Boosting an army’s diversity with behavioural science

A radical pilot scheme saw the number of young women looking to join the Swiss military increase by more than 50%.
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The virtues and necessity of possessing a highly capable, well-trained and diverse military have been displayed more prominently this year than they have been for some time. Ukraine’s resistance and counter-offensive have frustrated and pushed back the might of Russia. This serves as an acute reminder of the impact smart, entrepreneurial, tactically savvy and committed individuals. It also shows how the adaptation of ‘mission command’ (from ‘Auftragstaktik’ in German) can have within a nation’s armed forces, even in an era of technological sophistication and advanced weaponry.

While much of that human skill comes from training, persuading the best individuals to join the armed forces is a crucial first step to building formidable fighting units. As many countries look to bolster not just the numbers but the diversity and skills within their armed forces, they are now beginning to recognise the merits of a significant demographic that was historically overlooked: women. Thanks to a revolutionary new approach trialled in a region of the country, the Swiss military saw an extraordinary rise in the number of women registering an interest in joining.

This case study will explain just how scientific methods inspired this change – and how Hyphen, with its behavioural science specialist partner FehrAdvice, was at the centre of the process.

Re-examining a missed opportunity and correcting a historic recruitment flaw.

Identifying ways to engage with and utilise women more effectively is an issue for militaries around the world but in Switzerland, it is a particularly prominent challenge. Just 1.4% of all military personnel in the country are female; to reach the goal of 10% by the end of 2030 – and thus take advantage of this previously untapped potential – would require a drastic change in approach.

The advantages of increasing female representation within a military environment are numerous but there is a long way to go in when it comes to improving diversity, even if countries are making progress. Increasing women in the army leads to the ability of building better teams and creating more opportunities for specialisation.

In Switzerland, the relatively low number of women in the armed forces is a result of national law. Enlistment rules are different for the sexes as military service is mandatory for men but it is voluntary for women; this makes the task of diversifying the military more difficult as more work must be done to appeal to this section of society. And with an ambitious percent target to aim for, military chiefs decided to take a bold and new approach in a quest for better results.

“Making the military more accessible for women is not about diversifying for the sake of it or a box-ticking exercise,” Colonel (GS) Adrian Rüegsegger said. “We are serious about making this an organisation that is representative of the entire country of Switzerland and that means making a greater effort with women.”
“The military is keen to play its part in creating a more equal society and reducing gender disparities is a key part of that.” Ben Hodges, a retired United States Army officer who served as commanding general, United States Army Europe, added: “Ultimately, expanding the pool of people from which one can pick would increase the talent pool and would allow an army to select the best possible people to specialist and leadership roles, which is obviously a massive advantage.”
Hoping for new results with old methods was doomed to fail. A major overhaul was needed.

Society has changed dramatically but the methods used by the Swiss military to engage with young people have not kept pace. A radical adjustment in approach was needed but identifying the best way to do that was a challenge – after all, how do old white men in uniform know what teenage girls are interested in and how to get through to them?

“We decided it would be a good time to try something different, a bit experimental. We did not fully understand the priorities and interests of young women but felt we needed a new way to reach out to them,” Col. Rüegsegger said. “The internet and social media have had a massive impact on the way we live as a society and figuring out how to reach this target group was obviously going to be key to meeting the target we set.

”The army is a modern and adventurous organisation and wanted to illustrate that by coming up with something that really resonates with not just the youth of today but the next generation.”

Breaking through the digital noise of 21st-century life and today’s global, individualist mindsets is difficult in itself; appealing to the half of the population that has typically been an afterthought for decades would be a colossal challenge.

The Swiss Armed Forces use information days when young adults turn 18 to present them with information about the opportunities on offer, before those individuals come back a year later for an assessment day. In theory, this means that everyone should come back when they are 20 for their 18-21 weeks of military service fully informed and energised; the reality was that even reaching young men was proving tougher than expected. For women, the information days are optional.

For an organisation that relies on communication, the military faced a major problem as its messages were just not getting through to their intended audiences. A fresh communications approach was needed, one that would hit both head and heart, but real experts were needed to devise a campaign that would truly rally the next generation of troops.

Our carefully calibrated strike team’s secret weapon? Behavioural science.

Behavioural science is an increasingly prominent and influential form of research that explores human actions and thought processes. Through observation and controlled experiments, it is possible to learn how best to connect with a target audience and, in some cases, affect their decision-making tendencies. In this instance, getting inside the minds of Swiss teenagers would be pivotal to determining whether the military would meet its objectives.

Specialist consulting firm FehrAdvice was identified as being capable of giving the Swiss military the intelligence it needed, with Hyphen co-founder Michael Savolainen bringing the two sides together. The business has built a reputation for identifying solutions using scientific methods to organisational problems and laying the foundations for growth and change. Its evidence-based approach unearths what really matters to people through controlled experiments.

