Robert EgnellFollowing a presentation on gender, women, and military effectiveness delivered at Georgetown University, the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs sat down with Dr. Robert Egnell, Visiting Professor and Director of Teaching of the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University, to discuss the importance of female participation and gender perspective in the armed forces. GJIA:  Could increased female participation in military organizations globally help mitigate the overwhelmingly disproportionate victimization of women in armed conflict?

RE: Although female participation itself won’t necessarily mitigate these consequences, the incorporation of gender perspective into the operation of military organizations is what will have the most profound impact on the imbalance.  Gender perspective allows for armed forces to take a step back and analyze how women are impacted by conflict. Hopefully it will also induce an effort on the part of combatants to operate in a way that limits their impact on target communities, especially with regard to women.  Gender perspective also influences the training and mentoring of local armed forces so as to encourage them to comply with human rights standards. Furthermore, the inclusion of women in military organizations could significantly change the perception of what roles are deemed appropriate for women and promote women as important agents of peace and security rather than just "victims."

GJIA: How can military organizations most effectively balance gender equality with the preexisting physical standards and demands of combat?

RE: Because many militaries have already established standards for combat that work, the first step would be to open all positions and clarify that everyone competes on equal terms within the existing boundaries and physical standards. The next step would be to make sure that these standards are gender-neutral, not gender-blind. Right now, we think of them as gender-neutral and, thus, solely based on what combat requires. However, there are a lot of hidden gender norms within these standards. For example, militaries often test upper-body strength, which is not necessarily the most important assessment of combat fitness. There are a lot of pull-ups in combat training, something that women are notoriously bad at, as well as obstacle courses with distances and heights that women have historically struggled with that do not necessarily reflect realistic military combat situations. To promote gender equality, we have to ensure that our militaries’ tests and training reflect the true nature of combat rather than preconceived and traditional notions of what it means to be a good soldier.

GJIA: How does gender integration impact military operational procedures?

Female-soliders-of-the-Karakal Battalion Israeli Defense Forces operate during winter training in Southern Israel in 2007 (User Matanya, Wikimedia Commons)

RE: When it comes to military effectiveness, gender perspective can have a lot of positive impacts. Military operations involve understanding the situation and the context in which you are operating, including the local culture, the power relationships, and the roles of different people within society, in a different way. We need to apply sex-disaggregated data to these contexts and a gendered approach to our analysis in order to gain a more complete understanding of local cultures. In terms of how we tactically operate during night raids, for example, gender mainstreaming would influence both planning and operational procedure. When it comes to training local forces, as I said before, gender integration has an enormous impact in training perspectives on behavior and views on human rights.

Additionally, from an equality standpoint, gender mainstreaming means that individuals within a military organization will also learn about the opposite gender’s perspectives. From personal experience, what I have found is that when you understand gender perspectives and the theories behind them, your personal viewpoint changes. Once you have put those gender lenses on, you can never take them off. You see society in a different way. You become a feminist and you won’t be ashamed of it. These perspectives will also have an impact on U.S. society as a whole, as people begin to recognize the absurd inequalities and flawed assumptions that exist regarding gender. Speaking as a Swede, I think the United States has a long way to go in terms of gender roles. Although women in the United States have a greater role within the business community compared to most European countries, when it comes to normative roles in the workforce, for example, there are very few men who would take paternity leave. I think the implementation of gender perspective in the military might permeate other aspects of society.

GJIA: What are the best strategies to recruit women for jobs in the armed forces in countries where male conscription and the stereotype of masculine soldiers are historically and culturally dominant?

RE: That is a good question, and obviously Sweden is really struggling in this regard. I think that one important part of recruiting women is changing society’s view on what it means to be a soldier and what the job entails. Traditionally, military conscription meant turning boys into men and had nothing to do with the actual job of fighting wars. When we change our view of the profession, we also need to change our recruitment strategies. What do these recruitment commercials look like? What part of the job are they emphasizing? More often than not, it is the ‘masculine warrior’ aspect of it. Why not emphasize other components of the job, and see if you can recruit a different demographic of society? Perhaps this would also attract a broader variety of men rather than those purely interested in the traditional depiction of a military job. A lot of people might see that and think, “Wow, it’s training others, it’s negotiations, and it’s supporting communities. This is not so far off from my work with the Peace Corps in Nicaragua when I was younger.” It is entirely possible that you can change the type of people you recruit by focusing your efforts on that target audience. Right now, while we are saying that we want more women in our units, when you look at the recruitment campaigns, they look pretty similar to how they always have.


Dr. Robert Egnell is Visiting Professor and Director of Teaching of the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University. His book, Gender, Military Effectiveness, and Organizational Change: The Swedish Model, authored with Petter Hojem and Hannes Berts, was published in May 2014 by Palgrave Macmillan.

Dr. Egnell was interviewed by Marisa Hawley on 19 February 2015 in Washington, D.C. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.