Gender Equality As A Security Issue – Analysis


Too often, gender equality is designated as a low priority; inclusion of women in decision-making ensures economic and national security.

By Joan Johnson-Freese*

Gender equality is more often than not viewed as a social-justice and feminist issue rather than a national-security issue – nice to do, but expendable and low priority to realpolitik concerns. Such views are common even though studies have repeatedly shown that gender inequality is a global concern, linked to domestic and international conflict, radicalization and economics. Even within the world’s leading superpower, recognition about the role of gender equality to national security is spotty at best. Such recognition is essential due to US global strategic influence and because prejudice hurts US national security.

The strategic value of achieving and maintaining gender equality remains largely neglected even though, consequent to the #MeToo movement, the media has become sensitive – some might say hypersensitive – to women’s issues at home and abroad. UN Security Council Resolution 1325, approved in 2000, is considered the legal bedrock of the Women, Peace and Security agenda. It was passed in recognition of the changing nature of warfare, specifically more intrastate warfare where civilians are increasingly targeted while women and women’s views are excluded from peace-participation processes. The agenda aims at increasing women’s roles in security-related decision-making, broadly defined, and ensuring consideration of gendered perspectives in policymaking. A gendered perspective could mean, for example, taking into account that providing agricultural aid on the basis of land ownership may exclude women in many countries, even when women are the primary agricultural workers who best know what is needed and how to use the aid. During a peace process, a gendered perspective would consider issues like removal of land mines in areas where women walk to gather water or wood for cooking along with more male-centered concerns like the surrender of weapons.

UN Resolution 1325 has been supplemented with seven additional resolutions. But other than a few opinion essays regarding the role of women in national security, global media have provided little analysis of the resolution and how it “connects the dots” of many women’s issues otherwise considered disparate. The 2017 passage of the Women, Peace and Security Act in the United States, signed by President Donald Trump in October of that year and mandating implementation of the Women, Peace and Security agenda throughout the US government, went largely unnoticed in the mainstream media. A US Strategy for Women, Peace and Security followed in June 2019, again largely of interest to only a small group of advocates with little media attention and subsequently public awareness. These government actions allow for US rhetorical support of the WPS agenda but with little pressure from Congress or the administration for follow-through. That might change if the public understood the value.

The public isn’t alone in being unaware. National security leaders are largely unaware, too. The Chicago Council on International Affairs and the Texas National Security Network surveyed 500 national security leaders in 2016. With men comprising 80 percent of the survey respondents, 13 percent described gender inequality a vital threat to US national interests, including 20 percent of women respondents and less than 9 percent of the men. Overall, 31 percent said women’s and girls’ full participation in their society is an important foreign policy goal, or 28 percent of the male respondents and 45 percent of the women. Also in 2016, the New America Foundation similarly conducted a survey of security practitioners, asking about basic knowledge of the WPS agenda and how much security practitioners consider the ways policies and programs impact men and women differently. The across-the-board answer was “Not very much.” The survey found even basic knowledge of the issues and terminology significantly lacking – unfortunately the norm beyond a few specialized think tanks like Our Secure Future, organizations like the United States Institute for Peace, and academic programs such as the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security.

Former US Director of Intelligence Daniel Coats presented the US Intelligence Community’s 2019 Worldwide Threat Assessment in January. Other than thanking the men and women in the intelligence community for their hard work, the report did not include the words “woman” and “women” – even though women play or could play a role in abating each of the 10 global threats including the following categories:

● Cybercrime: Research indicates there will be a shortage of 1.8 million cybersecurity professionals by 2022. Yet women occupy only 11 percent of cybersecurity jobs. According to a recent survey, 78 percent of the women in the cyber field felt they had been discriminated against and consequently one in three said they were looking for jobs elsewhere.

● Terrorism: Mothers, wives, daughters and sisters have close access within families and communities and can be trained to recognize signs of radicalization and proclivities for violence and steps to take. The US Institute of Peace describes how during the US war in Afghanistan, Afghan women were trained to detect and prevent extreme violence. Further, it was an all-women intelligence unit known as “the Sisterhood” that tracked down Osama bin Laden.

● The economy: A McKinsey study found that advancing gender equality could add $12 trillion to the global economy by 2025. A report by the Food and Agriculture Organization focuses on closing the gender gap for development and estimates that providing women the same access to land, technology, financial services, education and markets as men would result in increased food production and reduce hunger for up to 150 million people.

● Security: When women are involved in the peace process, both because of their gendered perspective regarding community issues often at the heart of conflicts and conflict-management styles – men favoring competition while women favor collaboration – statistical analysis has found a 20 percent increase in the probability of an agreement lasting at least two years and a 35 percent increase in the probability of an agreement lasting 15 years.

Prejudice endangers global security.

The issue of gender inequality shares many of the same challenges as climate change. Like climate change, the inequality exists everywhere and so is often simply considered “too big” to tackle. With both issues, it is easy for many individuals to glance look around and find anecdotal evidence defying the premise of a problem, and so they dismiss it. And just as an increasing number of individuals dismiss science as a basis for policy, some individuals also hold a cultural bias against including women in security positions, long considered a domain of men. Unlike climate change though, gender equality as a security concern receives little media attention.

The world and traditional gender roles of men fighting battles and women cooking meals and caring for homes and children have changed. Women are fighting alongside men in the military, including in ground combat positions. Markedly more women than men earned certificates and bachelor’s degrees during this century, 60 percent for black women and 56 percent for white women, and militaries cannot overlook such a large pool in seeking talent.   

Achieving security begins with an accurate assessment of the security environment. By not including women and gender perspectives, that assessment is inherently incomplete. Yet the Women, Peace and Security agenda is largely unknown to both security practitioners and the public, to the detriment of all. Researchers, the media, educators and political leaders can help correct this deficit by connecting the dots among the many idiosyncratic stories on gender imbalances, prejudices and abuse – and how, when combined, these relate to national and global security.

*Joan Johnson-Freese is a University Professor teaching in the National Security Affairs Department at the Naval War College in Newport, RI, author of the 2018 book Women, Peace & Security: An Introduction, and is currently teaching a course on Women, Peace & Security at Harvard Summer School. All views expressed are those of the author alone and not the US Government, the US Navy or the Naval War College.

YaleGlobal Online

YaleGlobal Online is a publication of the Whitney and Betty MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies at Yale. The magazine explores the implications of the growing interconnectedness of the world by drawing on the rich intellectual resources of the Yale University community, scholars from other universities, and public- and private-sector experts from around the world. The aim is to analyze and promote debate on all aspects of globalization through publishing original articles and multi-media presentations. YaleGlobal also republishes, with a brief comment, important articles from other publications that illuminate the many sides of this complex phenomenon. To the extent permitted by copyright arrangements, YaleGlobal archives such articles and makes them available for search and retrieval.

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