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Gender equity in the German military (Bundeswehr)

Gender equity in the German military (Bundeswehr)

When we talk about discrimination in the workplace, most people probably think of large corporations, office jobs - or even classic male domains such as production or technical professions. Very few people, at least in Germany, think of the military. Yet for 260,000 people in Germany, the Bundeswehr is first and foremost an employer.

What does this employer look like from the inside, from a gender perspective? Journalist Julian Daum investigated this question and answered it in a documentary that is available on ARD Mediathek. We met Julian and Mariano Rodriguez, who is responsible for the camera, and asked them about their insights. 

Mariano and Julian asked the question: How inclusive is the working culture at the Bundeswehr?
Mariano and Julian asked the question: How inclusive is the working culture at the Bundeswehr?

Julian, you've made a movie about a rather controversial topic. Discrimination in the Bundeswehr. How did that happen?

J: I'm a journalist and mainly work on discrimination issues. The Bundeswehr had been on my radar for a while and there was an interest in the topic of gender discrimination, partly due to the Anastasia Biefang case. 

Sidenote for those who didn't know: Trans soldier Anastasia Biefang received a reprimand from the Bundeswehr last year due to alleged improper off-duty conduct. Why? She had searched for sex on online dating portals, which caused tempers to run high. In the debate that followed, rather anti-queer positions also came to light. 

J: Exactly. We started our project in August 2022. First and foremost, it was about finding people and meeting them. I built a relationship of trust so that people would share their stories with me. And then I was offered the opportunity to do a study of people who are affected. Due to that the broadcaster then gave us the go-ahead for the shoot. 

What kind of study was it - and what did you do with it?

J: The study collected survey results on different dimensions of diversity. I was surprised, for example, that around 21% of women in the Bundeswehr have experienced discrimination on the basis of gender.

My research then focused on adding a human perspective to the results of the study. Our volunteer and I found many cis-female and queer soldiers who wanted to talk to us. But when we asked if they would speak about their experiences on camera, many of them backed out. Not many accepted the offer to anonymize them either. The existential fear is great, some of the stories are so specific that the people behind them were afraid of being recognized despite being anonymous.

I can imagine. How did you deal with that?

J: It was frustrating. At first, people were totally open with us and we put a lot of work into approaching them in a way that fostered trust. We explained a lot, were transparent about the journalistic process, took the time to discuss things like whistleblower protection and also explained legal issues.  

But then: "Camera, no - I'd rather not". In some cases they were still happy to give us some background information. But: we collected so many harrowing stories that we weren’t able to tell. 

That must have been incredibly mentally exhausting. I know the dilemma you describe from our interviews in companies. On the one hand, examples and concrete stories are particularly well suited to illustrating a problem and then triggering the will to change. On the other hand, it's difficult to protect people if too many details are revealed. 

J: Yes, totally. I told every single person that we would protect their identity. But in the end I also said: You have to decide how much you’re going to tell me.

N: I have the feeling that you did a good job. In the end, we did get people in front of the camera.

J: Thank you.

Mariano, you come from the Guerrilla Divas collective. You came on board as the camera person for the Bundeswehr project. It was important to you that the project also represented queer positions.

M: Yes, exactly. We actually mainly wanted to shed light on queer positions, including with the film.

J: But then the topic of gender was so big that it also had to be included. In the study on which the film is based, six dimensions of diversity are defined and discussed, and gender identity and sexual identity are treated separately. 

That is often the case. And what about queer women in the Bundeswehr?

J: In our research, we noticed that there is a relatively loud group of white homosexual soldiers who stand up for their rights. Women are less visible and queer women are not visible at all. This is also due to the fact that the Bundeswehr is very male anyway and queer women are less common due to demographic factors. 

Yes, that is certainly the case in many spheres. And yet invisibility doesn't necessarily mean that they don't exist. What surprised you?

N: The fear was quite shocking. People wanted to disguise their voice and only be filmed from behind. In a way, it wasn't surprising, but it was shocking. 

And, to be honest, I was also surprised that some of the people were really cool. I wondered why they were in the army even though the conditions we found there were so bad.

Please tell us a bit more about what these conditions look like. What does gender-based discrimination look like in the Bundeswehr?

J: The cases from the study and also from the interviews are diverse. They range from intrusive behaviour towards peers to sexualized assaults and even rape.

There was a noticeable discrepancy in how people perceive the culture in the Bundeswehr depending on their gender. While many men think that women are more likely to be promoted, for example, women told us about the glass ceiling. Young female soldiers in particular are not aware of their decision-making and career opportunities or are sometimes not properly informed.

