Gender Integration in NATO Military Forces:
Cross-national Analysis

Lana Obradovic

Book Review

In this book, Lana Obradovic sets out to explain the significant variation in the numbers of women employed in the armed forces of countries belonging to NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization) – from the USA’s relative inclusiveness (women making up 15 per cent of the military, few formal restrictions on roles, and relatively women-friendly policies) to the exclusions and restrictions of armed forces in, for example, Turkey (where women make up less than 2 per cent, are only able to join as officers, and lack the support of as many family-friendly and anti-harassment policies).

The book thus treads much the same ground as Helena Carreiras’s Gender and the Military (2006) and Mady Segal’s 1995 Gender and Society article, which both tackled the same research puzzle. Lana Obradovic’s main contribution is to bring such studies up to date with more recent evidence, recognising that there have been important developments in both international and domestic contexts since 2006, such as the continuing changing nature of military deployments, the increasingly effective use by autonomous women’s organisations of equalities legislation, and the accession of more countries to NATO.

As I will discuss further on, for the author, there is no question that the greater inclusion of women in a nation’s armed forces is anything other than positive. In her examination, Lana Obradovic finds that the key determinants for the integration of women into the armed forces are states’ needs for personnel in the context of volunteer professional forces (as opposed to conscripted militaries), their need to respond to women’s movements, and to meet their responsibilities under international agreements regarding gender equality and gender mainstreaming in the military. She also finds that different variables, or influencing factors, have different strengths in different regions.

The strength and aims of women’s organisations often matter more in Western European and North American contexts; as such, it was the successful advocacy of many American liberal feminist women’s organisations to have equal access to military roles that explains the relative integration of women in the US military in comparison to Italy, where most Italian women’s organisations espoused an anti-militarist feminism. In many Eastern European states, the strength and goals of women’s organisations are less relevant.

Here, Lana Obradovic finds that the (albeit limited) rise of gender integration is best explained by states’ desire to join NATO, and variation is best explained by the perceived level of threat. For example, the threat of potential Russian attack has led to the retention of a policy of conscription in Poland, and thus less need for women to fill the ranks; whilst in Hungary, low threat perception has contributed to an all-volunteer force, and thus a relatively gender-inclusive military (women made up just 2 per cent of the Polish, but 20 per cent of the Hungarian armed forces during 2008–2012).

Lana Obradovic attempts to specify the role culture might play in explaining the variation in levels of women’s integration. Other scholars have tended to argue that culture is too complex to isolate as an influence, and should thus be seen as intersecting with other factors, such as conscription, women’s employment in the labour market, or women’s position in technical fields. Lana Obradovic’s solution is to define culture as religion, which could be argued to be equally limited, in that equating culture with religion hardly captures the variety of social practices and beliefs we usually understand by the term culture, but it does enable her to bring it to bear in her analysis. Lana Obradovic finds that contrary to common assumption, whether a country is Catholic or Protestant, and whatever the level of religiosity, it does not seem to have an effect on the level of women’s participation in the state military. She points out that among Catholic states are some of the ‘best performers’ (Spain, Portugal) and some of the ‘worst’ (Italy, Poland); and that states with the highest levels of religiosity (USA, Canada, Turkey, Poland, and Italy) also encompass the militaries most and least inclusive of women.

The book has clearly been based on the author’s doctoral thesis, and perhaps suffers from the understandable sense of urgency to publish whilst the data were fresh. Given the ambition of the project – 24 countries covered in the quantitative analysis of multiple independent variables, as well as four country case studies (USA, Italy, Hungary, and Poland) which trace the story of integration in more detail, exploring the interesting avenues suggested by the quantitative analysis – there was perhaps a need to take the time to develop the analysis and polish the final presentation. Too often in the cross-national quantitative analysis, interesting findings were left hanging, demanding further discussion and contextualisation. For example, to use the above example of religion, there is no discussion of the point that the USA and Canada may register high on scales of level of religiosity, but are not predominantly Catholic.

Moreover, there is little critical examination of such scales. This is not to argue that the findings are incorrect, but to argue for a more fine-grained unpicking of the results. Likewise, the case studies, although containing some fascinating detail, could have been further developed and polished. In general, throughout the book, the use of two different referencing styles, the mix of tenses and the grammatical errors often obscured the interesting findings and insights. Lana Obradovic assumes that having more women in the military is a good thing, an unquestioned feminist goal. This is clear when she describes militaries as ‘best’ or ‘worst’ performers and concludes that states’ efforts to integrate women were ‘long overdue’.

This underlying assumption makes it difficult for the author to situate her research within the theoretical literature of Feminist Security Studies – which is what she often claims to be the book’s key contribution. Feminist Security Studies is centrally concerned with redefining traditional understandings of security, and whilst understanding the factors which explain variations in gender inclusiveness in NATO militaries is an important endeavour, and provides us with knowledge and understanding which could underpin feminist strategies for change, more work – theoretical and empirical – would need to be carried out in order to make the links between these two projects.

Nonetheless, the book makes a useful contribution to our understanding of the factors behind women’s military participation in NATO countries, and should be of use to both scholars and activists.


Carreiras, Helena (2006) Gender and the Military. Women in the Armed Forces of Western Democracies, London: Routledge (Cass Military Studies)

Segal, Mady Wechsler (1995) ‘Women’s Military Roles Cross-Nationally: Past, Present and Future’, Gender & Society 9(6): 757–75

© 2015, Claire Duncanson, School of Political and Social Science, University of Edinburgh, UK email:

Gender Integration in NATO Military Forces: Cross-national Analysis is published by Ashgate.
Review originally published in Gender & Development 23.1 (2015)