Women, Warriors and Warfare: When the best man for the job is a woman

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Recently, I had the pleasure of seeing a LinkedIn post from an American Army colleague, on a photo of a group of Army women in Afghanistan. My colleague highlighted the fact that all the women pictured were Indigenous; “…of American Indian descent, a native Puerto Rican, an Islander and a native Mexican American…”  Not only is it awesome that Indigenous (historically marginalised) women are taking their rightful place in a profession of their choosing, but it’s also a charismatic and impactful photo of “…our warrior women in the field.”  

Indeed, they are warriors, soldiers engaged or experienced in warfare and showing great courage and vigour. Women soldiers around the world, from Kurdistan to Ukraine to Iraq, prove every day that their biological makeup does not make them any less able to serve, protect and defend. They jump from aircraft, fly drones that drop bombs, and participate in patrols that can turn deadly, as effectively as any man has traditionally demonstrated. But, as women, they bring much more than that to the ‘battlefield’. 

Conventional warfare on a battlefield is diminishing in the contemporary context, and different forms of stability and peace support operations are now the most common military tasks. In community and key leader engagement, cyber warfare, intelligence and many other military arenas, the presence of women has thus redefined the label of ‘warrior’.

Women have earned the right to be called warriors. They have played a vital role in world wars, from being enlisted in active duty (think Vivian Bullwinkle who survived the 1942 Banka Island massacre, or the Kurdish women fighting ISIS), operating as spies (like Nancy Wake, a prominent figure in the French Resistance during World War Two), or even non-military women taking up arms against militias, like Rezagul, a “symbol of courage” in Afghanistan who killed twenty-five Taliban fighters after they killed her policeman son. These might be unique examples, and are directly related to conflicts, but women, in modern day militaries, engage in ‘warfare’ every day.  

Every day, women show courage in meeting and overcoming the obstacles that serve as barriers to their progress and advancement. Their ‘combat readiness’, unique only to women, also means facing the pushback and resistance by men and others who proffer the old chestnuts of eroding group cohesion, lowering physical standards, or undermining combat effectiveness through gender equality agendas.

Why is this so? Simply because we continue to work on a legacy leadership model that favours the dominant gender – men – and assumes that existing standards and cohesion are perfect, with no room for improvement.  In any context, measuring everyone against one set of established criteria leads to a homogenous skillset and cultivation of one type of leader.  For example, women in many militaries around the world can now be recruited into infantry. That women can now be employed in combat roles, in Australia and across other Western nations, was the result of a change in policy emerging from pressure from advocates and society to provide women with equality of access to employment opportunities. Proponents to this policy argued that women would not be able to meet the standards, and herein lies the problem. 

Traditionally, military capability and effectiveness in conventional warfare has overemphasised physical factors, which, with innovative modern technology such as drones, is no longer as applicable as other skills in contemporary warfare. With this traditional view of capability, success in completing training is measured with decision criteria based on areas where males tend to excel. This translates to women having to meet the same physical standards as men, instead of all infantry recruits having to meet the same standards. One researcher, Darcy Corcoran, has suggested that measuring women against an established criterion like this example is “akin to asking a cat to act like a dog. You can train a cat to act like a dog, but a dog will always be the best at being a dog, and nothing is better at being a cat than a cat.” Of course, there are the few men that cannot achieve these standards, and there have been some exceptional women that have. But what about the rest?

In my book Against the Wind, published in 2020, I highlight the importance of women working in male-dominated professions being authentic in their leadership, authentic to their true nature as well as their femininity.  It makes them no less able to be ‘warriors’, but on their own terms and in different ways to men that can enhance operational effect. This notion of authenticity allows women (and men) to be judged for who they are, and as Corcoran suggests, “not shoved into a matrix of male qualities that I have to exhibit to compete for leadership roles.” Women and men can express their gender and different leadership styles to promote diversity of thought, enhance command and control, and create inclusive and collaborative teams. This includes perspectives and skill sets that Corcoran says “are lying dormant within a culture that sees the male infantry officer as its biggest leadership asset.”

