Challenges to Gender Equality in the Security Sector

Main Image Credit Courtesy of RUSI

Recognition of International Women’s Day has been growing in recent years, with more using the day to highlight obstacles remaining to gender equality. Still, arguments linger over the best ways to increase women’s meaningful participation in the peace and security sectors.

There is an often-unrecognised challenge when discussing women’s inclusion in the security field, which in many ways mirrors a division in feminism itself. Some women, who are working in the field as experts, simply want to be considered equal to their male colleagues – while others actively engage with gender issues as part of their work. Often, those who belong to the first category don’t want to be seen as ‘token females’ who are only asked to fulfil an organisational commitment to a gender inclusion policy. These women are not gender experts; they are simply seeking equal access and acknowledgement as experts in their chosen field.

The roots of security studies grew out of the same patriarchal realist ideological cannon as international relations, where women were considered ‘irrational’ and unequal citizens of the state. Of course, matters have evolved, with women increasingly taking up positions of power and responsibility. However, the grip of men on power in the security environment remains strong. This can make it challenging for female researchers, for example, to be seen as equals when engaging in the security space – even if there isn’t an intentional or institutional discrimination against them.

On the other hand, there are those in the field who study gender and actively focus their research on issues of gender in security. While marking International Women’s Day can be about recognising the contributions women make to the field of security and acknowledging the challenges they face in a traditionally masculine field, it is often overlooked that feminism is about equality of all gender identifications. For some feminist researchers, this makes the idea of International Women’s Day itself challenging: why should there be a day focused on only one gender when the point is equality of all genders?

Observations of Women in the Field

At RUSI’s event marking International Women’s Day and the 20th anniversary of the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda some broader challenges were identified, which still need addressing. Such as how successful women must often still go through male ‘gatekeepers’ or ‘supporters’ to advance their careers in security. For example, a female security officer might need the support of her male commanding officer to advance successfully through the ranks. While having career support is invaluable for all, there should not be a gender distinction on where that support comes from to improve one’s success.

Another challenge identified – regarding hosting events focused on women in security – was that even though you might be sitting in a room of powerful women discussing their expertise, inevitably somebody always mentions how grateful they are to have men in the room. Unfortunately, International Women’s Day events often end up designated as events for women. Therefore, the men that do come can be thanked for being interested in what the women have to say. You would not expect, for example, people of colour at an event on racial inequality to thank the few white attendees in the room for coming. So why then do we consider gender inequalities differently? Why is the progress which has been made on gender equality seen by some as a reason to write it off as a second-tier concern?

UNSCR 1325 and WPS – 20 Years On

This year is the 20th anniversary of the adoption of United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1325, which introduced the WPS agenda to the international stage. This landmark resolution increased awareness of the need for gender equality in security processes and solutions. International agreement to the resolution has led to increased pressure on member states to address gender equality, which has resulted in some positive impacts. For example, UNSCR 1325 highlighted the importance of increasing gender equality in the armed forces. As Lieutenant Colonel Rachel Grimes pointed out at the RUSI event, while percentages are still massively inequal, access to positions within the military is being opened wider than ever before. This is largely due to pressure for increased inclusion of women in security enforcement positions, such as police and military.

However, there are still many obstacles to meaningful implementation of gender equality facing the peace and security fields two decades on. There are challenges within the language of the WPS agenda in the resolutions, and in the subsequent follow-ons. These include the use of ‘women’ instead of ‘gender’ – loose terminology leading to varying interpretations, which in turn lead to uneven implementation of policies for greater inclusion of women – or worse, superficial solutions which allow states to indicate they have implemented WPS without any meaningful change actually occurring.

There are also gaps between what nations say and what they do. As Rahama Baloni, a Nigerian lawyer with Mercy Corps, a global humanitarian NGO, pointed out at the RUSI event – the UK is considered a global leader in liberal, democratic thought and develops its soft power through peacebuilding, countering violent extremism, development and other types of programming throughout the world. However, as a role model, it needs to be more committed to meaningful gender equality solutions if it expects to export that quality to other countries. For example, it needs to consistently include women equally in peace processes, if it wants other countries to follow its example.

Often, gender intersects with other inequalities. While UNSCR 1325 encourages equal inclusion of women in peace and security processes, just granting women a seat at the table – per se – does not ensure that they are being heard or meaningfully included. Additionally, whose table is it anyway? Local communities and groups need to be heard. This is equally as true in Nigeria, for example, as it is in the UK. There are grassroots organisations working around the world on community diversity and inclusion. Their efforts and approaches should not be overlooked, due to reliance on National Action Plans and top-down strategies. Often policymakers have not caught up on social contexts.

These are just a few examples on a long list of progressions and an even longer one of remaining obstacles. Strides towards gender equality have been made in many contexts. However, let us not become complacent, as there is still a long way to go – especially in the security field. Gender equality is just as much the concern of men as it is of women. Therefore, we need everyone to engage in this conversation. The more equal the distribution of power and responsibility, the more equal the loads will be that we all must bear.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.


Dr Jessica White

Senior Research Fellow

Terrorism and Conflict

View profile

Explore our related content