In November 2009, Patricia Ortega became the first woman to attain the rank of lieutenant colonel in the Spanish armed forces. She attended the Zaragoza military academy 25 years ago, when the armed forces opened their doors for the first time to half of the population. In reality, many limits still remained: women could only join certain units or apply for a limited number of posts. It wasn't until 1999 that all obstacles were finally removed, and they were able to join combat units, for example, and in theory, a woman could become the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
"Women are now able to pursue the career path they wish within the armed forces; there are no quotas or particularities applied to the sexes. Both have the same tasks, training and education, responsibilities, salaries, and are subject to the same disciplinary procedures," says Ismael Kasrou, the head of the Defense Ministry's Equality Observatory.
That said, some limitations are imposed on women that do not apply to men: a female officer serving in a unit cannot have either an immediate superior or inferior officer of the same sex.
There are now women fighter pilots (1.7 percent of the total), submariners (9.7 percent), and 4.5 percent of those serving in special units are also women. In February 2007, Private Idoia Rodríguez Buján was killed in an explosion in Afghanistan, making her the first female soldier to be killed in a conflict zone. In total, women make up 12.3 percent of the armed forces, but while they represent 16.9 percent of infantry and navy units, far fewer reach senior positions: just 7.3 percent of officers are women, and only 3.2 percent of NCOs. The Defense Ministry says that the percentage of navy commanders or lieutenant captains - currently 6.3 percent - will eventually be the same as for lieutenants and sub-lieutenants (13.7 percent).
But that is unlikely to happen. Around 40 percent of officers in the armed forces are in the reserve, which is to say that they do not serve full time, meaning that they cannot be promoted above the rank of major. Furthermore, only 7.19 percent of the 2,800 members of the Spanish armed forces sent abroad this year on international missions were women. In other words, the female presence in overseas units is half of that in Spain. That said, the incorporation of women into the armed forces has involved making considerable changes, from designing new uniforms to creating segregated areas in barracks and aboard ships, as well as adapting the physical tests as part of the admission process.
Women face greater obstacles in balancing their military career with family and personal life, says Kasrou, despite the battery of measures approved over the last two decades. The most recent was an order from the Defense Ministry that allows personnel to delay joining an international operation when they are awaiting the outcome of a divorce hearing relating to the custody of their children; when their partner is having medical problems with a pregnancy; when a partner has recently died; or when their home has been repossessed.
Labor regulations now allow members of the armed forces responsible for a child aged 12 years or younger (particularly in the case of single parents) can apply for flexible working hours or part-time positions, with the corresponding reduction in pay. In theory, those who do so on the basis of looking after their children are exempt from guard duty or going on maneuvers, but only "when the needs of the service do not prevent this." The officer in charge decides those needs. "What do I do with my child if I am told that I must be on guard duty for 24 hours, or have been told to head off to maneuvers for several days?" asks one female soldier who has already taken a pay cut to look after her child.
Among the more complex aspects of including greater numbers of women in the armed forces is the risk of sexual harassment. Over the course of the last decade, military courts have handed down 25 sentences for abuse of authority or degrading treatment, while the civil courts have dealt with 86 such cases since 2010. But there are no specific figures related to sexual harassment, as the 1985 military penal code does not distinguish the offense from other types of abuse.
The military penal code is currently being revised with the intention of specifying sexual harassment as an offense. Kasrou believes that this will shed light on the problem, but says that overall, the Spanish armed forces have not seen the kinds of problems that have been reported in other countries.
More so than in any other institution, the opinion of a superior officer is a key factor in determining the way a junior officer's career goes. The Personal Qualification Report (IPEC), which evaluates the performance of a member of the armed forces, is decisive in establishing promotion, or to which unit a soldier is to be assigned. The threat of a poor report can be used to threaten or even blackmail a junior officer. To avoid this, the Defense Ministry has now ruled that IPECs must be prepared by more than one person, and that there must also be women on the evaluation boards for promotion or assignments.
In the first years after they were allowed to join the armed forces, there was a spectacular increase in the numbers of women who signed up. This was in part because of a shortfall in volunteers following the end of compulsory military service, a process that took place over a number of years in the early 1990s. All three branches of the armed forces made a special effort to make up numbers by recruiting women.
But over the last five years, the crisis has actually coincided with a decline in the numbers of women looking to join the armed forces, meaning that the percentage of female members has remained at around 12 percent. In 2008, women represented 11.5 percent of recruits; that figure fell to 4.8 percent in 2011. The figures are even worse for officers; last year, only 17 women (4.7 percent) were given postings as officers, and for the first time ever, there were no NCO postings for women.
Before the end of this decade, Spain will have its first female general, although she will be very much the exception unless measures are taken to avoid women continuing to be relegated to lower positions.
Kasrou says that the Equality Observatory receives around 700 requests for information each year, but does not deal with complaints. These must be dealt with by military courts or the commanding officer in question. The former are overwhelmingly staffed by men, and senior positions on military bases are also largely taken by male officers.