Debunking myths about women in the security sector
International Women’s Day, celebrated each year on 8 March, has become a moment to draw attention to inequality, and call for action and change. The security sector is one of those areas which, stagnant with persistent challenges and institutional hurdles, is ripe for transformation towards greater gender equality.
In my opinion, the challenges to women in the security sector are often overlooked and their lived experiences have been disregarded. From my experience working in Mongolia’s national security sector, as one of the rare female leaders, I have some insights on the grounds and context of these misconceptions.
Paradox of gender in the security sector
The security sector is traditionally male-dominated. It is characterised by deeply rooted cultural norms, where masculinities are the defining paradigm of the sector. It is a sector where violence and confrontation have been glorified. Because of this distinctive culture, women encounter multiple barriers. They are often subjected to various forms of harassment, and are excluded from management or operational responsibilities. Assignments often reflect traditional gender roles, where women are expected to be the supporters or carers. These systemic barriers seem so impenetrable that women often decide to leave security forces or don’t advance through the ranks as do their male peers.
At the same time, hardly anyone will contest the importance of gender equality in the sector and nearly all are ready to emphasise the benefits of having both male and female perspectives in security.
However, this remains superficial, and there is yet to be the systematic transformation necessary for fostering a more level playing field between men and women in security.
Furthermore, efforts by both transnational and national actors are often misguided, led to some extent by misconceptions of gender and what women’s participation in the security sector should look like. This approach inadvertently usually supports existing structures and practices, rather than providing a fundamental critique of the existing frameworks.
Gender equality is more than numbers
The first predominant misconception is that gender equality and gender mainstreaming is all about simply adding more women. This approach has become prevalent in many countries including my own—Mongolia—where attempts to close the gender gap have narrowly focused on numbers. Increasing the number of women in the security sector is important. However, an increase in the number of female forces does not necessarily mean the increased numbers will reflect gender equality in the sector.
Mere tokenism perpetuates stereotypical gender roles of women’s “soft roles,” where they are placed in mostly administrative or low-ranking assignments which reinforce gendered roles of women as the caregivers in security. Here, women’s roles are seen as fitting “soft” security matters such as helping female victims. This notion is particularly potent in peacekeeping operations in the case of Mongolia. Recruited explicitly for this role, women are evaluated according to their “helpfulness”.
This misconception not only reinforces the “add women and stir” approach but also distracts from pursuing structural and ideological change.
Genuine gender mainstreaming goes beyond numbers, and entails integrating a gendered perspective into security sector policies and practices to transform structural barriers, institutional norms and attitudes.
From changing people to changing practices
A lot of gender awareness efforts in the security sector manifest as some sort of gender training, targeting male leaders or exclusively female forces. These are seen as an attempt to “fix” or even “feminise” men, rather than encouraging them to collaborate as allies. Beyond training and transforming people, the security sector needs to transform the procedures and practices to create an equal playing field for everyone.
The security sector has also failed to recognise the gendered structures of its own organisations. This “gender blindness” often ends up doing more harm than good.
The European Institute for Gender Equality emphasised that gender-blind programmes, policies and attitudes lead to maintaining the status quo and will not help transform the unequal structure of gender relations.
Gender blindness is particularly harmful in security, where there is a lack of awareness of the working conditions women encounter while on the job. Difficulties are downplayed, and seen not systemically, but as isolated problems of individual women. The burden of bearing and resolving issues is transferred from the institution to the woman herself.
There are many ways to overcome these shortcomings and shift these myths about gender equality. We need to re-think the gender awareness and mainstreaming approaches in the security sector context and bring deep change to disrupt the drivers of gender inequality, deeply-rooted gender stereotypes, and cultural norms.
Furthermore, we need to demonstrate how bringing women to the table as equals brings about different, and perhaps better results than the engrained power structures that reenforce militarised masculinity and glorify violence.
Bayartsetseg Jigmiddash is a legal practitioner from Mongolia with extensive experience in the field of legal policy, human rights and gender equality. She served as the Secretary of State of the Ministry of Justice and Home Affairs of Mongolia overseeing the legal policy, strategy and the law enforcement sector in the country. She also has extensive international development experience working with local and international NGOs. Currently she is EUI STG Policy Leader Fellow.