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By Mrs E. Dill-Russell

“Let me be very clear that women do not serve in order to demonstrate our gender equality… The female soldiers serve because they have the right training, skills and motivation. We would never allow inferior soldiers to serve, the risks to the individual, unit or equipment would simply be too high.”

[i] – Statement by Norway on gender equality in the military (Forum for Security Cooperation, Vienna, 2017)

NZDF is really only beginning to discover what the inclusion of women can do and the force-multiplying effects it can have. I believe that including dialogue about the increase in capability that women bring to the table will aid the inclusion of women in the NZDF and go some way toward negating negative sentiment from their male colleagues. This, when combined with a common set of standards for all service personnel, will allow not only a more inclusive force, but also a more effective one.

DFO 3 Chapter 2 states “The long-term success of the NZDF as a modern military organisation requires an understanding of and commitment to equity and diversity. NZDF commanders and managers operate in an increasingly diverse and integrated environment…. All members of NZDF are encouraged to contribute their full range of skills and experience… Service and employment in the NZDF is focussed on achieving and maintaining operational effectiveness. The application of equity and diversity principles enables the NZDF to operate optimally in all environments.”[ii]

I pose that in today’s operational environment women in the NZDF are capable of everything their male counterparts can do. But we need to also focus on the benefits of gender to capability.

The present article discusses facets of women’s inclusion in defence, with a focus on recruitment and specific capability. It argues that when this development is achieved, the inclusion of women in the armed forces not only increases effectiveness, it decreases operational risk and increases the capability of the force. Finally, it will challenge the current dialogue on in-service women, the differentiation of standards for women and men, and pose measures to increase both inclusivity and effectiveness.


We must begin this discussion at the door to the military and how the NZDF recruits women. Are we getting the best and brightest? Are we getting enough, and do they even want to come? I sat in the Air Force Women’s’ Conference in 2014 and listened to a few of the best and brightest girls from a local high school speak. To say they were smart and motivated was an understatement; many had achieved more than most of the adults I know had at the age of 30. Their passion and drive was inspirational, yet when asked if any were thinking about joining the military when they left school, the answer was an embarrassed but resounding “No”. The reasons varied between interest in other areas, and having heard it can be difficult. This was likely a polite way of saying its not a place we would want to work because the stories we have heard about being a female in the military are not good and we do not want to be treated like that. This experience in particular resonates with me because I also remember seeing the lunchtime presentations by the military at my all-girls Anglican school and thinking, thanks but no thanks.

So why is the military not appealing to young women and what can we do to change that? I believe our recruitment focusses far too much on women being given the right to join the military, as if it is some divine gift. NZDF needs women in the Services more than it ever has before, and we are not articulating this well. The desire to serve and requirement to protect one’s country are some of the prime motivators espoused for joining the military. However, why would you do so when you constantly feel like you are on probation and the military is doing you a favour? That the military needs women in order to be effective is not discussed, and indeed from my personal experience in this area I believe the great majority of the military probably are not aware that this lack of discussion is an issue.


So why does the military need women and how do we articulate this? Bluntly said, the military needs women because the global conflict environment is changing . Conflict in the twenty-first century is won by the smartest tactician who uses all tools at his or her disposal within the short time-frame needed for response. Increasingly, we are seeing opposition fighters doing exactly that: making use of all the tools available to them, including women, and because of our reticence to do so and the time we are taking to develop our training methods in these areas we are being left behind.

Time now to discuss the unique capabilities that women contribute to the armed forces. Women have far superior access to the female population, and when women are used as primary supply lines for weapons – as in the case of Afghanistan – this access is vitally important to disrupt the flow of weapons to enemy forces. [iv] Women can also be the peace makers and peace holders in matriarchal societies. It may be impossible to stop men fighting without the influence of their mothers who are able to lay down the law, and access to these women may not be achievable by men. In previous research I have undertaken on this topic, women have also been described as peacemakers, but for another reason. Women can be a de-escalatory presence in a situation which can be the single reason for a meeting not becoming a firefight. As a result of this, a soft knock becomes more viable, the necessity for hardware such as guns and bombs becomes less, and the risk to all personnel is decreased.[v]

But what happens when the women are the bombs or the fighters wielding guns. As we have seen used by Boko Haram in Nigeria and the Islamic State in Iraq, women can also be weapons of war.[vi] [vii] Females have an exponentially higher penetration rate as suicide bombers as their presence is less suspicious and their garb can be more appropriate for hiding explosives. Further, the involvement of women in fighting can have a disproportionate effect, depending on the culture of the adversary. There have been accounts that some Islamic State fighters believe they will not be martyred when they die if they are killed by women, and other fighters are hesitant to shoot women as by virtue of their gender they are not considered combatants.[viii] In our own culture to shoot/throw/run/ like a girl is considered derogatory and so women are seen as less physically competent and therefore less threatening. It is remarkable that this has yet to be capitalised upon considering the potentially significant information operations effects.

