Policy Proposals Security & Defence

Just as Important as Tanks and Submarines: Promoting Diversity in the German Armed Forces

In its new action plan for the implementation of the agenda “Women, Peace and Security”, the German government should set a target of 50% women in the medical service and 15% in all other branches of the Bundeswehr as well as announce diversity commissioners for the armed forces. This is not about image cultivation, but about ensuring the operational readiness of the German Bundeswehr.

Find the original article, in German, at PEACELAB.


In its new action plan for the implementation of the agenda “Women, Peace and Security”, the German government should set a target of 50% women in the medical service and 15% in all other branches of the Bundeswehr as well as announce diversity commissioners for the armed forces. This is not about image cultivation, but about ensuring the operational readiness of the German Bundeswehr.


The year 2020 marks the 20th anniversary of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 (UNSCR 1325) on Women, Peace and Security (WPS). It calls on the Member States to recognise the important role of women in security policy, to work to protect their rights and to involve them equally in peace processes. Germany and 82 other UN members are attempting to implement the provisions of the resolution within the framework of national action plans (NAPs).


The current German action plan (2017-2020) will expire parallel to the anniversary year. The German Government is therefore called upon to analyse the status of implementation and to begin planning a follow-up document.



There is also a need for action on the role of women in security policy in Germany


The National Action Plan has so far dealt with all facets of female participation in conflicts and their resolution in the spirit of UNSCR 1325, and has derived tasks for individual federal ministries from this. Women and girls are recognised as potential victims of crises, conflicts and wars, who must be given special protection. At the same time, however, the important role of women in conflict resolution and peace-building is also emphasised: Women are not only potential victims but also actors and as such should be valued, supported and involved.


Particularly with regard to the role of women as actors in security and peace policy, the German Government seems to see a need for action, especially in third countries. However, there is also potential for improvement in Germany – and here especially in view of the Bundeswehr. The expiring NAP formulates less ambitious goals in this regard. It states, for example, that the aim is to “increase the proportion of women, especially in leading positions” in the Bundeswehr, without, however, quantifying this goal in more detail.



Despite increasing numbers: Women remain clearly underrepresented in the Bundeswehr 


In fact, the number of female soldiers has increased slightly over the past three years. However, according to the latest report by the German Bundestag’s Ombudsman for the Armed Forces, their share of the troops is still at only 11%. In the medical service, the figure is 40.7%, while in all other branches of the armed forces it is only 8.6%. Women are thus clearly underrepresented in the Bundeswehr. This can also be seen in the Equal Opportunities for Soldiers Act, in which a female share of 50% in the medical service and 15% in all other careers has been the target since 2004.


Many of Germany’s NATO allies have succeeded in achieving a better gender balance in their armed forces, for example Canada (15.7%), Hungary (20%) or Slovenia (16.5%). Slovenia’s army has also recently seen a female Chief of Defence.



Counteracting staff shortages and ensuring the Bundeswehr’s operational capability 


Increasing the proportion of women in the Bundeswehr is neither an end in itself nor an image-building measure. It is a mandatory prerequisite for the operational capability of the armed forces.


While in connection with the lack of operational readiness of the German armed forces there are often complaints about submarines that are not afloat, aircrafts that are delivered too late, and immobilized tanks, it must not be overlooked that the Bundeswehr suffers from an at least equally glaring staff shortage. According to a report by the Ombudsman,“Wehrbeauftragter” as the position is called in German, more than 22,000 service posts are currently vacant – while the Bundeswehr is expected to increase by an additional 20,000 posts by 2025. In addition, there is not only a lack of personnel in uniform, but often also a lack of soldiers with key skills, for example in IT, medical services and electronics.


In view of the demographic change and the consistently good situation on the labour market, the Bundeswehr will not be able to solve its massive personnel problems as long as it mainly targets men. It needs female soldiers in order to access a sufficiently large talent pool. To do this, however, it must become more attractive to young women. Much has already been done in this direction. Especially under Minister of Defence von der Leyen, working time and career models have been made more flexible (which of course benefits not only female but also male soldiers), recruitment has been adapted and new bodies have been set up to promote equality.



