Ladies at the Dutch Defense receive a dress

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The Dutch Ministry of Defense wants women to feel welcome in their organization. Therefore, women will soon receive a dress as part of their daily uniform, in addition to pants and skirt suits. This is one of the initiatives from Deputy Director-General of Policy, Elanor Boekholt-O’Sullivan. Named Top Woman of the Year in 2023, she is a strong advocate for the position of women within Defense. However, her efforts extend beyond just introducing a dress.

Ladies at the Dutch Defense receive a dress
Elanor Boekholt-O’Sullivan in the new dress | Photo: Defense

Too little attention for women in defense

Nine months ago, Boekholt-O’Sullivan removed her tie during a meeting with Minister Ollongren, State Secretary Van der Maat, and Commander of the Armed Forces Eichelsheim. To an outsider, this may seem like a minor detail, but not in Defense. Military personnel are taught from day one to respect protocols and hierarchies, including uniforms.

For the Deputy Director, this was a signal to her surroundings. She wanted to show that it was time for change. Despite women making up about 12 percent of Defense, many still have to wear men’s work clothing. There are some items made for women, but not nearly enough. While the Deputy Director-General stands for improvement, not everyone appreciated her action. She is well aware that her position allows her to make such statements.

“Someone on social media wrote that I’m engaging in woke mutiny. Another said that my fellow generals should tell me how the world works. You don’t want to subject someone lower in the organization to such criticism, do you? They wouldn’t know how to defend themselves against it,” Boekholt-O’Sullivan said in an interview with Algemeen Dagblad.


Visibility in the media

Despite the criticism, she remains steadfast and unafraid to speak out. At the end of 2023, she was photographed for an interview with Financieele Dagblad in her work clothes. The photos showed both the front and back of her outfit. The front looked neat, but the back revealed a large clip tailoring the blouse. In the article, she discussed the shortage of women’s work clothing in Defense. She has continued to repeat this message in interviews.

I have a lot of admiration for her. Speaking out about the position of women within a male-dominated organization takes strength. But drawing attention to their clothing goes even further. Clothing is often dismissed as a trivial matter, something only vanity concerns itself with.

I witnessed this firsthand in 2022 when I spoke with Dutch hardware stores about the lack of women’s work clothing. I received a lot of criticism for the article I wrote on the subject. The criticism mostly came from men, who thought women shouldn’t complain. Work clothing, whether worn at work or during DIY projects, wasn’t about appearance, they said.


Backpacks and body armor in Defense

I shudder when I read that Boekholt-O’Sullivan has been told that her colleagues should tell her how the world works. Those who say this are apparently content with the status quo.

From a distance, the world of women’s work clothing in Defense might look fine. But upon closer inspection, you’ll find that body armor meant to protect soldiers from dangerous objects doesn’t accommodate breasts. As a result, female soldiers have had to endure significant discomfort and pain for years, working with squashed breasts. Can you imagine? It wasn’t until early this year that the first body armors for women were introduced.

Another example is the training at the Commando Corps and Marine Corps. Women have participated for years but have never graduated. Boekholt-O’Sullivan investigated why. It turned out that women had to drop out early due to shin splints, fractures in the metatarsal bones, shoulder and back problems. The cause was simple: the wrong backpack. Men and women have different bodies and thus different physical needs.


Ladies at the Dutch Defense receive a dress

The top woman in Defense dislikes the term ‘one of the guys.’ In her view, women shouldn’t have to pretend to be different. They are different, period. That’s why the organization is now testing a dress as part of the female uniform. Not to make it mandatory—women can still choose a skirt or pants—but as an option. It can be seen as a form of recognition.

And she seems to have grown accustomed to the criticism. On LinkedIn, she writes: “For those wondering if I don’t have more urgent things to do; this is urgent in an organization with around 10,000 vacancies. For those who think I’ve lost my way: I’ve just found it, thank you for pointing that out every time.”

Women’s work clothing isn’t about vanity; it’s about equal rights and can make the difference between life and death in dangerous situations. Let’s cherish this woman. Because if in 20 years we are all equally well protected at work, we’ll have her to thank.

Best regards,


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