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The relevance of deconstructing essentialist gender assumptions for the realisation of human rights

A case study on the Austrian Army

By Cristina Sanz Rutherford

Cristina Sanz Rutherford is a researcher at the Programme for Studies on Human Rights in Context at Ghent University (Belgium). She holds an MSc in Conflict and Development from Ghent University and a BA in International Relations from the University of Deusto (Spain). She has experience as a researcher and has conducted qualitative empirical research during her master’s thesis, on which this post is based.


This is a quote by Volger Türk, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, who opened the 53rd session of the Human Rights Council on 23rd June 2023 emphasising the importance of gender equality in the human rights agenda. Together with gender equality, the respect for social diversity and the protection of minorities are essential for upholding the rights of all human beings. In this regard, the military is a space where gender equality and diversity are neither pursued nor guaranteed, for such notions are in direct conflict with the most fundamental aspects of military culture, namely militarised masculinity and social cohesion, both essential elements to guarantee obedience and discipline among soldiers. Institutions that reward hegemonic versions of masculinity and uphold traditional gender values not only normalise but necessitate misogynistic discourses to function. This undermines ongoing gender equality efforts and, therefore, must be addressed within the framework of human rights. In light of this and drawing from empirical research on the Austrian army based on nine semi-structured interviews with conscripts and military personnel, this post analyses how gender assumptions impact the military experiences of participants and examines the role of the army in shaping wider gender dynamics.


Austria is one of the few European countries with mandatory military service applying to male citizens only, and conscription seems to be at the centre of gender-military relations. With the neutrality agreement in 1955 putting an end to Soviet occupation in Austria, conscription was presented as an essential part in the education and maintenance of neutrality, as it would require courageous and well-educated soldiers willing to sacrifice themselves for at least six months. Since ‘military education’ was not addressed in detail, arguably conscription was not only intended to spread the idea of neutrality, but also to fulfil the traditional task of masculine initiation, providing a place where men could prove their manliness in what was feared to be a neutral, and hence emasculate Austria.

Clarifying concepts: gendering militarism

To delve into gender-military relations, it is first necessary to clarify some terms. In this analysis, gender shall be understood as a social construction that operates as a manifestation of political power; and masculinity and femininity as social codes existing in relation to each other, to such an extent that it becomes almost impossible to comprehend how assumptions and attributes around femininity work without delving into the opposite sense of masculinity. Therefore, being masculine is not so much about fulfilling an exact list of characteristics as it is about appearing ‘non-feminine’. Important for the sake of this analysis, hegemonic masculinity is understood as an ‘ideal’ type of masculinity, namely the current most praised way of ‘being a man’, to which boys and men are encouraged to converge, and which is sustained through its opposition to other ‘devaluated masculinities and femininities’.

Militarism is defined as a set of social attitudes and practices that perceive war and the preparation for it as a normal and desirable activity within society. It is the main way through which values and notions attached to hegemonic masculinity ideals are institutionalised, making military bases a designated space where specific forms of masculinity are fostered and rewarded, while others are punished. In other words, gender norms and practices shape the functioning of military bases. Interestingly, within the penal system, educating young offenders on military-style physical training is believed to prepare them to be law-abiding men. Hence, militarism is seen as the epitome of disciplined masculinity, used to suppress their presumed destructive biological impulses. However, this idea fails to acknowledge the paradox that militarism is in fact a glorification of the most extreme manifestations of violence.

In a patriarchal society, anything that is feminised can be belittled. Thus, rival men tend to accuse each other with the perceived curse of femininity. In this sense, as war proneness is not a naturally present condition, men need to be persuaded to fight through social constructions that link ‘bravery and discipline in war with masculinity and recognition, and cowardice and defeat with femininity and shame’. The connection of militarism with masculinity dates back to pre-state societies, where ‘stereotypical feminine qualities’, such as emotional and physical vulnerability were deemed as a disgrace to military virtues and manhood. Consequently, military cultures have traditionally excluded the symbolic feminine from combatant roles.

The perpetuation of unequal gender dynamics

Empirical research illustrates how military trainings require not only the suppression of traits deemed feminine, but also the enhancement of masculine ones, leaving no room for advancements in the field of gender equality. In this sense, many respondents described their commanders or colleagues as displaying a lack of emotions and tough behaviour, which is often associated with masculine traits. In fact, a non-commissioned officer stated:

‘we are all rude, and male, and alpha males’ (Ferdinand, 7/3/2023)

[All respondents’ names are pseudonyms].

Thus, most participants would not advise sensitive people to enlist in the army, and some respondents even shared instances of colleagues who had negative experiences in the military, as they were humiliated by some comrades. One of them expressed that a fellow soldier from his barrack always stayed in his room crying during a specific activity, and when asked about the reason, somewhat uncomfortably, he responded:

Because it was emotional damage for him because they shouted at him and it was not easy to do this because you had to run up, change clothes and run down and same thing again for hours. [...] And he was not that good at physics. [...] They tried to talk to him normal and have a normal behaviour with him or just to describe him how it works at the military, and also his comrades tried it. But he was always crying and having strange behaviour. And so, they put him from our base house to the kitchen because there in the military kitchen, there is nothing.

