Gender and the armed forces

Research under this theme includes studies of the policies around women's military participation, explorations of military masculinities and their development in space and place, and research on Army wives.

Women in the British armed forces: lessons from Afghanistan

We want to talk to some women personnel with experience of service with the British armed forces in Afghanistan.  We want to do this in order to understand better the ways in which the British armed forces are changing, particularly regarding the employment of women.  If you are a current or former member of the British armed forces, and would be willing to share your experiences with the research team (Rachel Woodward and Claire Duncanson), please get in touch. 

Rachel Woodward (Newcastle): 0191 208 6434, email:
Claire Duncanson (Edinburgh):  0131 650 4624, email:

The Research

What difference has the deployment of women personnel in Afghanistan made to wider debates about women’s participation in the British armed forces?  For some observers, the visible and positive contributions made by women personnel in Afghanistan have answered many questions about their suitability for testing overseas deployments.  For others, their experiences show that in addition to just doing the jobs for which they were trained as members of the armed forces, their gender means that there have been additional benefits for operations because of the distinctive tasks they can do.  More traditional commentators still express doubts about the suitability of female personnel for operations.  Another view questions why we should still be thinking about gender as an issue for the British armed forces, given the efforts made in equalities initiatives over the past decade.  It is because of this range of views that this research is being conducted.  It will look at the experiences and contributions of female personnel deployed to Afghanistan since 2002, in order to inform on-going debates about the participation of women in the British armed forces. 

A timely issue

We are conducting this research because it is timely to do so.  With the withdrawal of substantial numbers of British forces from Afghanistan from 2014, plus current policy developments shaping the future size, role and structure of the British armed forces through the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review and the Future Reserves 2020 programme, now seems to be a good time to reflect on long-standing debates on women’s military participation.  This issue is not a new one; what has changed over the last ten years, we think, is the amount of evidence showing a greater range of female experiences on operations, coupled with the emergence of a more nuanced and informed policy debate.  Questions still remain, however, about the combat exemption policy, about diversity management and unit cohesion, about the value of women’s contribution to military operations, and more widely about how civilian public understanding is shaped by media commentaries. 

Research questions

  1. This research is framed around three questions. What are the patterns, policies and practices around the deployment of women members of the British armed forces in Afghanistan and more generally, from 2002 to the present?
  2. What insights for future deployments have been gained through the use of specific strategies such as the use of Female Engagement Teams (FETs)?
  3. What have been the experiences of women personnel deployed to Afghanistan?

Research design and methods

To answer these questions, we are going to:

  • Review existing data from the MoD / DASA on women in the armed forces, and their deployments across various rotations of Operation Herrick.
  • Examine existing policies, training frameworks and protocols, and other documentation from the MoD and three armed forces, on women’s military participation.
  • Consult with senior personnel from the MoD and three armed forces with responsibilities for personnel, training and deployment, including the development and deployment of FETs, to gain a better understanding of the operational issues around women’s military participation.
  • Interview serving and former women personnel who were deployed to Afghanistan with the British armed forces, in order to gain an informed understanding of their experiences.  These interviews will be fully anonymised.
  • Use published autobiographical accounts by women personnel – including memoirs and blogs – to see how they talk about their experiences in a format with wide public circulation.
  • Explore existing archives (such as those from the Imperial War museum and other collections) for documentation and oral history recordings detailing the experiences of women personnel in Afghanistan, and analyse relevant print and broadcast media commentaries.

The project started in September 2013 and will end in August 2015.  We will be hosting a workshop to discuss the research findings in summer 2015, and will be publishing the results of the research for both academic and non-academic readerships.  We are looking to inform both policy development and academic understanding with this research, but hope also that it will be of wider use to those interested in the issue more generally.  This research is funded by a small grant from the British Academy and Leverhulme Trust.  The research will be conducted in full accordance with University of Edinburgh and Newcastle University research ethics guidelines. 

The research team

This research is being conducted by Rachel Woodward and Claire Duncanson.  Claire is a Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Edinburgh, and does research on the politics, ethics and gender issues around peacekeeping, counterinsurgency and other operational deployments.  She is the author of Forces for Good? Military Masculinities and Peacebuilding in Iraq and Afghanistan (Palgrave, 2013). Further information about Claire is on the University of Edinburgh website here.


Sexing the Soldier: the Politics of Gender and the Contemporary British Army

This book, by Rachel Woodward and Trish Winter, looks at the policies and cultural practices which shape gender relations and identities in the contemporary British Army. The book also looks at some of the wider political and cultural implications of this. In the book, we focus on the ways that discourses on gender work to promote very specific ideas about what men and women are, and what they can and cannot be and do as military personnel.

We argue in the book, also, that civilian engagement with military debates on women's participation is absolutely necessary because of the ways that these debates go on to circulate in civilian life. Above all, the book is an argument for an informed and constructive debate about both men and women and their participation in our Armed Forces.

Rachel Woodward and Trish Winter (2007) Sexing the Soldier: the Politics of Gender and the Contemporary British Army (London: Routledge).

See also our Publications page.

Gendered bodies, personnel policies and the culture of the British Army

The research investigated how ideas of gender within military culture shape the development and implementation of personnel or employment policies aimed at the inclusion of women in the British Army. Women comprise around 8% of the regular Army. Their increasing participation raises practical and managerial issues. It also raises some challenging cultural issues for the Army. This historically masculine organisation is adapting gradually. That process of adaptation is uneven through the ranks and across cap-badges.

