In the media

Ensuring that more women in the military choose to stay

Bitten Døjholt

By Bitten Døjholt, Trine Schultz, Stine Møller Jørgensen


03 June 2024

Many women encounter a workplace marked by gender discrimination and unwanted behaviour, making it difficult to retain them in the Armed Forces. We have outlined seven crucial steps and considerations essential for the cultural transformation of the Armed Forces.

A political majority in Denmark has agreed to introduce mandatory military service for women starting on January 1, 2027. This initiative aims to create a more gender-inclusive and diverse workforce in the military. However, experience from Norway, Sweden, and England show that the path to gender equality in the military is fraught with challenges and requires significant cultural change.This is also evident in Denmark, as recently highlighted in Altinget last week, where the Ministry of Defence’s Auditor General’s latest annual report from May 2024 showed that the military still faces issues with sexual harassment and abuse.

Despite public declarations and initiatives to promote gender equality, women still make up only 10% of the total workforce in the Danish military, even though they constitute 25% of the conscripts. Many women experience a work environment marked by gender discrimination and unwanted behaviour, making it difficult to retain them in the military.

Creating an inclusive culture

Our experience with cultural change in large organisations shows that cultural change is difficult. It requires structure and planning, and it is important to approach it using concrete actions, including work processes, the words used, meeting culture, and much more. Most importantly, it must directly involve the affected employees. It is a mistake to think that simply hiring a "diversity officer" will make a difference. To change culture and behaviour, everyone at all levels and in all roles must be invested and involved.

We have developed seven steps and issues to consider that are critical to success:

1. Define the purpose of the cultural change

First and foremost, there must be a clear and shared understanding of why cultural change is necessary and what is to be achieved. For the military, this involves promoting gender equality and creating an environment where women thrive and want to pursue careers. It is also important to clarify the desired culture and the values, attitudes, and behaviours to be promoted. This should be communicated in a way that makes sense to all employees.

2. Examine the current culture

Understanding the existing culture in the military, including informal rules and deeply rooted patterns of behaviour, is critical. This involves listening to both men and women at all levels to gain a comprehensive understanding of their experiences and viewpoints. Without this insight, change initiatives risk being rejected. Every organisation has cultural strengths that can be leveraged to promote change. In the military, values such as discipline, cooperation, and community can be identified and built upon to create a positive and motivating framework for change.

3. Obtain the necessary leadership support

Leadership must act as role models, displaying the desired behaviours. Leaders – from team leaders to the top of the military hierarchy – must be committed to and responsible for driving cultural change. This requires them to both understand and actively support the desired cultural goals.

4. Adjust structures and processes

The military’s structures, processes, and systems must be adapted to support the desired culture. This can include changes in HR policies and training programmes. Even small adjustments can send strong signals about the desired direction and support the overall cultural goals.

5. Feel the change – emotionally

To change behaviour, employees must experience an emotional connection. Logical arguments are rarely sufficient – people need to be engaged and feel the future. This can be achieved through stories, images, and experiences that engage employees and create a shared sense of purpose.

6. Nudge employees’ habits in the right direction

It is easy to underestimate the effect a small nudge can have – even a small change can have a significant impact, such as changing one word in an email. New habits will eventually change how people think, feel, and behave, leading to cultural change. Therefore, it is important to identify behaviour patterns that bring the military closer to the desired culture and find practical ways to nudge habits in that direction.

7. Listen and adjust continuously

Cultural change is a long-term process that requires continuous attention and adjustment. It is important to measure progress, celebrate successes, and be open to feedback to adjust efforts as needed.

We believe in the change

It is certainly possible for the military to create a more gender-inclusive and supportive culture that not only promotes gender equality but also strengthens the overall efficiency and well-being of the organisation. However, it requires sustained effort and patience. Only through persistent work and close involvement with all employees can the military achieve real gender equality and create an environment where both men and women thrive and contribute equally.

Read the article in Danish in Altinget.

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