(Moritz, 11/4/2023)

Such stories exhibit the role of the army in reinforcing and establishing notions of hegemonic masculinity as the correct form of militarism and vice versa, and in doing so, deeming other masculinities and femininities as inferior. The creation of an imagined ‘brotherhood’ entails exclusionary mechanisms, as cohesion does not allow for social diversity. Acts of humiliation perpetrated by superiors and peers, as well as the allocation of individuals who deviate from the ‘normal military service’ or who do not meet certain physical and psychological thresholds to tasks associated with the domestic and the feminine, not only highlight the importance of homogeneity within the army, but also work to reinforce the hierarchical position of ‘manly’ vs. ‘feminised’ kind of work in society, and thus, unequal gender relations.

The perception of women in the military

Women have been allowed to voluntarily join the Austrian army since 1998, after the country’s accession to the EU in 1995. Quite some years after, women only make up a 2,8% of the Austrian armed forces and are recruited far less as opposed to the number of applications they pose. Anecdotal remarks reveal that due to this low percentage, women in the army tend to be very isolated and often face difficulties, which is noticeable in accounts that stress unfamiliarity with female soldiers. For instance, a respondent shared how evident it was that she and some of her colleagues were the first women to be trained at her unit and described how they had to assert their needs to their superiors, such as demanding longer breaks to dry their hair or attend to menstrual needs, or even different shoe sizes to avoid feet discomfort. Moreover, a former conscript, who had never encountered a woman in his training, mentioned that many people in the military would be reluctant to train women or work with them, as they (especially in the higher ranks) believe that

‘women could never do anything they [male soldiers] are doing’ (Maximilian, 3/3/2023).

Additionally, he expressed the following:

I think all the training is based on the recruits being male. [...] I am not even sure how trained the whole thing would look like if a girl was there. If one girl was there with all the boys, I ca not picture what it would be like for the girl. There is no way she would have a good time.

(Maximilian, 3/3/2023)

This apprehension to work with female soldiers can be better understood when realising that these individuals are not only defending tradition, but also a particular gendered, sexual, and racial conception of self. Furthermore, it has been implied that women who do not face difficulties are those who are considered unattractive or exhibit masculine traits, signalling the problematic display of femininity in a militaristic sphere, and proving that female acceptance in the military is contingent upon the repression of the feminine. Referring to a female instructor, a soldier mentioned that although people were constantly gossiping about her appearance, her career was not compromised as ‘she was not really affected by the feminine or the gender role thing (...) she was always more like masculine and doing what the boys do’ (Paul, 29/3/2023). This highlights how problematic it is that women can thrive in their military careers by suppressing the feminine, when there exists no equivalent erasure of the masculine, for it entails that women’s equality ultimately depends on them being able to behave like men.


Several interviewees (33%) acknowledged that women are often treated differently due to their exceptionality in the army and argued that the treatment could vary from more permissiveness to harshness depending on the drill sergeant. A company commander held that while some trainers had treated her differently, she was glad that it did not occur as frequently compared to some of her colleagues: ‘Some of them were treated like they were princesses, and everything was easy for them, and some of them had really bad trainers that did not like women in the military and let them feel it’ (Klara, 9/3/2023). Additionally, she reported that one of the challenges of being a woman in the army is encountering trainers who believe that women will be a burden to the group as they will not be able to meet the physical standards of their male counterparts. In such cases, she stated:

You always have to prove yourself that you are good enough for everything, that you are better than everyone else, and sometimes it can get a bit much. But I think it changes with the rank. So, now that I am an officer it is like nobody cares. (Klara 9/3/2023).”


As I begin to close my remarks, this study shows how ideals of hegemonic masculinity shape the warrior identity in the Austrian army, emphasising the absence of feminine qualities and the reinforcement of hyper-masculine ones. The importance of social cohesion requires the celebration of hegemonic versions of masculinity and the punishment of alternative forms of masculinity and femininity. This leads not only to the partial acceptance of women, often contingent upon the adoption of an overt masculinity, but also to the marginalisation of male peers who deviate from the established normality. It can therefore be concluded that unless the most fundamental elements of military regimes grounded in masculine ideals evolve or, alternatively, the feminine and the private sphere cease to be devaluated, there is understandably little hope for gender equality in the military realm. This incompatibility hinders the achievement of gender equality in the broadest sense and is therefore an issue that must be addressed from a human rights perspective.

It should be noted that gender relations in the Austrian army must be understood considering wider societal norms. While the military plays a role in reproducing and reinforcing dichotomous gender norms, and gender hierarchies may be much more latent in militaries than in other institutions, these norms are not isolated from the civil reality/society in which they exist. This means that efforts to reduce gender inequality must not only be directed at the army but should rather be a priority in the education of the Austrian society as a whole. As Volger Türk stated ‘gender equality lies at the core of all human rights’. As such, an education grounded on the deconstruction of essentialist gender assumptions and stereotypes is needed, together with a state-led work to adopt gender-sensitive initiatives in all state institutions. Finally, the comprehensive analysis and scrutiny of gender relations, particularly within military institutions but not exclusively limited to them, holds huge significance, as without it, the fulfilment of human rights will remain utopian.

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