Two years ago, 19-year-old Mari Gillebo reported for duty as a professional soldier in central Norway. Far from being a minority in her air defense battalion, she had joined a unit that was 50 percent female. And the female soldiers were treated exactly like their male colleagues, even sharing sleeping quarters with them.
Gillebo didn’t mind the mixed-gender bedrooms. Like most Norwegian children, she had grown up doing virtually everything in a coed setting: playing on mixed-gender sports teams and learning woodworking and home economics in secondary school together with both boys and girls. “But I was very skeptical about the 50/50 split,” she told me. “I don’t really like female quotas.” Women should be given positions based on ability, not gender, Gillebo argued.
Gillebo’s battalion, the Norwegian Air and Missile Defense Battalion of the 138th Air Wing at Orland Main Air Station, is an experiment that comes after years of failed attempts to increase the share of female soldiers and officers in the Norwegian military. Together with Israel, Norway was the first country to completely abolish gender barriers in the armed forces, opening all combat positions to women in 1988. Since then, the armed forces have waged a valiant fight to attract women, not just targeting them in recruitment campaigns but launching open-house weekends for those curious about military life. And it has promoted female officers to the highest level: three years ago, Major General Kristin Lund of the Norwegian Army became the United Nations’ first female peacekeeping commander.
Even so, after nearly 30 years, only ten percent of Norway’s soldiers and officers are women. And according to a report by Forsvarets Forskningsinstitutt (the government-run Norwegian Defense Research Establishment), more than 12 percent of female troops between 20 and 24 years leave the armed forces, while the rate among male troops is less than eight percent.
In 2014, the Norwegians thus resolved to try a radical experiment, turning the Air and Missile Defense Battalion into a 50 percent male/50 percent female unit, in which the men and women carry out the same duties and have the same living arrangements, including shared bedrooms. The armed forces reasoned that a setup in which women were no longer a small minority would change the way a fighting unit operates. The female share is typically much higher among support functions such as medics, but this seems to be a result more of habit than of ability: because there are so few women in combat units, it feeds the notion that females are not as good at fighting. The women selected for the Air and Missile Defense Battalion had to meet the same standards as the men.
Defenders of the experiment point out that “young people today are used to being together in school and going about their hobbies before they come to us,” as Lieutenant Colonel Stein Maute, the Air and Missile Defense Battalion’s commander, told me. “It’s just us in the armed forces who look at this as something new.”
And for them, it really is quite new. It wasn’t until 1988 that Norway lifted its ban on women in combat roles. Before that, female soldiers were confined to supporting roles, such as medics, which usually kept them apart from male soldiers. Israel lifted its own ban in the same year. The United States and the United Kingdom did so only last year. Although most countries now allow women in combat, full gender integration is still far off. Male and female soldiers typically sleep in separate bedrooms and use separate shower rooms; when they sleep in tents, there are partitions.
The main argument against full integration is that it brings the risk of romantic entanglements and sexual harassment and undermines effectiveness. According to a RAND study, in 2014, 4.9 percent of female U.S. soldiers and officers reported having been sexually harassed. A Norwegian Armed Forces survey from 2015 showed that 18 percent of female and two percent of male service members had experienced sexual harassment, although only one percent considered the harassment to be serious. To those concerned about sexual harassment, full gender integration would be a recipe for more trouble. At Harvard University, which has coed dorms for undergraduates, a 2015 survey showed that 31.2 percent of women have experienced sexual harassment ranging from touching to rape; 75 percent of the rapes and rape attempts took place in dorms.
The armed forces reasoned that a setup in which women were no longer a small minority would change the way a fighting unit operates.
But the provision of separate facilities also requires additional effort and expense and, as the Norwegian Armed Forces reasoned, isolates the female soldiers. “The fact that the boys and girls share rooms, exercise together, eat together, and work together leads to less harassment and more cohesion between the genders,” Maute said. Only a handful of the female soldiers experienced sexual harassment, and even in those cases it didn’t go beyond insensitive jokes. None of the women considered it a serious matter. And, Gillebo told me, “many girls ended up doing a lot of sports and exercise with the boys, probably more than they would have done if they had been more to themselves.”
Indeed, the entire point of full integration was to make male and female soldiers think of each other as just soldiers. “What surprised me was that gender didn’t seem to exist in the unit,” Nina Hellum, a social anthropologist at Forsvarets Forskningsinstitutt, told me. “It exists,” she clarified, “but it hardly plays any role at all.” Hellum observed the 50/50 unit for the entire two years and documented her findings in an October 2016 report. Although eight soldiers began dating, they only fraternized off base. The one time Hellum found a man and a woman in the same bed, they were watching a film fully dressed. In confidential interviews with the soldiers, she heard of only one case of sex on base.
