How do notions of masculinity and femininity influence decision-making in matters of security and stability? Hannah Wright introduces her doctoral research which explores how gendered norms embedded in government departments might shape the way policymakers – women and men – approach their work.

Advocates of the Women, Peace and Security agenda call for the “equal participation and full involvement” of women in decision-making on matters of security, yet debates among scholars, activists and policymakers reveal widely differing arguments and assumptions about why this matters and what difference it will make. For many, it is a straight forward question of equal rights: women have the right to be represented when it comes to making decisions that will shape their lives. Yet it is often also argued that women’s participation will transform the way that decision-making is done, or the kinds of decisions that will be reached.

For some, its value lies in the hope that these decisions will better reflect the needs and interests of women and girls, so often thought of as marginal concerns in the masculinised world of security politics. Another common line of argument, which is more or less explicit in policy discourses on Women, Peace and Security, goes that women’s equal participation will help bring about a different way of thinking about what security is or how we promote it. Often, this is based on an assumption that women will prioritise co-operation and compromise over confrontation which, it is suggested, could make for more effective decision-making. Hillary Rodham Clinton, for example, has stated that “including more women in peacemaking is not just the right thing to do, it’s also the smart thing to do”, while Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallström uses the slogan “more women, more peace”. Others are not so enamoured with the idea: in 1997, one male member of the UK Parliament was quoted as being fearful that the large new intake of female MPs “will start meddling in defence policy, increasing the aid budget and deploying peace-keeping troops everywhere”.

by UK Department for International Development [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr

However, as Elin Bjarnegård and Erik Melander point out in their recent post on this blog, there is little evidence that simply increasing the number of female policymakers will necessarily lead to a new security paradigm. Indeed, there is a need exercise caution in advancing this argument, as it is easily taken to imply that women make natural peacemakers, framing men as inevitably prone to conflict and violence. Not only is this untrue – examples of female politicians who have taken their countries to war are frequently cited as counter examples to this position – but it also reinforces stereotypes that hold gender inequality in place. Although it is certainly the case that a person’s experiences shape the way they think about the world, and these are heavily mediated by gender, we cannot draw a simple causal connection between a person’s gender and their politics. Indeed, it has been observed that in the (still) male-dominated fields of defence and security, the women who rise to the top are often those that adopt attitudes and behaviours that have been more traditionally associated with masculinity.

Rather than thinking only about whether women or men are making the decisions, then, many feminists argue that we also need to understand the socially constructed notions of masculinity and femininity that shape the way people think and behave. There is increasing acceptance that understanding these gender norms is critical to analysing conflicts, and peacebuilders at the grassroots level are developing innovative ways of challenging and transforming constructions of masculinity and femininity as part of their work. While these efforts tend to focus on communities directly affected by or emerging from violent conflict, relatively little attention has been given to how gender norms operate within wider systems of governance that shape the security environment.

My current research project, funded by the ESRC, addresses this question directly: using the UK government as a case study, it will explore how the gendered norms embedded in the organisational cultures of government departments concerned with matters of security and stability might shape the way policymakers – women and men – think about and approach their work. Over the next year, I will be interviewing civil servants working in different areas of security policy, as well as observing everyday practices in the workplace, to find out how gender norms are constructed, maintained and contested, and what difference that might make to how policymakers approach their work.

Two older pieces of research offer interesting insights on this question, both examining US foreign policy during the Cold War period. Robert D Dean’s study of US policy toward Vietnam under John F Kennedy and Lyndon B Johnson explores how the foreign policy establishment – composed mostly of white men drawn from a small number of elite boarding schools and Ivy League colleges – maintained a working culture based on a narrow conception of masculinity. This, he argues, led to a kind of groupthink that made it difficult to challenge the accepted wisdom on the importance of sustaining military intervention in Vietnam, even as the likelihood of defeat became increasingly clear. Carol Cohn’s famous study of (again, mostly male) US defence intellectuals working on nuclear weapons policy in the 1980s found an organisational culture that coded certain ways of thinking about the world as rational and masculine, and therefore valuable, while others were coded as naïve and feminine, and consequently rejected. Cohn notes that such norms shaped the behaviour of women and men in that setting, exerting a powerful influence over what kinds of conversations could be had, and which could not.

It remains important to advocate for better representation in decision-making circles, not only along lines of gender, but also race, class, sexual orientation and other intersecting systems of power. As Women, Peace and Security advocates have long argued, women and other under-represented groups have the right to be involved in making the decisions that affect them. Yet the studies described here suggest that there is also value in exploring how organisational cultures are gendered, and whether and how this might shape the way people of all genders think and talk about security. New research in this area can shed light on what this means for us in the present day, including in contexts where women are playing an increasing role in security policy: in the UK, for example, women make up 43.2% of Foreign Office staff, although this reduces at the higher ranks. Indeed, senior officials within the Civil Service have posed similar questions: in response to the Chilcot Inquiry on the 2003 war in Iraq, policymakers are asking how greater diversity and inclusion among decision-makers, as well as changes in workplace culture, might influence the way policy is made. Rather than falling back on shaky assumptions about women as peacemakers and men as warmongers, we must build a more nuanced picture of how gender norms might shape – and indeed be shaped by – the way all decision-makers think about security.

About the author

Hannah Wright is a Researcher at the Centre for Women, Peace and Security as well as a PhD student at the LSE Department of Gender Studies, studying the relationship between gendered organisational cultures and discourses in foreign policy-making institutions and approaches to international peace and security.