The Pentagon has a plan to include more women in national security. Here’s what that means — and why it matters
A broader perspective is needed to more fully understand the drivers of conflict and promote lasting security.
Editor's Note: The following is an op-ed. The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Task & Purpose, the Department of Defense, or the authors’ employers.
What if, as a nation, we possessed the means to build and employ a more effective military?
The Department of Defense has this capability through the Women, Peace, and Security (WPS) Act of 2017. The Act is based on a body of research that demonstrates the disproportionate impacts that conflict has on women and girls, the unique and valuable perspectives that women and girls bring to the conduct and resolution of conflict, and how these perspectives must be meaningfully included through the planning, conduct, and resolution of conflict for more effective and lasting security to result.
For most of our modern military history, we’ve been focused on “traditional” physical security — where bombs are landing, what ground is held, and how many people are getting shot.
But physical security is an incomplete understanding of true security. A broader perspective is needed to more fully understand the drivers of conflict and promote lasting security. The WPS Act is an essential step. Rooted in security, it recognizes the important role that women play in the planning, conduct, and aftermath of war, acknowledging that traditional security models are dangerously incomplete. The WPS Act provides the tools to develop a better military, but it must be fully implemented across the Department of Defense.
We are concerned it won’t be. This will lead to less effective and comprehensive contingency plans, weaker and less credible relationships with our partners and allies, and a more homogenous force that is poorly suited to the challenges of operating and winning in a complex security environment. Full implementation — leveraging the benefits of WPS — is essential as our adversaries have embraced the strategic value of soft power.
The Department’s strategic framework and implementation plan is a positive step. Over the past several years, DoD has faced increased scrutiny due to scandals such as Marines United, criticism for a culture that still tolerates sexual assault and harassment, and a deal with the Taliban that leaves Afghan women in jeopardy despite promises of liberation. The WPS Act and implementation guidelines are a welcome codification of WPS principles that are proven to both enhance effectiveness and create more lasting peace during and after conflict.
However, our years of research and experience with gender and security have identified clear gaps between DoD policy and how that policy is implemented in the force, particularly when it comes to gender integration, the value of diverse perspectives, and personnel policy.
When it comes to the WPS Act and its implementation, these gaps can spell the difference between success and failure during war. We are concerned that despite good intentions, the DoD implementation plan lacks the substantive means to fully integrate women and feminine perspectives throughout the institution. It lacks clear levers to effect implementation internally — through a more holistic and structural approach to gender integration, the promotion and retention of leaders who understand the need for broader perspectives, and the integration of WPS elements throughout doctrine and the professional military education system.
The implementation guidance offers three Defense Objectives. Although the Pentagon’s guidance also includes requirements for partner nations and ensuring human rights for women and girls during conflict, we believe the most important element is Defense Objective One, which focuses internally, on the composition of the U.S. military. We welcome the inclusion of an inward-facing objective, since implementation will be less effective without the recruitment, promotion, and retention of leaders who understand the importance of the WPS Act. Successful implementation of Defense Objective One can enable the success of the WPS Act itself.
The guidance provided in the implementation plan is broad enough to allow for specialized implementation by each Service, a necessary consideration. However, broad guidance can enable a default “add women and stir,” or number-centered approach, which our research shows doesn’t work. To fully leverage the benefits of the WPS Act, particularly Defense Objective One, we offer four key recommendations for the Services to consider.
The services must build foundational structures for integration instead of just adding more women to the force
Focusing on numbers downplays the unique challenges that women face. Focus groups conducted by Dr. Hunter as a member of the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services identified continuing barriers to career progression in experiences with pregnancy and postpartum physical fitness, childcare, and unconscious bias equating motherhood with weakness. Indeed, investment in childcare and maternity structures is an essential first step to encourage women’s meaningful participation in the military.
When childcare is framed as a national security priority, women are able to not only join the military but attain meaningful leadership positions.
The Services must take a more holistic approach to integration beyond simply focusing on women in previously closed specialties
There have been unintended consequences of this narrow focus. The focus on getting standards right for women in the infantry has led to unfounded assertions that standards are lowered for women. These arguments distract from the broader integration necessary for reaching the full security potential of the WPS Act.
While women will positively impact infantry operations, they are necessary across the warfighting domain – from aviation, to logistics, to cyber, to training and administration. To benefit from Defense Objective One, the Services must ensure that efforts to integrate newly opened positions don’t disadvantage the force as a whole.
Military leaders need to rethink culture and mentorship
Dr. Haynie’s work with the Marine Corps’ talent management efforts tracked institutional obstacles such as a culture that judges women harshly and assigns a higher value to stereotypically masculine leadership traits, which limits the development and career progression of women.
Mentorship can address this, yet leaders rarely mentor others who don’t look like them. In an institution that is largely white and male, this is problematic for women.
While the DoD has invested in Lean-In chapters and formal mentoring programs to advance women and minorities, these formal programs often result in “othering” women, perpetuating the very same power dynamics. In our forthcoming book chapter in an updated version of Chris Kolenda’s Leadership: The Warrior’s Art, we argue that male leaders in particular must actively invest in those who are different from themselves.
For the DoD to rethink and reshape women’s roles in security, men must play an active role.
The military’s ‘north star’ should be realigned
Finally, foundational doctrine, the north star of the Services, must include a holistic view of security through a gendered lens to better guide decisions from the size and composition of the force to the planning and conduct of war. Current doctrine is overwhelmingly centered on hard security tactics and strategies.
However, gender (in)equality deeply shapes war and state security more broadly. These issues are rarely explored in doctrine or are dismissed as “women’s issues.” Placing women’s perspectives outside of warfighting denies women the ability to take full advantage of opportunities across the DoD and limits the benefits of diversity gained by the Services. As we argued earlier this year during escalating tensions with Iran, the historical lack of fully integrated women’s perspectives in DoD decision-making can lead to intractable cycles of regional violence.
Fully embracing Defence Objective One allows space for women’s diverse contributions to doctrine, planning, leadership, and execution.
The release of the implementation guidance for the WPS act could easily get lost in the noise of the current event news cycle. However, as the Services are using this moment for introspection and reckoning, the time is right. Given the threats we face as a nation, effective WPS Act implementation within the DoD is too important to get wrong.