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