October 2014, was a defining month for Norway, following the Norwegian parliament’s decision to vote in favour of introducing a bill which would extend mandatory military service to the country’s female population. If approved, Norway would become the only European country, and first NATO member, engaging in gender neutral conscription. The bill was originally proposed in July 2013, with 93 members of parliament voting in favour of its being enacted into law, and only six voting against it. In order for the bill to be officially approved, it must pass through a second reading which is expected to take place in the coming months. If the bill is to formally pass into law, all physically fit women between the ages of 19 and 44 will have to undergo at least 19 months of military training.
Currently, women constitute approximately 10% of military conscripts in Norway, serving in the armed forces on a volunteer basis. The goal of the Norwegian government is to increase that number to 20% by 2020.
According to Norwegian Minister of Defence, Ine Eriksen Soreide, the decision to incorporate women into the military, is not so much out of necessity to increase the number of able-bodied soldiers, but to create a more inclusive and more efficient military core. Mr. Soreide stated “we do not really need more conscripts, but we wish to extend military service to the entire age group to attract more motivated and more competent recruits,” adding that the decision will enable the country to recruit “a modern and diverse organization with different people, skills and perspectives.” It has also been argued that gender-neutral conscription is necessary simply because male-only conscription is a system which has become outdated in Western countries that have eliminated gender-based discrimination in most other areas.
In a drastic turn of events, the Norwegian army has even begun testing unisex dormitories. In what is sure to be a controversial change of events, conscript Mathias Hoegevold defended the decision to have female and male soldiers share living quarters, stating “even though there is a girl in the room, it does not mean there are any romances. We are just soldiers.”
Similar gender neutral policies can be found around the world. Starting in 1985, Israel began assigning women to combat units, and in 1989 Canada enacted similar policies, opening all combat roles to women, except submarine warfare. In 2011, women in New Zealand were officially allowed to serve in all defence capabilities, including in the infantry, armor and artillery units. Currently, the United States Marine Corps is debating whether to allow female officers the opportunity to serve in infantry units.
Norway has traditionally been a leader of gender equal initiatives in Europe. In 2003, it became the first country in the world to implement a gender quota for publicly limited companies, which required female board members to make up 40% of board seats. Such a decision has encouraged other countries including Belgium, France, the Netherlands and Malaysia to follow suit and to increase the opportunity for their female citizens to achieve top business positions.
The recent decision to further extend constriction for military service to the female population, is another indication that Norway is taking the lead in pursuing a gender-equal society. New rules and regulations are helping women break through the glass ceiling and reach top positions in businesses, the military, and in other male-dominated industries. Compulsory conscription will enable Norway to increase its talent pool of individuals serving in the armed forces, and will hopefully inspire other nations to acknowledge that women serving in military capacities have a lot to offer.