A Look at Norway’s Approach to Gender-Neutral Conscription
October 22, 2021
Content warning: This article contains mentions of derogatory and sexist language.
In 2015, Norway became the first NATO member and the first European country to introduce compulsory military service for both men and women. Since then, the percentage of women in the Norwegian armed forces has been steadily rising. In 2020, 33% of people who completed the initial compulsory military service were women. However, only a small percentage goes on to seek a career within the armed forces. Contemporary academic literature points to possible reasons for this, central among these are statistics of sexual harassment and bullying within the forces. This article will take a look at the Norwegian forces’ approach to compulsory military service.
Some form of conscription, or compulsory military service, is thought to have existed since antiquity. The modern version of national conscription specific to young men has its roots in the French revolution. Norway introduced a conscription system in 1799, which was further solidified in the Constitution of 1814. It would take over two hundred years for women to be included in the draft.
Conscription has rarely been considered an important issue in feminist discourse. Scholars Heikkilä and Laukkanen made the case that it has been neglected in many ranking systems of gender equality. This could be because many countries have discontinued their use of conscription over the past decades. There are relatively few countries in the world that enforce what we would consider “traditional” conscription, with a draft on over 20% of the whole age group. Norway falls under the category of limited conscription, as the catchment is well below the 20% threshold. Another potential reason why conscription for both genders is neglected is that even in countries that rank high on gender equality, the ancient notion of men as “just warriors” and women as “beautiful souls”, as described by Elshtain, is hard to dismantle.
However, after an overwhelming majority vote in 2014, the Norwegian government introduced compulsory national service for both men and women born in 1997 and after. Before this, women could volunteer to join the military, but by 2016 they were subject to the same process as men. Following this, the number of women completing the draft has increased.
Percentages of women in each yearly draft:
· 2017: 21%
· 2018: 28,5%
· 2019: 29%
The recruitment process is divided into two sections. Every draftable Norwegian gets sent a self-declaration form by the armed forces. In this questionnaire, one has to provide details on physical and mental health, criminal records, and motivation to join the forces. Based on these answers, the armed forces invite who they consider the most fitting candidates onto the second selection process.
Out of around 60 000 draftable, 17 500 are invited to this next step. Out of the 17 500, around 8 500 are chosen to join the military. Around 7 500 of these complete their compulsory national service, which amounts to ca. 13% of each year group. Thus, even though Norway technically has conscription, the majority of the draftable age group does not serve. In fact, the majority of the conscripts are drafted because they have a strong motivation and ability to join the forces. Nevertheless, the compulsory nature of the service means that some Norwegians will have to serve regardless of their lack of motivation.
During the second selection round, the candidates must travel to a recruitment center, where they undergo physical tests, an intelligence-based test, and a doctor’s visit. The tests are graded, and the candidate’s grades are used to find a fitting position within the military. The grade is based on a number system where 1 is the lowest and 9 is the highest. To qualify, your overall grade must be an average of 5. Women and men have different requirements for physical tests. For instance, the requirements for grade 5 for the standing long jump is 2,20 meters for men and 1,90 meters for women. The top grade is the same for both men and women in all tests and is based on the expected top requirement for men. Therefore, the step from grade 8 to 9 for women requires a lot more than on men’s scale.
Before the candidates at the second selection are sent back home, they are informed whether they will be called to serve, and potentially which branch of the military they will serve. For instance, one might be informed that one will serve in the army, in the artillery battalion. After some time, the military sends each recruit a letter confirming their branch, battalion, and starting date. Your official position and company are decided after the recruit period. “Rekrutten”, or the recruit period, lasts from 6-8 weeks. It is designed to test your limits and gather information on you as a soldier, but also to teach you the basic military knowledge you will need in the coming year.
As a former female recruit told me: “[The recruiting period] is a mix of blood, sweat, tears, and fun. It involved a lot of weapon training, physical tests, combat techniques, and the building of a ‘ready for battle’ mentality.” When asked if she ever felt the Norwegian military treated her differently because of her gender, she explained that some troops did not take any women, and these were often the most physically demanding in the whole army. However, once you had your position, you were equal with everyone else in your rank. She claimed to experience no discrimination by staff based on gender during field exercises or training.
Armed forces are undoubtedly male-dominated areas, and the Norwegian military is no exception. After the introduction of universal conscription for men and women, the military has conducted studies into bullying and sexual harassment. The data from the famous “MOST” study showed that in 2020, 63% of women under 30 years old were sexually harassed. The sexual harassment numbers have decreased by some percentages since the 2018 report, but the decrease is very slight in the age group that experiences most of it: young women. The report also showed that women experienced more bullying than men and that they were most usually bullied by their male peers. There was no sizeable difference in the prevalence of sexual harassment between the military branches. In the army, marine, and air force, 17-20% of all women (both conscripts and employees) reported experiencing sexual harassment. When talking about sexual harassment, a former conscript told me:
“I got unwanted attention and stares that made me uncomfortable almost every day. It usually happened in the dining hall or at the gym, and it was generally by men who were in different troops than my own.”
Further, she explained that she got a lot of unwanted attention and comments on her body, which grew more uncomfortable overtime.
Lilleaas, Ellingsen, and Sløk-Andersen explored sexism in the Norwegian military through the lens of humor. One of the most common experiences of harassment in the military is being told sexual jokes or stories which are often uncomfortable or offensive. Humor is often described as creating a sense of community between soldiers. However, it is not uncommon that women, being a minority in a heavily male-dominated area, can feel a sense of exclusion due to these ‘jokes’.