Others are similarly positive about the experience. It took a while to get used to sharing bedrooms with men, Gillebo told me, but she added that both female and male troops thought it made sense since they spent so much time working together anyway. What about sexual harassment? “Sure, some boys commented on some girls’ looks,” Gillebo told me, “but not more than you’d get in civilian life.” Hellum added: “Military life is not very romantic. You work hard all day, and you see each other in very unattractive situations.” Mixed sleeping quarters can help female soldiers feel part of the group—and help male soldiers accept them as such. “This way you’re more friends with the boys,” one of the female soldiers told Hellum. “If there had been a separate girls’ room they would probably have been more curious.” Gillebo told me the atmosphere was very “buddylike,” more like “a sibling relationship” than anything else.
The 50/50 division was key: with the men no longer in the majority, their behavior didn’t set the tone. All cavorting on base is banned, as are locker-room talk and pinup posters. The female soldiers interviewed by Hellum told her that for them, the cohort of women was positive. If there had been only a handful of females in the battalion, one of them told Hellum, “I would have had to become one of the boys.” When Hellum individually showed male and female troops pinup posters, their reaction was, “That would never be allowed here.” Hellum also observed less crude joking about women than she has seen in other Norwegian units; indeed, immigrants were more often the subjects of insensitive jokes. Among the men there was some joking about women, Gillebo told me, “but the girls sometimes joked about the boys, too.”
Hellum concluded that constant exposure to the other gender challenges stereotypes and suggests that an increase of female troops can reduce “unwanted masculine behaviors” across the armed forces. That’s especially important given that last year Norway became the first NATO country to introduce gender-neutral conscription. The 50/50 experiment is now over, of course, but the female share of the battalion’s soldiers—who are now conscripts—remains high at 45 percent.
There are, of course, military units that may never reach gender parity—namely, the Special Forces or the infantry, which require massive physical strength. But all in all, the Air and Missile Defense Battalion’s findings could profoundly change military planning. No longer would armed forces have to provide separate sleeping quarters for women, which adds time and expense to logistic planning. But can the experiment be exported to other countries? A female colonel in the French army told me that in France, for one, it wouldn’t fly. “Single-sex rooms are better, as morning and evening are the only moments when it’s possible to have some privacy,” she said. Besides, she added, France doesn’t have a recruitment problem, so “if the military does not recruit more women, it’s probably because we don’t need more.” (The colonel declined to speak on the record, as she was not commenting on behalf of the French Armed Forces.) But that privacy means women are marginalized from the unit’s male majority and risk being seen as a separate, second-rate team.
Indeed, for countries that need to beef up their share of female fighters, 50/50 units and full gender integration is the best way forward, argued Professor Robert Egnell, head of the Department of Security, Strategy, and Leadership at the Swedish Defense University. “They should focus on selected units where you can really raise the female share, rather than putting a few women here and there,” he told me. Giampaolo Di Paola, Italy’s defense minister from 2011 to 2013, agreed. “It’s better to have women in greater numbers in certain units rather than spread them thinly everywhere,” he said. “But then again we fall into the issue of abilities and capabilities, which can prevent the implementation of this policy.” Another question is how to treat soldiers who, for religious reasons, don’t want to sleep in mixed-gender bedrooms. In Sweden, where Muslims make up around five percent of the population, some city councils have made special arrangements for Muslim students, for example giving them the option of not spending the night during school trips, as well as the right to use individual shower stalls after sports lessons.
There is also, of course, what is ultimately a more important consideration: Are units with 50 percent women and mixed sleeping quarters better at fighting? Several serving male officers in NATO countries expressed doubts. One of them, who is currently serving in Afghanistan, pointed out that “living together and fighting together are two different things.” There must be no risk of emotional or sexual distraction, he said, because “on occasion, you have one second to decide.” But at the Air and Missile Defense Battalion, Maute reported having observed his troops performing better as a result of simply being treated like soldiers, with neither men nor women thinking of the latter as a weak link. “We’re not seeing any difference between women and men during exercises with live ammunition,” Maute told me. “And we’re not seeing any difference between the genders in NATO-standard evaluations. We’re just seeing soldiers, and they are very good soldiers.”