I appreciate I may be touching on a raw nerve here, and many will jump to criticise my objections to equating gender equality with success in combat roles, that for many women and some men will never be achievable. But I strongly argue against women displaying self-defeating tactics to fit into that culture, such as becoming one of the boys, being ‘beige’, or relying on excessive feminisation. Instead, equality would be better served by embracing the differences between women and men and tapping into the strengths that both bring to the work environment or battlefield. This means accepting that physical strength is not the sole determinant of success in a combat soldier, and that teams are not effective if solely homogenous and masculine in nature. 

The battlefield is not just about combat. The need to include women in all roles to prevent, respond to and resolve conflict, has been made quite evident through operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, particularly regarding non-traditional security issues. The benefit of women on this battlefield is well researched and documented. In recent years we have witnessed several organisational innovations such as Female Engagement and Cultural Support Teams, Gender Field Advisors, and Gender Focal Points. 

Women soldiers are essential for certain tasks, such as addressing specific needs of female ex-combatants during the process of demobilization and reintegration into civilian life, interviewing survivors of gender-based violence, mentoring female cadets at police and military academies, interacting with women in societies where women are prohibited from speaking to men, and serving as role models in the local environment. Robert Egnell, respected Swedish veteran and academic, concluded that these competencies may be dismissed as unrelated to a traditional view of military fighting power. Indeed, as Australian Army Colonel Amanda Fielding once relayed of her experiences in 2015 as a gender adviser in Afghanistan, senior military planners and strategists were often “too busy fighting the war to worry about gender”. Egnell argued that women may prove essential in the complex operations of today as they have served as “force multipliers within a context that often required their participation for maximized effectiveness.” The material point here is that only women warriors can do these tasks which ultimately contribute to overall mission success.

Equally, although leadership skills are acquired and shown by both women and men, there exists certain differences in the basic traits and qualities possessed by women and men leaders. An American study across major corporations and business sectors found that women leaders were more assertive and persuasive, had a stronger need to achieveand were more willing to take risks than male leaders. Women leaders were also found to be more empathetic and flexible, as well as stronger in interpersonal skills than their male counterparts, enabling them to read situations accurately and take information in from all sources. Finally, they found women leaders were better able to bring others around to their point of view because they genuinely understand and care about other perspectives.

Are these not skills we want to encourage and embrace in our women warriors? Of course, it would be great for men to develop these skills too, but if they remain the remit of women, it makes sense to incorporate these skills into, and develop success criteria against, a new leadership model. Or, at the risk of raising further ire, set these as the standard and measure men against them. For sure, some of you will say these skills, measured in the corporate workplace, don’t translate to the battlefield. However, there is plenty of literature and books out there that espouse how lessons from the battlefield can be transferred to the corporate world, and while there were significant differences, there were many correlations. 

One American author, ex-Air Force Colonel Lee Ellis, posited that ultimately the three critical components of leadership, in business or the military, were character, competence and courage.  Both women and men can display these characteristics, they’re not gender specific; and for the battlefield, we should accept and embrace the different ways in which they are demonstrated.  If being a warrior is about displaying courage, vigour, and skill in warfare, then a woman is, more often than not, the best ‘man’ for the job!

 About the Author: Jen Wittwer is an international consultant working with UN Women in Ukraine and Jordan on gender mainstreaming in security sector organisations. She was the Australian Defence Force’s (ADF) first Gender Adviser to NATO operations in Afghanistan in 2013. Jen also led the implementation of the Australian National Action Plan on Women, Peace, and Security in the ADF from 2013-16, and she was seconded to the Peace and Security section of UN Women in New York in 2016-18. Jen is a keynote speaker and author, and her passion is mentoring and supporting women to achieve their full potential. More at www.jenniferwittwer.com.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s alone and do not represent those of the Department of Defence or the Australian government.