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HomeThe Journal of Power Institutions...Issue 6/7Book Reviews (7 titles)Helena Carreiras, Gender and the ...

Book Reviews (7 titles)

Helena Carreiras, Gender and the Military. Women in the Armed Forces of Western Democracies, London: Routledge (Cass Military Studies), 2006, 262 pages.

Vincent Porteret

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Military Sociology
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1Helena Carreiras’ book is a recent contribution to the study of what the author calls Women Military Participation (WMP). Far away from some militant works, it “contends that gender does not have an epistemological or ontological primacy in explaining social reality (no more than other category of social analysis)” (p. 203).

2As a starting point, in a review of the main works about WMP the author makes some specifications regarding her object (concept and measurement, explanatory factors, analytical levels) and presents a model with an incentive distinction between direct and indirect factors affecting WMP. After that we read a few pages about gender relations in organizations, especially the reference to the model of tokenism that puts light on many aspects of WMP. These pages help us understand that numbers are an important variable but “their impact should be evaluated in articulation with other variables” (p. 40). Furthermore, the author quotes that “whether women are present or absent their images have always played an important part in defining and articulating the symbolic order and its values” (pp. 42-43) in the military.

3Then, she studies the conditions and constraints of female economic and political participation because women in the military meet the same difficulties as other women at work to combine work and family, but perhaps with special aspects because “both the military and the family [...] depend strongly on the commitment of members and impose on them great demands in terms of loyalty, time, and energy” (p. 57). That leads the author to point out the paradoxes of some feminist perspectives regarding the use of force, for example, the pacifist and maternal one, very influential today, “which opposes the ‘moral mother’ to the image of the ‘warrior woman’” (p. 70) and which perpetuates gender stereotypes.

4In chapter 4, considering military factors, Carreiras comments the classical analysis about change in the military and, although she denies doing it, she is very near making the I/O model as “an obligatory starting point to the analysis of change within military organizations” (p. 79). She adopts a similar linear perspective while the transformations could be more precisely and completely analyzed through a dialectical perspective between Institution and Organization. That would certainly help understand why the “rights versus readiness debates” is still very strong for women (as for other minorities) and why questions remain unsolved: social experimentation is seen as impossible in the name of national security and remains effectively difficult to define what contributes to political uses of this concept.

5The empirical part of the book starts at chapter 5 with a cross-national comparison of policies and practices in the NATO countries whose situation may produce “‘comparable’ effects in terms of cognitive models, policy orientation, and formalization of behaviour” (p. 97). This comparison confirms expected points. To go beyond the identification of four groups of countries according to global representation of women, she proposes to create “an index of gender inclusiveness” (p. 98) in a more qualitative perspective and tests some hypotheses. She demonstrates that “one must distinguish between those factors that concern women’s simple presence in the system, which are not responsible for relevant variation in the qualitative status of military women, and those referring to women’s qualified presence, which instead seem to influence gender integration to a reasonable extent” (p. 127). Here the absence of women in high ranks should have been more precisely discussed: it represents a lack of potential identification.

6As case studies, Portugal and Netherlands let the author discuss the main explanatory factors. The former belongs to the “moderate inclusiveness” type with a pragmatic vision of WMP. The latter is more civilianized, included the “advanced/extension inclusiveness type” (p. 137) and has always had a proactive attitude regarding WMP. But, “if we compare the two countries in terms of relative numbers, there is an apparently surprising finding: representation levels do not reflect the impact of the observed differences in policies concerning the presence of women in the military” (p. 154). Carreiras shows that the growing equality between men and women may be checked by cultural conceptions of women’s role. In Portugal, female labour-market participation is largely accepted as both a factor for individual autonomy and a source of economic wealth for the household while a strong “maternalistic” orientation prevails in the Netherlands that limits the time spent in paid work. The interviews of men and women officers in both countries confirm women don’t really speak about difficulties they meet. They resent more the existence of “positive” than “negative” discrimination (p. 175) and think “the dominantly male culture is not affected by gender integration” (p. 190): according to Carreiras two important processes explain this: “on the one hand, the need these women may feel as officers, to avoid a negative image of the integration process, trying to stick to a more “official version” of reality; on the other hand, the reinterpretation of problems as difficulties, hardships, and obstacles […] may serve an important goal in the process of self-identification and building of a positive institutional image” (p. 171). Thus women in the military don’t seem to have common interests: their lack of cohesiveness is “one of the most common responses of members of a minority group to social isolation and role encapsulation” (p. 177).

7This book opens many avenues of research thanks to comparison and mobilization of concepts from different fields of sociology (labour, organizations, gender, public policies and military). It points out some pre-notions too. Regarding methodology, Carreiras reminds us that the current “analysis is exclusively based on the ‘subjective’ dimension of women’s perceptions and representations” (p. 48) and she uses different sources of data without real discussion of their limits (the situation may have changed since 2000). But she neither brings up participative observation that may give interesting information about the links to the body a very central question regarding WMP nor talks about the generation gap: do women today in the military meet the same difficulties as the “pioneers”?

8She shows how “the findings seem to contradict the sometimes “taken for granted” inevitability of a transforming impact that the increase in the number of women – in the workplace and in the public sphere – would have on the internal structure of organizations and in individuals’ ideas about gender roles” (p. 164). Then where will change toward greater gender reality in the military come from? According to her, it “will probably depend much more on the extent to which external variables, such as women’s controlling presence in society at large will determine policy orientations and decision-making processes within the armed-forces” (p. 127). Other comparative works have shown public policies are a necessary but not a sufficient condition: cultural factors are important too and they’re not “decided ones”. Among these, Carreiras doesn’t mention the position of the military in the society, an aspect of the relations between armed forces and society: prestige, role of the arms (in the past and in the present)... which are not very strong in the case studies here. For both the case studies, sovereignty is not first linked to force (or with others countries for the Netherlands) but more to trade. Thus, the heterogeneity between different countries has to be questioned. The “position” of the military within society, when it is important like in France or in the UK, has effects on WMP: it makes the equality between men and women less important than national security and shows that the WMP may disrupt national identity, which is there linked to masculinity.

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Electronic reference

Vincent Porteret, “Helena Carreiras, Gender and the Military. Women in the Armed Forces of Western Democracies, London: Routledge (Cass Military Studies), 2006, 262 pages.”The Journal of Power Institutions in Post-Soviet Societies [Online], Issue 6/7 | 2007, Online since 15 December 2007, connection on 27 January 2023. URL:; DOI:

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