Preventing sexual harassment and bullying against female soldiers 


However, the report of the Wehrbeauftragter makes it clear that another problem remains: The number of cases of sexual harassment and bullying against female soldiers remains high – a not insignificant number of unreported cases can be assumed. In the co-author’s own experience, the practice in the troops is unfortunately often such that, although meticulous attention is paid to gender-appropriate language in draft orders, sexually suggestive comments remain unpunished or are ignored. The behaviour of superiors and comrades is often in a grey area below the threshold of criminal or disciplinary relevance, but also beyond what is generally considered respectful. Soldiers in leadership positions in particular must be aware that this sabotages the operational capability of the armed forces just as much as a wrench in the gearbox of a tank.


The armed forces need women not only for the quantitative and qualitative coverage of their personnel. Today, the Bundeswehr plays an important role in German foreign and security policy and operates not only in combat missions, but mainly in training, advisory and training missions. It cooperates closely with soldiers and the civilian population in third countries and serves as a role model for them. A European Parliament study concludes that the employment of women in positions of responsibility – whether at the wheel of a motor vehicle or as military superiors – also has a positive influence on the role of women in host societies. Thanks to their female soldiers, contingents can also achieve greater acceptance in their host societies because they can more easily make contact with representatives of both sexes.


In the light of these arguments, we recommend that the new action plan should include as an ambitious and quantifiable goal an increase in the proportion of women in the Bundeswehr to 50% in the medical service and 15% in all other branches of the armed forces. Low representation of women makes the armed forces less attractive to potential female applicants and vice versa. In order to break this vicious circle, the Federal Ministry of Defence must work even harder than before to promote a culture of respectful treatment towards women in the Bundeswehr.



Gender concept: Thinking and acting beyond the binary understanding


In 2020, however, we need to think much further. Although UNSCR 1325 is primarily concerned with women in peace policy, it also talks of “gender perspectives” at various points. Thus, the resolution already suggested 20 years ago that the concept of gender should not only be understood in binary terms. Gender equality can only be fully achieved if openness and acceptance of different sexual orientations and gender identities, especially from the LGBTQI community, are guaranteed. This should apply to all federal ministries – but we see a particular need for action with regard to the armed forces, which are traditionally male-dominated.


Although the idea has already come up (e.g. in the UN debate on the successor Resolution 2493 in October 2019), to our knowledge internationally not a single NAP contains a reference to LGBTQI persons. Germany could take a pioneering role here – especially at the end of its non-permanent membership in the UN Security Council this would be a sign of progress and ambition.



A mirror of society? The Bundeswehr needs diversity commissioners 


Only a year ago, the Working Group of Homosexual Members of the German Armed Forces (AHsAB) complained that parts of the troops had been subjected to bullying, discrimination and even violence against queer soldiers. The Bundeswehr was lagging far behind civilian companies in its diversity management. So why should the military equal opportunity commissioners not take over the function of diversity commissioners?


Many arguments speak for more diversity in the armed forces. In Germany, the guiding principle is that the Bundeswehr should be a mirror of society – this includes not only men and women in uniform, but also LGBTQI, people with migration backgrounds or different religious beliefs. Broader studies dealing with the inclusion of women, people with migration backgrounds and LGBTQI persons in the military also show that diversity has many positive effects: The pool from which junior staff can be recruited becomes larger, inclusive decision-making processes lead to better results, and ultimately a more diverse army finds many more points of contact in the civil, pluralistic society from which it is recruited and which it is supposed to serve.


When formulating the new action plan for implementing the WPS agenda, the Federal Government should therefore commit itself to ambitious goals, especially with regard to promoting diversity in its own armed forces and a tolerant culture of mutual interaction. After all, floating submarines, flying airplanes and firing battle tanks are only useful if there is enough qualified personnel to operate them.



Rebekka Haffner

Rebekka Haffner is a political advisor to the European Organisation of Military Associations (EUROMIL) and an honorary member of the board of Women in International Security Brussels (WIIS). In this article she gives her personal opinion. @WIISBrussels


Sebastian Vagt

Sebastian Vagt is European Affairs Manager and security policy expert at the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom in Brussels. He served for 12 years as a naval officer in the German Armed Forces. @fnfnfeurope