Only ten percent of the Dutch military is female. One of them is Major Steffie Groothedde. She has been working for the Dutch Army for about twenty years where she’s currently the military assistant to the Commander of the Royal Netherlands Army, General Martin Wijnen. And even though she’s working with quite some female colleagues, she’s had plenty of experience in the “men’s world” that is the army.
It’s been years since Major Groothedde started at the military academy, with about twenty women. Eighteen of them didn’t succeed. For lots of different reasons – it was too physical or they took a year longer due to an injury. “And what you see too, is that many of them start at eighteen and you see a lot of women leaving the army around their thirties when they starting having children. Because in our culture, it’s still not really accepted that the male stays at home and the female continues to work. And especially as a military, going on a mission, that’s sometimes more problematic for women than for men.” There are some benefits for women in the army though. “In the first four years after childbirth, women are not forced to go on a mission. They can choose if they want to go.”
Major Groothedde continues to talk about her mission in Afghanistan in 2008. “In my first mission, I was part of the provincial reconstruction team. We worked in the province of Uruzgan to rebuild the nation.” She was a gender advisor. “I was looking at a gender perspective and including that in the operations that we did. We made sure that all teams had at least one female soldier that was able to engage with the women there.” She went back in 2011 to integrate gender perspective in all operations in Afghanistan. Another example of what Major Groothedde did was to create a safe and secure environment around a refugee camp in Mali. “I have to always take care of what is going on in that society. If you ask a female what safety is, her answer is always different than that of a male. For example, what you see in a lot of those refugee camps in Africa is that the task of women is to collect firewood. That’s not because they are stronger, it’s because if they get out of the refugee camp they often get raped but they’re not killed. Men get killed. The women make the choice to go and collect firewood. If you know that you’re going to be sexually harassed if you go, then it’s my task as the military to create a safe and secure environment. For that, you need to have gender perspective, looking at it from a different point of view.”
When asked about if she came across any problems, being female while in a war zone, she said that there weren’t many issues. “The only problem that I faced was the bulletproof vest. They were all built for men. We have boobs, so that’s not comfortable. And the shoulders are wider so the vest was always cutting in my arm. If I have to shoot, it’s not that comfortable. That was ten years ago, now we have new equipment in lots of different sizes, also built for women.”
There are some concrete plans to include more diversity and inclusivity in the armed forces. A big part of diversity is trying to get more women or people with a migration background. A few years ago, a quota was proposed that meant a minimum percentage of people in the armed forces should be female. The quota was not implemented. “At one point, a quota does make sense. We are currently in the position that we have been talking a lot about more women in the army. There are plans in place now. I’m not sure if quota is the right way to go, but I’m convinced that if you really want change, you have to make some moves to force those changes. If you want to be effective, you need to have a diverse group of people.”
So why should you, as a woman, join the Dutch army? Major Groothedde said nothing but positive things. “I think it’s the best employer and there are a lot of benefits. I’ve been working in the army for twenty years and I still go to work with a lot of pleasure. You see the world, there are lot of opportunities to develop yourself, the salary is not that bad. And I really believe in the slogan “Protecting what we value”. The army is the last organisation standing to what happens in the world, and I’m proud to be part of that.”