Here’s what happened in South Africa
Our recent research on the South African Army shows that high hopes about gender integration in the military aren’t enough to make change. After apartheid ended, South Africa tried to make the army more representative of the country in both race and gender. Measures such as focused recruitment of women, introducing quotas and no longer restricting women from combat roles improved the gender balance. In addition, South Africa also introduced gender-mainstreaming policies with the aim of improving gender equality in the army.
As a result, female soldiers now make up just under 24 percent of South Africa’s full-time forces. Despite these efforts, we argue that expectations of a transformed and “regendered” military environment were not met.
How we did our research
We interviewed 50 individuals from a South African infantry battalion located near Cape Town. Participants were of different races; 68 percent were men, and 32 percent were women. We used both individual in-depth interviews and focus groups of four to five participants. We segmented the focus groups by rank and gender to make sure that power relations did not censor the conversation.
Through our research, we identify three reasons that South Africa’s efforts to regender the military fall short.
1. Female soldiers are seen as civilians
In our interviews, it was clear that both male and female members of the military see women primarily as civilians — and only secondarily as soldiers. While female soldiers were appreciated in certain circumstances, such as when communicating with the local population, both male and female respondents saw them first as women, mothers and wives and only secondly as soldiers.
Of course, many male soldiers were also fathers, but saw themselves as soldiers first and foremost. For example, a male lieutenant and father of three said:
I got an example in Sudan, we were in a refugee camp, the thing of being a mother, they could take care of the small kids. We as men couldn’t do that, because we don’t have that motherly connection.
While comments related to motherhood in general suggested including women in the military was positive, they also revealed an understanding of women as first and foremost civilian women, with their roles as soldiers taking a back seat. This was evident in another quote by a male lieutenant, who said:
When you have females around you, you are not just a soldier, you are human, and they are always trying to uplift you when things are not good.
Again, while this comment appears to support women’s participation in the armed forces, it reveals gender stereotypes of how men fight for women who embody “normal life” outside the military. These views suggest that male soldiers may not see women as a normal part of the military system.
2. Women are sexualized
In the interviews, women were “sexualized” because of their gender. Both men and women respondents discussed how female soldiers were able or unable to do certain tasks because of their sexuality. This was seen as positive in certain cases, as when female soldiers could use their perceived sex appeal to get information, exemplified in this quote by a female captain:
A male platoon commander will go on patrols, they [the locals] come to me as they become attracted to me as a female. I then exploit them using my femininity. I then talk to them and get the relevant information.
But this perceived sex appeal could also be interpreted as negative and shameful in other circumstances — for example, when female soldiers had sexual relationships with colleagues. A double standard was clear. Promiscuous male soldiers were seen as more masculine, while women were heavily stigmatized for breaking with norms of responsibility and fidelity. This double standard continues to undermine gender equality.
3. Women are seen as victims
The male soldiers in our interviews consistently referred to women as victims in need of their protection, rather than as soldiers. Here’s an example from a male lieutenant:
It is always in your mind that you are more at risk, because you try to keep them [women] out of danger. You actually have two jobs now, seeing to the females and what is happening up front.
Another quote mirrors this understanding of women as fundamentally different from and significantly weaker than male soldiers:
There is too much physical stuff, and they [women] cannot train beyond a certain point because you can damage some female things. Sometimes we have to help them to give them a break.
This type of reasoning reinforces gender stereotypes, which understand women as fragile, weak and passive and thus unfit to be soldiers.
Our research shows that while increasing the number of women does help to unsettle the dominant masculinity in the military, it does not fundamentally change attitudes or behavior. Gender-mainstreaming efforts often focus more on group disadvantage — i.e., on women’s disadvantages as an underrepresented group in the army — rather than on the structures that create the inequality.
Women in the military are already facing scrutiny and pressure as it is — so greater focus on changing the discriminating structures that perpetuate gender stereotypes might be the next step to achieve gender equality in the military.
Lindy Heinecken is a professor of sociology at Stellenbosch University who has published on armed forces and society. She is the author of a forthcoming book on South Africa’s post-apartheid military.