Our allies have made use of these capabilities in numerous ways such as Operation Lioness (US), Female Engagement Teams (FETs) (US) and the Hunter Force (Norway). However, New Zealand is falling behind in this area with its ‘she’ll be right’ attitude and a ‘make it up as you go along’ methodology. Numerous New Zealand operations in Afghanistan used gender capability at times. However, this was never formalised. [ix] Our capability as a small and agile force with operations based primarily in the Southwest Pacific gives us the opportunity to test and train these gender capabilities in such a way that our allies cannot and have not. Cultures in the Southwest pacific are markedly different to that of the rest of the world – New Zealand culture itself is markedly different to that of our allies – and as such the inculcation and utilisation of gender capability could be an area in which New Zealand can make a unique contribution.

Changing the dialogue

We have now articulated the value of women in the military, but how do we change the dialogue? It requires two distinct changes to current practice: removing arbitrary equality based controls used to allow women in the door; and then recognising the different contributions women can make to military operations.

Firstly, I pose that we remove all gender based fitness levels from entry to all military services onward. The implementation of the lower standard for women automatically alienates them amongst their male peers where physicality is considered a prime measure of credibility and capability.

Figure 1: NZ Defence Careers Recruitment Fitness Test (as at 8 August 2017)

NZDF recruitment/entry fitness levels

Fitness levels should instead be set by role, i.e. a higher fitness level required for more physical jobs such as infanteers. Of course a minimum level would remain for entry to basic training. However, in my opinion, the policy-driven alienation of women is set in the different fitness standards. Eliminating this difference would give all personnel equal opportunity to achieve entry into their desired trades and more accurately match physical capability with job requirements. Further, it would decrease negative sentiment amongst male personnel who perceive the lower standards for females as unfair and immediately instils a perception that women are less capable. This effectively creates a one-standard rule for both genders. “De-gendering an occupation by establishing gender-neutral standards truly reflective of requirements for the success of missions is an important step towards removing incentives and opportunities for gender harassment.”[xi]

The UK army now has role-based fitness assessments defining entry into the trade. “Successful integration starts with judging service members as individuals, using validated, gender-neutral occupational and strength standards, rejecting quotas and ceilings, and the fair application of training methods of maintaining order, morale and discipline…All of us want to be judged on our own ability and achievements, not presumed group characteristics. The millennial generation has grown up in a gender-integrated society, competing as individuals in education and the workplace. It should come as no surprise if they view the British Army as anachronistic for sanctioning gender discrimination. ”[xii] If the UK, from which we derive our military standards, can remove fitness based gender discrimination and alienation, why are we not doing the same?

Figure 2: UK Ministry of Defence Role Based Fitness Levels (Army Fitness Selection Standards)

Secondly, I propose that research is conducted into specialist ways that gender can be capitalised upon to achieve mission effectiveness. I began my research on this in 2014 and it yielded compelling evidence that the use of female military personnel in an ad hoc way in Afghanistan contributed to the effective achievement of mission tasks. It is evident we have only scratched the surface of what women can achieve within the military and for the military, and more needs to be investigated such as the effects of the presence and action of female military personnel in cultures outside of the West (nations in which there are currently or predicted to be military deployments). The identification and development of unique capabilities that increase unit effectiveness and mission accomplishment will increase the perception of women amongst their male peers as their contribution is increased and male soldiers realise their contribution over and above normal soldiering. The effects and achievements of these capabilities should then be publicised so as to increase the perception of female soldiers in the eyes of their male counterparts. The men must see the contribution to believe it.