“The challenge faced by the Swiss Armed Forces is a prime example of a challenge in behavioural change,”, FehrAdvice chief executive Luca Geisseler explained. “Effectively changing behaviour requires three pivotal elements. Firstly, a sound, evidence-based understanding of current behavioural patterns – what motivates, what drives behaviour? And what barriers and hurdles do we need to overcome?

“Secondly, this data informs our joint design of prototypes – creating elements, such as communication narratives, we can use to change behaviour.

“And thirdly, testing these prototypes, generating causal evidence through experiments. What does really work – in this case, what does effectively lead to an uptick in registration?”

The Swiss Army’s head of transformation met with Luca to discuss potential ways to create a new youth-orientated communications strategy. Michael, who is a member of the Swiss Armed Forces’ general staff and who has held multiple command positions in the past, also helped to conduct an initial workshop and define the scope of the project.

Firstly, more than 1,000 teenagers outside the military took part in an online experiment conducted to collect an initial data set. This was then used to create a pilot campaign, trialled in one of the Swiss cantons. The findings were as startling as they were enlightening.

One prominent finding was that financial incentives – which were long used as one part of the campaign to entice new recruits – were found to have a counter-productive effect when it came to engaging young people. By placing such an emphasis on a ‘money for military service’ idea, the teenagers felt the nature of the connection between them and their armed forces was merely a transactional one. People instead want to feel like they are contributing their time and energy to purposeful activities that benefit their society. This would be central to the new approach.

“This trial was very insightful and vindicated our decision to try something new,” said Col Rüegsegger. “Understanding the psychological element of recruitment and communication, particularly when reaching out to people outside the military environment, is hugely important so working with experts like FehrAdvice has been a huge help. This is exactly what we hoped for when we entered this arrangement and will really shape what we do going forward.”

The work of the Hyphen-built alliance heralded a surge in female interest in the military.

The research validated the hypothesis that the existing system was not effective and armed with the knowledge gathered during the trial, the team set about modernising the way the military appeals to young people. Based on the work done with FehrAdvice, new, more tailored communication materials were created, using keywords, narratives and themes to which research indicated young people would respond.

The impact of the trial was staggering, with a massive 50% increase in the number of women interested in the Armed Forces and signing up for the information day than was previously the case. This test was conducted in just one canton, but the message was clear: this could be scaled up and appeal to more people than ever before. The impact of the work done by the military-Hyphen-FehrAdvice coalition has the potential to change the way young people, and women in particular, first engage with the military. The outcomes of this research could also apply to other nations, tackling a continent-wide issue.

While recruiting more women was and is a key priority, the work also brought with it benefits in terms of understanding how to approach young men. The FehrAdvice-military work inspired changes to the ways the information and assessment days were conducted. These changes should in turn see fewer prospective candidates turn away from the organisation as the messages presented should resonate with them more clearly.

The results were communicated to military leaders and have been used to create a fresh and impactful campaign. By removing biases and looking at new datasets, the Swiss Armed Forces can now make better progress in drawing the interest of groups that might otherwise have turned away from the military and can build a more diverse, gender-equal military.

“The benefits of this potential partnership could be huge,” said Col Rüegsegger. “We are just one military organisation but the impacts of this could go well beyond just us. The use of data and behavioural science to improve perceptions and learn more about potential recruits has changed the way we approve this process and will create new opportunities for our country’s armed forces.

“Small changes can have a dramatic impact and the consequences of this could be massive for us in helping Switzerland to be a more equal country and increase military diversity.”

If you are interested in speaking with Michael Savolainen about this project and learning more about how this approach could help your organisation, please email

Photo credit: SPHAIR, Ben Hodges, Colonel (GS) Adrian Rüegsegger, Saskja Rosset

Fact Sheet
Key figures
Duration: Q3 2020 - Q2 2021
50% increase in females subscribing to the information day about joining the Swiss Armed Forces based on a pilot experiment, which could be expanded to other regions and how men are targeted. Hyphen is also considering launching a joint business development venture with the behavioural economics firm that worked on this project to take its findings to other European countries.
Services provided

• Problem identification - One of Hyphen’s founders spotted that outdated communications were putting youngsters off the military and sought to change that.

• Expert search - Hyphen identified and agreed to an engagement with a behavioural economics consultancy to produce a thorough analysis.

• Project management - We liaised with the Swiss Armed Forces and the consultancy to develop a new communications approach which aimed to engage more effectively with young people.

Experts provided

Michael Savolainen

Co-founder of Hyphen and specialises in solving strategic challenges with innovation and interdisciplinary teams. He is also a Swiss military general staff officer, experienced in armour and cyber operations.

Luca Geisseler

CEO of FehrAdvice & Partners and leading expert in applying behavioural insights with focus on customer relationship management and behavioural change, particularly in the public sector.

FehrAdvice & Partners

Europe’s leading behavioural design consultancy. Based on the empirical work of founder Ernst Fehr (University of Zurich), who ranks among Europe’s most scientifically cited economists

Learn more about our services.

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