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Women still rare in Germany's military

April 13, 2024

For the first time ever, a woman is commanding a German navy combat unit. But women are still underrepresented in the Bundeswehr.

Inka von Puttkamer, the new commander of the 3rd Minesweeper Squadron in the German Navy.
Inka von Puttkamer is the first woman to head a combat unit in the German navyImage: Axel Heimken/dpa/picture alliance

"The parade lineup follows my command," shouts Inka von Puttkamer during a ceremonial roll call at the Kiel naval base. She is the new commander of the 3rd Minesweeper Squadron — and the first woman to head a combat unit in the German navy.

All Bundeswehr careers have been open to women since 2001, when Germany changed its military service policy after a European Court of Justice decision in 2000 that granted women unrestricted access to all military careers.

"A lot has happened since then," Maja Apelt, military sociologist at the University of Potsdam, told DW. Indeed, there are many more women serving in the Bundeswehr today than some decades ago. In 1985, there were only 117 women in the service — a tiny fraction of military personnel. In December last year, more than 24,000 women were employed by the Bundeswehr.

New contact points, such as equal opportunities officers, were also established. "A lot has happened on the formal side," Apelt added.

But the total proportion of women is still low compared to the whole of the Bundeswehr. Those 24,000 women represent only around 13% of military staff. And most — more than 8,000 — are in the medical service. Minus these, the proportion of women in the Bundeswehr falls to less than 9%. This is despite the fact that the German government recently set its gender equality goal at 20%.

Germany is lagging behind

If Germany could reach that objective, it would surpass many other countries — but today, it is trailing several nations. For instance, the US Army now employs almost 20% women. Even the Marine Corps, a particularly demanding branch of the armed forces, is now almost 10% women.

In Europe, Norway is leading the way, with 15.7% female soldiers among its military personnel. In France, the proportion of women in its armed service stands at 16.5%.

NATO looks to recruit more women to its ranks

Germany's Bundeswehr commissioner in parliament, Eva Högl, emphasized the importance of the presence of women in the military in her most recent annual report. "They increase the quality of the service with their experience and skills: Studies show that mixed teams are always the best, and the strongest," she said.

Sociologist Apelt added that women in the Bundeswehr would ensure that women's issues and concerns would be taken into account in conflict zones.

The Bundeswehr already appears to be aware of this advantage. Defense Minister Boris Pistorius pointedly commented on the army's low proportion of women on a visit to the Bundeswehr Career Center in Stuttgart last August. "That's not enough. Incidentally, it doesn't do justice to the Bundeswehr's claim to be an all-citizen's group, a citizen army," he said.

In her report, Högl emphasized that Germany's claim to have a "citizens' army" has a long way to go, especially at the top level. "Even the few female soldiers with exemplary careers, for example, the first female Bundeswehr battalion commander, or the first female submarine commander in the navy — cannot hide that fact," the report said. There are only three women generals in the entire Bundeswehr — and they are all medical doctors.

A recent survey conducted by the Bundeswehr Center for Military History and Social Sciences showed that only 36% of young women aged 16 to 29 see the Bundeswehr as an attractive employer, while 56% of young men did so. Could these figures be the result of the lack of women in the military's leadership positions?

The military reflects society

Some other issues that might make the Bundeswehr less attractive for women might be the incompatibility of military service and family, and cases of sexual harassment. The Bundeswehr commissioner's report mentions the military's two-year general/admiral staff course, for example. The report said the training needs to be designed with more flexibility, and less frequent moves, which can be difficult for military personnel with children.

Sexual harassment is still an issue in the Bundeswehr. The commissioner's report states that in 2022, there were more than 350 reported events of "suspected crimes against sexual self-determination." An internal Bundeswehr study showed that 80% of those affected are women.

Apelt sees a larger social dimension in all of this, because the Bundeswehr reflects areas in which men dominate. "Hardly any profession is as closely linked to masculinity as a soldier," she said.

Germany's armed forces set to get overhaul

Still, Apelt said the higher number of women in the medical service shows that the Bundeswehr is not deterring them. But she emphasized that "role models are important," especially in leadership positions.

"It's important to see that it is possible: 'I'm not the only one, and it's conceivable for a woman to go this route.' Women in senior positions are, on the one hand, role models — and on the other, they can open doors, as well," she said.

Inka von Puttkamer also sees herself as a role model. But she thinks this should stop being a rarity in today's navy.

"It's a problem that being a woman is always emphasized," she said. "The Bundeswehr is offering both my husband and myself the opportunity of leadership positions and the ability to combine that with family life. It is stressful, no doubt about it. And it requires a lot of organization and advance planning. But it is possible."

This article was originally written in German.

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