include creating more childcare facilities and part-time work opportunities. The frequency of relocations, which put stress on family life, is also to be reduced for soldiers.

Improvements in sight

Ursula von der Leyen visits German soldiers in Afghanistan

Von der Leyen wants to improve conditions for women in the Bundeswehr

Von der Leyen also wishes to make the armed forces more appealing to women. She has stated that the Bundeswehr benefits from increased numbers of female soldiers. In response to the problems presented by the study, she said that her ministry will closely examine the survey results and use them as a basis for reforms. "The Bundeswehr needs capable people, and these are both male and female in equal numbers," said Von der Leyen.

All positions in the German army have been open to women since 2001, but women are still a minority in the Bundeswehr. The only area where they have significant presence, over 40 percent, is in the medical service. In all other functions, they represent no more than around 10 percent of the service force. Nevertheless, there has been a small rise in applicants: last year, 14 percent of Bundeswehr applicants were female, according to Vice-Admiral Heinrich Lange, head of the leadership and armed forces department.

In 2013, around 18,000 women altogether served in the German army, representing around 10 percent of the total membership. And, added Lange, the first female leadership positions in the army were given out to some of those who joined in 2001.

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