Women in the Military on the Rise, but Gender Equality Still in Need of Greater Promotion

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This article is part of the 38th issue of LEAP — Voices of Youth e-letter. Subscribe now.

(Photo credit/Yang-Ying Ou)

With its unique international status, Taiwan has been recently facing escalating tension in international and cross-strait relations. The island’s national defense force capability has been an endless topic of discussion domestically. Some members of the opposition party have proposed the idea that “girls must also fulfill compulsory military service” in an attempt to expand the military’s combat capacity.

According to Taiwan’s current laws and regulations, healthy adult males over the age of 18 are required to complete four months of compulsory military service, while the remaining source of manpower for the military comes from voluntary service regardless of gender, i.e., “career soldiers.” Currently, Taiwan’s female military personnel are all career soldiers with four to five-year contracts.

In recent years, the proportion of women in the military has risen annually. According to official statistics, the proportion of women in the military will reach more than 14% by the end of 2021, a figure that the government had originally set as the goal for the end of 2023 but has now already achieved. According to a survey conducted by Wealth Magazine, the percentage of female soldiers in Taiwan’s military is slightly lower than that of the United States (16.8%) and France (15.5%), but higher than that of the United Kingdom (10.7%) and Japan (6.6%).

In such an environment, the issue of gender equality in the military deserves more civil discourse.

Rising ratio of women in the military highlights rights issues

Chiao-Shan Yen, a long-time researcher on gender mainstreaming in the military, is currently an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at Fu Hsing Kang College of National Defense University. She points out in a 2020 article that female military personnel face inequalities such as “gender stereotypes, family roles that limit career development, difficulties in breaking the glass ceiling, and sexual harassment in the military.”

After organizing the literature and statistical data, Chiao-Shan Yen finds the following:

Although women in the military have already challenged to some extent social gender stereotypes regarding professions, women in the organization still largely choose behind-the-scene support positions, such as clerical and assistant roles, most likely due to concerns that they cannot perform well or on the same level as their male counterparts. When assigning tasks, officers also tend to rely on conventional methods of dividing labor based on gender and the concept that “men are more powerful and women are more meticulous.” Female soldiers are still unable to break free from this traditional structure within the system.

Outside of the organization, social expectations of motherhood may also serve to disrupt the military careers of women, forcing them to choose between continuing their military careers or returning to family life. Additional difficulties include the unsuitable environments in some areas of the military for pregnant women as well as inflexible work schedules. All of this has led to the reality that female military personnel often give up on their military career in order to give birth.

In the military, promotions are based on years of service and significant performance. Under the above structural factors, women in the military are limited in their opportunities and qualifications, thus creating barriers to promotion. Currently, the nation’s highest ranking female military personnel is only at the rank of major general, with no higher-ranking officer to be seen at this time.

However, high-ranking female officers not only help to amplify the voice of women in the military establishment, they also serve as clear and motivating representations for young female soldiers and thus are a vital presence.

Moreover, power imbalances and gender inequalities in the military can lead to occurrences of discrimination, labelling, and sexual harassment. This study mentions that women in the military tend to encounter “male superiority and female inferiority” jokes and ridicule, and for those who file official grievances as a result, the majority are often viewed as “troublemakers” and suspected of overreacting, placing themselves in a dilemma.

Amending Policies: Improving the Situation Year by Year

To comply with domestic laws on gender equality and the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the Ministry of National Defense has in recent years been actively improving related policies to protect the rights of enlisted female soldiers and promote their well-being in the military.

To address the issue of caring for their families, which can easily abort the careers of female soldiers, the government has enacted a “parental leave without pay” program and is cooperating with public and private kindergartens to provide childcare services for military families, helping with childcare responsibilities of military personnel.

According to a report from the Ministry of Defense, more than 3,000 career soldiers in 2019–2021 applied for parental leave; among them, 70% were women, which shows that women still predominantly bear the responsibility of childcare. The development of relevant measures would most certainly alleviate the aforementioned problems, and in the long run, it is even more important to change the stereotypical paradigm held by society in general.

Therefore, the Ministry of National Defense is also actively advancing the tenets of gender equality through affiliated media and various literature to address gender discrimination and sexual harassment in the military and create a more gender-inclusive work environment.

It is difficult to change the established value system of a society overnight, and military-affiliated media and related events still only fill a small niche in Taiwan. Thus, more time is needed or more creative approaches must be made.

At the end of June 2022, the Ministry of National Defense held a military ceremony to promote military officers, including the promotion of two female major generals that day. Their promotions, the 10th and 11th, respectively, for the nation and the fourth in active duty, were a historical high; the increase in the ratio of female officers is great news. However, 17 men became major generals in the same ceremony that day, showing the ratio disparity between men and women officers. This ratio disparity may be due to a large, existing gap between the numbers of female versus male soldiers from years past, and promotion requires a certain number of years in service, so it is difficult to see the trend change overnight.

Nevertheless, creating a military environment that allows women to choose freely and participate equally without being forced to end their military careers due to any external factors is an important goal in the promotion of gender mainstreaming in the military. In the long run, this will bring in even more talents to the nation’s armed forces and enable Taiwan to become stronger than ever.

Also in This Issue:

Diary of a Life in Camouflage -A Retired Female Soldier’s Story

Cherishing her own experience in the army, the retired female soldier shares her views and observations of women in the military.

Author : Hsien Liu

Freelance writer / Graduate student in Journalism

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LEAP − Voices of Youth

LEAP − Voices of Youth

LEAP: Voices of Youth is a quality platform for English readers to learn about gender issues in Taiwan