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The State of Women in National Security

The State of Women in National Security

Many are familiar with the “Women in STEM” initiatives that are percolating throughout all levels of education in the United States and elsewhere. From Michelle Obama to Karlie Kloss, celebrity advocates of the inclusion of women and girls in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) have drawn international attention to the lack of female representation and the need to improve diversity. Though, statistically, women pursue social science degrees at higher rates than they do STEM degrees in the United States, there has been a quieter, yet steadily growing, movement to promote the inclusion of women at the highest levels of political decision-making, especially in contexts pertaining to national security. Groups like The Leadership Council for Women in National Security and #NatSecGirlSquad have increased in membership and notoriety in recent years while other, less specialized women’s empowerment organizations have made a point to add national security as an area of concern. As gender inclusion initiatives across the board become more popular, what has drawn attention to the national security field in particular?

Each organization states their purpose slightly differently, but the common circumstance they seek to remedy is the low percentage of women in high-ranking national security positions in the public and private sectors. As the Leadership Council for Women in National Security puts it, “The problem isn’t that there aren’t enough women from which to choose for national security positions, the problem is that hiring managers—often men—lack diversity in their own networks, and leaders fail to make gender diversity a top priority.” At the same time, #NatSecGirlSquad aims to support women in developing skills that might mean the difference between getting hired or not. In their own words, they are “focused on building expertise among women, confidence in that expertise, and creating systems to institutionalize success.” Still, the reasoning for the focus on national security in particular can seem opaque. If one were to replace the words “national security” in the above statements with any other professional field, they would still hold true. 

The beginnings of conversation of women in security can most clearly be traced to the 20th century trope of women as successful peacemakers. Francis Fukuyama popularized the notion of women as benevolent peacebuilders in his 1998 essay, “Women and the Evolution of World Politics.” His argument that women are biologically less inclined to be violent or support violence is controversial at best in today’s academic conversation, yet it has guided researchers to further investigate the concept of women as peacebuilders. The International Peace Institute published a study in 2015 drawing correlations between the percentage of women at the so-called “table” of peace negotiations and the longevity and success of the resulting agreements. According to the study, a peace deal is 35 percent more likely to last 15 years if women take part in its creation. This statistic and others like it have been advertised by the United Nations and other prominent international organizations as rallying cries for women to be offered spots in political decision-making bodies.

Though, on their face, narratives promoting women as benevolent peacemakers are supportive or even complimentary of women’s ability to create sustainable peace, they may be harmful to the integration of women into the public and private security sectors in a meaningful way that reflects true equality. These narratives may uplift women in the short term in calling for the immediate hire of more female professionals to senior positions in the peacebuilding sphere, but run the risk of pigeonholing women into roles in what some consider “soft security,” or preventative peace measures which refrain from intrusive military tactics, as opposed to “hard security,” which focuses on weaponry and combat. The New York Times noted that when women do hold roles in security, they “have been more welcomed in offices involved with arms control and nonproliferation, which center on negotiating limits on weapons rather than developing or using them.”

If, however, putting more women in peacebuilding roles means longer lasting peace deals and therefore a less violent world, is ushering women into these roles worth the imperfect gender equality? Rather than take the statistics on female peacebuilders on their face, one should consider the wider scope of research on diversity in the workplace. According to a 2014 MIT study, greater diversity of all kinds in a workplace increases productivity. This suggests that women’s involvement in peace deals leads to greater success not because women are somehow more inclined to be less violent, as Fukuyama argues, but because any increase in diversity of the demographic of diplomats and those making peace deals will improve the success rates.

A recent call for “gender parity in national security appointments” by the Leadership Council for Women in National Security has garnered national support, even being adopted by the official 2020 platforms of fifteen of the twenty-odd Democratic presidential candidates. If adhered to, this pledge could provide a meaningful shift in the demographics of the national security field. However, fluid definitions of national security may render any resulting policy less disruptive in its implementation. Progress on this front should be celebrated warily. Considering women were banned from many combat positions in the United States Military until as recently as 2015, issues will undoubtedly arise in subtler ways. Women who, by the design of the United States government, were unable to serve in combat roles for most of the nation’s history may have their experience deemed less appropriate for high ranking defense positions.

According to men and women working in the national security field at present, quota policies alone may not be enough to improve the day-to-day of women looking to advance their careers. A source working in the industry told the Washington Post that there is a “culture of assumption perpetuated by both men and women that women don’t have a role to play in security and foreign policy.” These implicit biases are perhaps the most difficult to overcome. Senior United States Foreign Service Officer, Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley, explained to NPR that she still faces unwelcome reactions to her presence at meetings that she feels are a result of her race and gender.

In discussing the progress and achievements of cisgender women asking for representation in the security field, it is also vital to acknowledge efforts by the current presidential administration to ban transgender women and other transgender individuals from serving in the United States military completely. Gender representation in national security attaining any level of attention from national media sources should be considered progress. However, as in any fight of its kind, the struggle for gender equality in the field of national security will be long and arduous.

It is critical for those concerned with the state of women in national security to seek a cultural shift within the industry simultaneous to the pending policy changes. Former senior Pentagon official, Michèle Flournoy, who was expected by many to have been Hillary Clinton’s Secretary of Defense, explained that her male mentors in the field were able to guide her career in a way that allowed her to avoid the same discrimination many other women face. While passing legislation supporting measures such as gender parity in political appointments, security education for young women and girls, and more equitable hiring processes is essential in the pursuit of equality, these processes inevitably take time. There is no reason, however, for men and women currently in the field to wait for these policy changes to be implemented before starting to mentor more young women and support them as they work their way through the security sphere.

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