Women also told us about not being taken seriously. And, as is often the case with sexism, the typical perpetrator-victim reversal was also a common narrative. I could give many other examples that show the extent to which gender as a social category shapes the experience in the Bundeswehr. 

In all institutions where there are dependencies, the question arises as to how those affected can be helped in such situations.

J: Absolutely, including in the Bundeswehr. The relationship of dependency and the need for support are closely interwoven. According to formal processes, the direct superior is actually the person you should turn to. Everything then depends on this one person. Meaning: the person must take you seriously and acknowledge the problem. And react.

These structures make it extremely difficult to speak up. When in doubt, you lose your job. There are cliques that cover for each other. My superior may not be the person who is causing the problem, but he may be covering for someone else. 

That sounds like a mess. Let's ask naively: why do people in such roles cover for each other? 

J: Because it reflects badly on the officer if they don’t have things under control. At least that's the assumption of many of the people I talk to.

So basically: if we don’t talk about it, it doesn’t exist. So problems tend to be covered up.

N: Yes. But there are also people who seem to be really convinced that the Bundeswehr is a great place for women and queer people. 

J: Yes, because they have so much formal transparency. I even agree with them on this point. Every year, they go through every complaint and record exactly what happened and who was given what disciplinary action.

That sounds good at first. However, the number of unreported cases is certainly still high, just like everywhere else.

J: Yes, we were told about different experiences.  One person told us that she confronted a superior herself after inappropriate behavior, but was then taken to his superior's office and asked how she dared to make such accusations.

She had been shown around her new office by her boss and in the washroom he had then asked her about her showering habits and whether she was afraid that someone might come in. Further innuendos followed, which she only later classified as weird. In the end, he also groped her several times. However, this case never ended up in a complaints office because she was threatened with the end of her career.

The next time, the person reported directly to the military commissioner of the Bundeswehr and then appropriate proceedings were initiated. The formal process worked in that case.

N: Another person, on the other hand, said that she was met with a lot of microaggressions from her team and superiors because she was less flexible due to having children. This person didn't say anything for a long time.

J: Yes, this story also had a gender component. It was about the possibilities of coming back after parental leave.

To what extent do microaggressions and subtle sexism play a role?

J: There are also microaggressions, but less so. Most of it was already very obvious. More macro than micro. Open homophobia instead of sly remarks.

The awareness level is not so good. But there are a wide variety of people in this large organization, including some who are in QueerBW, for example. That represents the interests of queer people in the Bundeswehr. And they in turn said that the Bundeswehr was on the right track. Politically, there is supposedly a lot of openness.

But there is a long way to go before it is put into practice. Many managers will soon be retiring and they don't want to deal with any more "new" things, things are being ignored from an administrative point of view, the third gender option "diverse", for example, still doesn't formally exist in the Bundeswehr, although it is mandated by law.

That is interesting. After all, the Bundeswehr does a lot of advertising and positions itself as a modern and open employer.

J: Yes, the discrepancy is huge. I also went to a Bundeswehr careers store for the film and pretended to want to work there as a queer person. The counselor advised me and said that everyone can work here, whether blue, green, red or "transvestite". So the person actually wanted to show how open they were, but unfortunately reproduced discriminatory language. 

N: During the film shoot, we were at a big event where female soldiers were being sworn in. There were no women in leadership positions there, as far as I could see.

... in contrast to every other poster of the Bundeswehr hanging in Berlin. 

J: Yes, the statistical reality is that there are almost no women in the army (13%); the civilian Bundeswehr is set up differently and there are different structures and models, but it is still male-dominated. 

N: I was sometimes scared while filming. I found it strange, all these groups of men. I felt uncomfortable. Husum was full of soldiers

Male-dominated environments are often very masculine. By that I mean values and associations that tend to be attributed to men. This creates an environment in which women, but also other people who are more feminine, may feel less comfortable.

J: Yes, that's true. The culture that is described by many is masculine. Many said something  along the lines of: You have to be able to endure a lot in the Bundeswehr, otherwise you won't end up here. 

N: I do think that the image of the army provides a basis for toxic masculinity.

J: A lot has to happen structurally to change that. Also in terms of culture: it's not a modern way of managing a company. When dealing with discrimination, for example, so much depends on whether a superior likes you or not, whether they are sexist, racist, hostile to queers or not.

Who do you think has the responsibility to change that?

J: The Bundeswehr has often resisted modernization in the past: women have sued to ensure that all career paths are open to them, since 2001. A cultural change must be initiated by politicians, because the Minister of Defense is the head of the Bundeswehr. It must therefore come from the ministry. But the Bundeswehr and its leadership must also want to accept this.



The interview was conducted by Rea. You can find the film in the ARD Mediathek.


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