The fine line between patronizing and promoting women in defence and security

June 28, 2017

19 August 2015 

It has been just over a year since Italian Air Force Pilot Mariangela Valentini lost her life during a training mission over the skies of Ascoli Piceno, in central Italy. Captain Valentini, and the three other officers who perished in the 19 August 2014 collision, received plenty of attention in the national media and their memories were honoured at a state funeral attended by the minister of the defence and the top brass of the Italian armed forces. 

Captain Valentini was not new to the spotlight. As a rare breed for the country – a female fighter jet pilot – she had often been paraded in local and national TV and newspapers. This never came easy to her, not least when faced by (silly) questions such as ‘do you wear makeup when you fly?’ 

Having known her since our teenage years, I knew this uneasiness was not simply a matter of being camera-shy. That constant reminder, the fact that whatever she had accomplished was always accompanied by the qualifier 'as a woman', made her uncomfortable. Mariangela was an officer, a pilot, a defence professional – being considered special because of her gender was not her objective and certainly did not flatter her. And I doubt most women in the armed forces felt any different. This was clear when in a 2012 interview she was asked to give advice to young girls dreaming of a career as a pilot: ‘It is the same as for boys: you have to study…a lot’. 

This led me to think about a broader question, a dilemma. On the one hand it is understandable that the military wishes to put forward existing female personnel to encourage additional female recruitment. This is particularly true given that in most countries this line of work, and the public perception of it, remains male-dominated. On the other hand, it would be highly advisable to stop patronising women by praising them for, as in Mariangela’s case, flying a Tornado or going on a mission to Afghanistan ‘as a female’. And this is not to pretend that there are no physical differences between men and women; that is certainly not the point. 

Arguably, if we wish to encourage equal treatment of women in the defence and security sectors we should stop portraying them as special. One cannot deny that established female can act as role models and mentors for aspiring new generations but more than anything professionalism, determination and hard work should drive women’s entry and progression in these fields. As the British Army is about to welcome its highest ever ranking female officer when Brigadier General Susan Ridge is promoted to major general in September, it seems to me that the sky is the limit, at least in the Western world. Yet, we are yet to fine-tune the message. In this regard, SecurityWomen is a welcome addition to the debate. 

Virginia Comolli is the Research Fellow for Security and Development at The International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in London.

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