Women in the Military: Lessons on Leading and Women’s Expanded Role in Combat

June 28, 2017

Women in the Military: Lessons on Leading and Women’s expanded Role in Combat

by Mikaela Romero, WAND Intern Washington, DC

Toward the end of January 2016, Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee and the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) sponsored a panel on women’s expanded role in the military and combat. The discussion was framed within the context of the U.N. Women, Peace and Security agenda (outlined by U.N. Security Council Resolution 1325) and the U.S. National Action Plan on Women, Peace, and Security. Guest speakers included Ellen Haring, Retired Army Colonel; Susan Lukas, Retired U.S. Air Force Reserve Lieutenant Colonel, and Carolyn J. Washington, Retired U.S. Army Colonel.

The U.S. National Action Plan on Women, Peace, and Security (WPS) aims to enhance women’s participation and decision-making in conflict resolution and other security initiatives, ensure protection for women and the unique dangers they face in violent conflict and bring a gender perspective to sustainable conflict prevention. These commitments largely apply to external U.S. operations, interaction with international partners—governments, multilateral organizations, and foreign military personnel. However, panelists emphasized how major gaps remain in internal integration and institutionalization of WPS mandates.

Haring, a Senior Fellow at Women in International Security (WIIS), explained that barriers to national integration of women and gender equality measures in U.S. military branches are both a policy issue and a cultural issue. She cited many stereotyped lines of criticism that she has heard throughout the course of her military career, and many of which are still alive and strong today: that women are not fit for military leadership, that they cannot pass required physical tests, and accommodating women into combat roles will lower U.S. military performance. Haring counters that these arguments do not reflect women’s actual abilities but rather show a deep-rooted prejudice that exists in society and appears in conversations and attitudes of military personnel. Moderator Jessica Huber, IFES Senior Gender Specialist, added that the military’s chain-of-command structure, one of its best operational strengths, nevertheless fails to fully implement integration policy.

Lukas, current Director of Legislative and Military Policy within the Reserve Officers Association, shared her personal experience as a NATO delegate in the Bosnia and Herzegovina peace agreement negotiations and implementation. During that time, she remarked, it was vital that the American ambassador she worked with—male and a senior military officer—supported her authority and the role of other women in peace agreement activities. Panelists agreed that even when women make it to top positions in diplomacy, armed forces, and policymaking for post-conflict recovery, they can still face discrimination and isolation. This can come from their military unit, their military branch superiors, and partner nation delegates.

For women’s contributions to have a lasting impact on international security, they have to be respected and taken seriously. Representing the “old guard,” men in higher positions of power can have the most influence in challenging criticisms and vouch for women’s proven abilities, panelists argued. This proved especially important in a conflict-affected environment where a large proportion of men had lost their lives in war. Lukas emphasized that the U.S. cannot expect other countries to reach gender parity and be inclusive in conflict prevention when it does not perform on these standards itself.

Colonel Washington expressed how institutional resistance to integrating women shows up in small details that make all the difference. For example, many standards and requirements to qualify for certain occupations are not posted for public viewing (online or otherwise). This means the recruitment, training, and testing processes are beholden to subjective and inconsistent standards. How do women then know what they need to do to pass? Certain branches have not published plans for recruiting women, even though human resource experts have pointed out obvious target groups, such as high school female athletes. A summary message that the panelists had for Congress was to hold military branches accountable for gender integration policies, demand that requirements are published, create independent monitoring bodies for integration policies, and hold military leaders accountable.

Panelists ended by reflecting on how debates around women’s expanded combat roles compared to past moments in U.S. military history where issues of social inclusion met staunch resistance, namely post-Vietnam racial integration and the more recent Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Repeal. In all cases, cultural buy-in and mindset changes were key. “We’re in a turbulent time

[again],” Haring concluded, “but it will pass.”

Part of a US Congressional Women, Peace, and Security Breakfast Series, January 2016

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