Furthermore, the Norwegian military has come under fire for teaching highly sexual memory aids, for instance calling a standing formation: “c*** in the ass”, or staff teaching conscripts the phrase: “into the panties, up in the p***y” in order to remember a compass rule. Another memory aid described a compass setting: 3/4ths – “just as drunk as a woman should be when you take her home from the club”. This is something the military claims they are actively trying to change. However, the interview subject informed me that she was still taught such phrases 2 years ago, by both female and male superiors.
Being subject to constant sexist comments, even if one brushes them off, can be demoralizing, and some academics have suggested that this is the reason why, even with conscription for both genders, the Norwegian military struggles to get women to fill leadership positions within the military. Asking an interviewee whether she ever considered a career within the military, she answered: “It is still a possibility for me. Yet, I’m glad I didn’t. I know there is a lot of gender discrimination in the military, even though I didn’t experience the worst of it.” While 33% of drafted young people are women, only 18,9% of those employed by the military are women. These numbers indicate that the Norwegian armed forces have important work to do to make the military an attractive workplace for women.
Some women may be discouraged from starting their draft due to societal expectations of the role of the soldier as tough and emotionless at all times. Speaking to a woman who was sent home at the beginning of her recruit period due to mental health concerns, she told me “[serving]would have put me in a situation where I potentially would have to suppress my feelings instead of expressing them.” Speaking to a previously serving male officer, she was told that she had a “victim mentality”, and that in the military she would have “no time to sulk”. This caused her concerns that the military would be dismissive and unsupportive, with “no option of saying ‘no’”.Speaking to a doctor during the first days of her conscription, she was granted immediate leave.
Yet, this may not be the experience for all women, as a Norwegian woman who served her whole draft period told me:
“I felt that the military had a big focus on all of us having good mental health, and it was always clear where we should go if we had problems.”
It could, however, indicate that the common conception of a soldier as a stoic, tough man can be discouraging to potential female conscripts, especially when those stereotypes are reinforced by former conscripts themselves. This is not to suggest that one needs to completely destroy the idea of a soldier as tough, as the military can be an exhausting environment in need of strong people. Rather, that the notion of the soldier’s strength as inherently hyper-masculine can be demotivating and alienating for many women.
Conscription for both genders is a topic of heavy discussion. Out of the Nordic countries, Norway and Sweden have conscription for both genders. Iceland has no conscription, whereas Denmark and Finland have conscription for men only. In Finland, each year around 21 000 people are drafted, and around 1000 of these are women volunteers. Finland introduced the possibility for women to volunteer in the forces in 1995, and the number of women volunteering has steadily increased. In 2021, a record-breaking 1,126 women applied to enter voluntary service.
Having spoken to a Finnish volunteer, I learned that the process of volunteering differs from Norwegian conscription especially during the selection stage. “As the men have already been assigned their posts, women fill out what’s left.” When I asked her motivation for volunteering, she told me that “[t]he current conscription system is discriminatory towards men[…] I wanted to do my bit.”
The percentage of women in the Finnish military is closer to 5% of all in initial service, and most women share rooms with other women, as opposed to the Norwegian military where the rooms are normally mixed.
According to a 2017 study from Tampere University, 27% of women in the Finnish initial service had experienced sexual harassment. The percentage for men was 7%. The Finnish volunteer who attended the Reserve Officer Course told me: “I feel that some of my male peers did not respect me as much as other men and sometimes refused to follow my orders if I were in charge.” As a woman, adapting to a heavily male-dominated environment can be challenging. It can be difficult to find a balance between one’s conflicting social identities. As the volunteer told me:
“It was common to mock the style in which women gave out orders. The tone was either too girly or pretentiously manly.”
However, she informed me that this discrimination was only committed by her peers and that the staff was ‘extremely appropriate’; “I did not experience any sort of discrimination nor special treatment on their part. Everyone was treated equally.” This notion of everyone being treated equally is also common in the Norwegian military, as opposed to other countries like for instance the US which has been described as focusing more on equal opportunity. However, with regard to the Norwegian military, one could make the case that staff teaching conscripts highly sexist memory aids does not amount to ‘equal treatment’.
A 2020 study published by The Quarterly Journal of Economics found that by integrating men and women in traditionally male-dominated environments, specifically the Norwegian military, sexist attitudes decrease. It argued that continuous exposure to mixed-gender environments caused men to have more egalitarian attitudes, but that these tendencies often regressed once the exposure was over.
As mentioned above, the number of women joining the Norwegian forces is growing each year. This will hopefully reduce the harassment experienced, and make the military an increasingly more comfortable workplace for women. However, as of today, the military is one of the most gendered workplaces in Norway, and a lot of work can be done internally to make this environment more equal and professional.
Measures that have already been undertaken to combat sexism include the bi-annually investigative study into bullying and sexual harassment, reformation of systems used to report sexual harassment, new gender targets for leadership positions, and more educational seminars on professional and equal workplace culture.
Norway made an important step towards becoming a more gender-equal country when they introduced conscription for both sexes in 2015. This step furthermore improves the country’s security by making it more operationally effective. However, this is by no means the final milestone. So long as Norwegian women in the military experience high rates of sexual harassment, be that by staff or peers, celebrating the military’s gender-neutral treatment will remain woefully ironic.
This article was written as a result of an investigation and interviews conducted on behalf of SecurityWomen. The identities of the key informants are protected. The author would like to thank them for their insights and cooperation.
 “ForsvaretsÅrsrapport 2020,” 2021. p.58
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