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Should Swiss women emulate fighter pilot’s success?

Fanny ‘Shotty’ Chollet
Fanny ‘Shotty’ Chollet, Switzerland's sole female fighter pilot. Public Domain

Switzerland’s sole female fighter aircraft pilot, Fanny ‘Shotty’ Chollet, will notch up another milestone by graduating from the demanding United States Air Force (USAF) test pilot training course. Captain Chollet’s achievement comes as Switzerland is ramping up efforts to boost the role of women in the armed forces.

Chollet spent 50 weeks at the USAF Test Pilot School in California. On graduating on June 8, she will be qualified to test different aircraft for the Federal Office for Armaments, armasuisse.

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Chollet, aged 33, is one of seven female Swiss military pilots and since 2019 has been the only woman qualified to fly fighter jets into combat. But she plays down the significance of being a women in a traditionally male-dominated arena.

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“When I first decided to become a military pilot, being the first female had nothing to do with it,” Chollet said in an interview with the USAF. “I didn’t even know when I applied [for the US test pilot school] that I was the first female test pilot from Switzerland.”

Instead, Chollet says she is motivated by the ambition of serving her country.

“I feel extremely lucky to be able to do this job. Not specifically as a woman, but simply as a human being. Not everyone has this privilege,” she told the Blick newspaper. “Being a woman gives me neither an advantage nor a disadvantage. Like every pilot, I am aware of the risks associated with the profession.”

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In Switzerland, men are obliged to serve in the militia army from the age of 18. Military service has been open to women on a voluntary basis since 1995. Limitations on the types of roles women could serve were removed in 2004. Since then, women have been allowed to perform all the same roles as men, which includes piloting fighter aircraft.

Growing number of women

The number of women volunteering for the Swiss armed forces is still relatively small compared to men, making up 1.4% of all recruits in March 2023 (the latest figures). But the number of volunteer women has increased from 1,253 in 2020 to 2,046 last year.

+ Switzerland eyes gender neutral military service

Within their ranks are 580 officers, including Major General Germaine JF Seewer, who was first woman to achieve this rank in 2020. Her ultimate boss is Viola Amherd, who became Switzerland’s first female Defence Minister in 2019.

Included within Swiss government’s Gender Equality Strategy, launched in 2021, is a provision to raise the proportion of women in the armed forces to 10% by 2030. The defence ministry set up a ‘Department for Women in the Army and Diversity’ in 2022 to support this target.

The department has conducted a survey among army personnel about discrimination and gender-linked violence with the results expected later this year. Another survey, which will be made public in 2025, asked women in Switzerland about their motivation to join the armed forces and perceived barriers to entry.

“Don’t be scared”

 “A lot of girls contact me who want to become a pilot and I try to tell them: ‘Don’t be scared to try,’” Chollet said in her USAF interview.

Switzerland is not the only country with female air force fighter pilots. China, the United States, Japan, Israel, Taiwan, India, Britain and Pakistan are just a few other examples.

Two years’ ago, the Swiss defence ministry contemplated copying the gender-neutral conscription policy of Norway, but this option was ultimately not adopted.

Intermittent calls for compulsory military service for women in Switzerland have rumbled for years but have so far failed to convince politicians or the general public.

Public vote due

But the idea resurfaced last year when a popular initiative on extending citizen service duties gathered enough signatures to force a public vote, most likely in 2026.

The initiative calls on all young people, regardless of gender, to perform compulsory community duties, either in the military or in civilian service, such as carrying out work to protect the environment.

The pacifist association ‘Group for a Switzerland without an Army’ says this should not result in women being made to take up military service.

“Equality should not mean that women are also obliged to serve in the army, but that men are no longer obliged to do so either”, GSoA said in a press release in 2023. 

Swiss women were allowed, encouraged and at times even required to serve in the Red Cross starting in 1903 and did so in large numbers during and between the two World Wars.

Later, women were able to take on a role in the military through the so-called “military women’s aid service”, which was founded during World War II and eventually separated from the Red Cross to become the primary military service option for women.

A series of reforms to the women’s aid service took place in the 1980s, allowing for military education and parallel ranks for women.

Women became integrated into the army in 1995. Until 2004, certain combat roles were not open to women, but since then, women have been allowed to perform any role they qualify for, through the same physical tests as men with the same minimum requirements.

Also starting in 2004, women automatically received service weapons. 

Switzerland has a target of filling army ranks with 10% women by 2030.

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