Once this capability is determined, we must begin training willing and capable women in order to realise operational benefits. We began well by identifying that gender has a place to contribute on operations. However, we must move on from the ad hoc employment that is the status quo. The NZDF Commander’s Guide to Women Peace and Security is a good start, but it does not go far enough and is too easily set aside for more pressing tasks.[xiv] I propose that each pre-deployment training should identify deploying female candidates, provide additional training on roles and activities that will be expected of them, and educate commanders on the toolset available to them. This must be co-ordinated with culture training on the deployment location in order to correctly utilise the gender toolset to the force’s greatest advantage. Again, the achievements of this capability must be publicised in order to encourage those reticent to champion the inclusion of women and the additional capability they contribute.


Women are achieving within the Defence Force – however, we can be doing more to capitalise on the breadth of their capabilities. This is not to pigeonhole those who want to operate purely within their corps occupations, but to identify potential toolsets in those who are willing and capable to augment NZDF operational ability. In order to achieve this we must get the right women in the door and to do this we must re-educate the New Zealand public from a ‘you can’ join the military call to a ‘you should’ join the military and ‘this is why’.

They must join the military because women can do things men cannot in cultures that do not allow the interaction of men and women. Furthermore, they can have different effects to those of men completing the same task, be that kinetic or non-kinetic. Without capable women who are trained to capitalise on this toolset, we risk degrading our capability compared to that of the enemy, who is willing to use the full capabilities of the women.

Further, we must stop disadvantaging those women who do join by alienating them amongst their male peers with different achievement standards. NZDF Policy is contradictory in that it demands effectiveness but defines effectiveness differently between genders. Effectiveness should be defined by role capability, not gender, allowing women to achieve on the same levels as men. This will then negate the perception that men have to work harder than women to achieve the same perceived levels of capability and effectiveness, i.e. fitness pass rates.

Without this double standard, I believe the negative perceptions of women in defence held by some will begin to change and thus the incentive to join the NZDF will be increased. When we increase the incentive for women to join the military and decrease the perceived negative aspects by changing the culture, we will be far more likely to get the best and brightest who are currently saying no. We will then have depth of capability to fully investigate the potential of gender effects and, when capitalised upon, the NZDF becomes more operationally effective.



Works Cited

Associated Press. (2017, July 3). Female ISIS Suicide Bombers Attack Iraqi Troops in Mosul. Retrieved August 11, 2017, from New York Post:

Braw, E. (2017, January 27). Norway’s radical military experiment. Retrieved July 17, 2017, from Majalla Magazine:

Brown, G. (2017). The Army’s Identity Crisis. Parameters 46 (4), 7-12.

Bryant Mariner, R. (2014, September 17). Gender Bias has no Place in the British Army. Retrieved August 8, 2017, from

CNN Wires. (2017, August 10). Boko Haram Favours Women, Children as Suicide Bombers Studr Reveals. Retrieved August 10, 2017, from Fox 2 Now:

Dalaaker, A. (2017, March 8). Statement by Norway on Gender Equality in the Military – Universal Conscription. Forum for Security Cooperation Vienna. Vienna, Austria: Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Earle, G. (2014, September 19). ISIS Fighters Terrified of Being Killed by Female Troops. Retrieved August 11, 2017, from New York Post:

Gold, E. (2014). The operational effectiveness of female military personnel in Afghanistan. Wellington.

Knarr, W., Glicken Turnley, J., Stewart, D., Rubright, R., & Quirin, J. (2014). Special Operations Forces Mixed-Gender Elite Teams. Tampa: Joint Special Operations University.

New Zealand Defence Force. (n.d.). Retrieved August 8, 2017, from New Zealand Defence Force:

New Zealand Defence Force. (2016). Commander’s Guide to Women Peace and Security. Wellington: New Zealand Defence Force.

NZDF. (2010, April 7). Defence Force Order 3, Chapter2. Wellington, New Zealand: NZDF.

UK Ministry of Defence. (n.d.). Army Fitness Selection Standards. Retrieved August 8, 2017, from UK Army:


[i] (Dalaaker, 2017)

[ii] (NZDF, 2010)

[iii] (Brown, 2017)

[iv] (Gold, 2014)

[v] Ibid

[vi] (CNN Wires, 2017)

[vii] (Associated Press, 2017)

[viii] (Earle, 2014)

[ix] (Gold, 2014)

[x] (New Zealand Defence Force)

[xi] (Knarr, Glicken Turnley, Stewart, Rubright, & Quirin, 2014)

[xii] (Bryant Mariner, 2014)

[xiii] (UK Ministry of Defence)

[xiv] (New Zealand Defence Force, 2016)