This research was not about policy evaluation, and nor was it about the promotion of any particular view on women's roles in combat posts. Rather, it sought to look at how women soldiers were presented in policy documentation aimed at facilitating women's inclusion. This was done using established research methods for examining the language - the technical term would be discourses - used to discuss gender issues. The data sources for this were policy documents from the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and the Army, supplemented with interviews conducted with individuals with responsibility for the development and implementation of these policies. The theory underlying this method is that language communicates not only factual information (and 'facts' themselves contribute to discourses) but also the ideas contained within the promotion of factual information. Research questions included: how does the Army and MoD portray woman soldiers? What ideas about gender identities (what it means to be male or female) are suggested by the language of policy? What can the study of gender and the contemporary British Army bring to academic debates about gender? What lessons does this research suggest to the MoD and Army departments dealing with gender issues?

The research had four key findings.

  • The Army has put in place a coherent policy framework for equal opportunities, and its activities in this regard should be recognised as an example of good practice. In terms of mechanisms for the communication and implementation of policy ensuring fair treatment for all, and ensuring freedom from harassment and discrimination, the Army is to be commended for establishing institutional structures to provide training and information on this for all personnel. Putting these structures into place has been helped by the fact that the Army is a hierarchical institution, and its rules and regulations are highly visible and codified.
  • There has been a recent shift in emphasis within the Army, from equal opportunities to diversity strategies. This is a shift in both language and ideas; policy and promotional documents increasingly talk about diversity and promote the idea of drawing on the strengths of a diverse workforce. We believe that the Army has made this shift in good faith, reflecting a move within the private sector to adopt discourses of diversity as a means of addressing social difference whilst using it for competitive advantage. However, there are problems inherent in the idea of 'managing diversity' in the Army, which may impact on how women are treated and what they are understood to be. The idea of diversity emphasises that we are all different, but equates all differences, whatever their basis. As a consequence, the power relations which influence the social construction of that difference can become obscured. The idea also works against some core military values, such as conformity to authority. For women soldiers, the idea of diversity allows their incorporation into the Army, but only insofar as they can be like men. Military discourses about gender construct (represent) women as different in some very specific ways; many differences are seen not as physical but as social. Some of these differences are presented as incompatible within military life, and problematic to their full participation. We would suggest that the cultural basis to the resistance to women's inclusion is not unchangeable, but would note that change takes time.
  • The exclusion of women from some direct combat positions draws on a discourse of the woman soldier as disruptive. The Secretary of State's May 2002 announcement on combat effectiveness and gender confirmed that 'military judgement' supported the view that women's exclusion from some combat positions was justified for reasons of unit cohesion and combat effectiveness. The documentation supporting the announcement is interesting both for what it says and for its silences. Women's presence was thought to undermine unit cohesion. However, there is no explanation as to why this would be so. The documentation notes that literature reviews and field trials on this issue were either equivocal, or indicated that factors other than gender would also undermine unit cohesion. The implication of this is that it is the very presence of women which constitutes the risk. They, as a group, are understood as essentially disruptive by nature and presence. This language and the ideas which it contains undermines the Army's moves to portray itself as a progressive employer open to all sections of society. The resistance to women's full participation is indicative of the deep symbolic importance of the figure of the (infantry) soldier as exclusively male. The full participation of women constitutes the breach of a boundary which marks out the Army as a masculine preserve.
  • The representation of women soldiers within popular culture, particularly popular print media, draws heavily on two contrasting figures of the female soldier; the woman soldier as a sexualised disruptive, and the woman soldier as a tomboy or incomplete man. The style and tone of these representations is significant for the Army because of the power of the images and the ideas they promote. A proportion of the readership of tabloid newspapers constitutes the labour pool of young men and women from which the Army draws the vast majority of its recruits to the ranks. These newspapers are influential on this group. The Army should consider the wider implications of this. Furthermore, we found instances where these images resonated with some of the ideas contained in policy documentation and publicity materials on women in the Army. More progressive figures of the woman soldier are needed, which promote the idea that a woman soldier can potentially be just that: a soldier who is a woman.


A number of publications are now available.


This research was funded during 2001-02 by ESRC grant R-000-223-562, 'Gendered bodies, personnel policies and the culture of the British Army'.

Military masculinities

Military forces are masculine institutions, in that they are populated primarily by men, and their cultural practices are informed predominantly by ideas about what it means to be a man within a military environment. Theories of the sociology of the military, and of gender relations, have long looked to the armed forces to explore how, exactly, ideas about masculinities and military masculinities are developed, performed, constructed, reproduced and articulated.

This work on military masculinities - a collection of publications, rather than a specific funded research project - has developed over a number of years in response to a simple initial observation about the connections between the ways in which military masculinities were described and experienced, and the spaces and places in which those gender identities were developed. Drawing on a range of materials, including military memoirs, policy documents, recruitment leaflets and observations of military practice, Rachel Woodward's work on this issue has developed a set of arguments about how in the contemporary British Army a set of ideas about what it means to be a male soldier are brought into being and enacted by the daily activities of soldiers. Particular focus has been on recruitment and training practices, where many of these ideas are developed and inculcated. Specifically, this work contributes to on-going debates in human geography about the spaces, places, environments and landscapes in which gender identities are constructed and reproduced. Recent work on military memoirs has explored the ways in which ideas of masculinity are bound up in the production and marketing of these books.


A number of publications are now available.


Army wives

Ann Murphy, a postgraduate research student in the School of Geography Politics and Sociology, is currently undertaking research on Army wives. Her MA research dissertation explored the social position of the Army wife, and she is now extending this research to examine place and identity issues for Army spouses. Specifically, this will explore how women and men who are married to serving members of the British Army see their roles and their lives in the context of the militarized landscapes in which they live.

Further information on this research can be found on the Military Landscapes section of this website.