U.S. Marines assigned to the Female Engagement Team (FET), 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit, discuss a plan of action before conducting an urban operations training exercise at Fort Pickett, Va., Feb. 21, 2016.

U.S. Marines assigned to the Female Engagement Team (FET), 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit, discuss a plan of action before conducting an urban operations training exercise at Fort Pickett, Va., Feb. 21, 2016. U.S. Marines / Lance Cpl. Koby Saunders

We Don't Know Enough about How Women's Perspectives Help Achieve Military Missions

Plenty of anecdotes show the benefits of bringing female perspectives to U.S. military missions. What's needed is data.  

In 2013, Capt. Deirdre Carbery, a female platoon commander with the Irish 42nd Infantry Group, deployed with the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon. Upon arriving, she noticed that data collected on local population movements was not broken down by sex. Recognizing that women, men, girls, and boys have different needs and routines in their daily lives, Captain Carbery developed a method to track sex-disaggregated data in order to better inform mission leaders about how the impacts of operations on the local population.

Through this new data, leaders learned that women rarely participated in public life. They learned that the local agriculture workers were overwhelmingly female. By changing tactics and including female soldiers on local patrols, leaders learned more about the different needs of women and children, needs that had been largely unaddressed. Through the new data and interactions that resulted, Captain Carbery’s unit was able  to better comprehend and improve the security situation while gaining new intelligence.

A year ago, a senior enlisted female Marine told me a story about her experiences with a Female Engagement Team, or FET, in Afghanistan. Working with a Special Forces unit in country, she had quickly realized that she often saw security differently than her team and commander did. Noticing that her male colleagues struggled to relate to local women and were losing needed intelligence as a result, she began showing pictures of her own children to local civilians. By relating to them as a mother, she broke the ice and gained their trust. Over her months with the FET, she was able to collect information about the population, their needs, and local tensions that proved valuable to mission success.

A Marine myself, I often found that my observations differed from those of my male peers. For example, in 2003, flying low over homes in Iraq in the pre-dawn hours, our AH-1W Cobra attack helicopters often thundered overhead scores of families sleeping on their rooftops. As our rotor blades beat the air over the heads of grandparents, babies, and children of all ages, I wondered how our presence affected them. I suspected that, divorced from the overarching strategic picture, our activity risked alienating people. When I mentioned this observation later, no one else seemed to have noticed it and no one was concerned. At the risk of seeming “soft” or too feminine in my thoughts, I never brought it up again.

These examples are only anecdotes, but they illustrate how applying a gender lens can create a richer picture of the security situation, filling in gaps and informing leaders where existing assumptions might be unsound. To be effective in developing tactical, operational, and strategic plans during conflict, leaders must use every tool at their disposal. This includes diverse perspectives at every level of leadership, and particularly a gender lens.

At the tactical level, the senior enlisted female Marine’s story demonstrates the new perspective that she provided to unit leaders and how that perspective informed their operations. A gender lens can also inform operational and strategic leaders and their decision-making processes. The intelligence that the female Marine brought back could have shaped campaign planning. Likewise, the expansion of Captain Carbery’s data collection had the capacity to shift the operational picture. And Carol Cohn’s assessment of how President Trump’s messaging on North Korea is shaped by his ideas of masculinity suggests how dangerous the neglect of a gender lens can be for security at the strategic level.

Yet today, gender remains dismissed as irrelevant to military effectiveness and real security; too many national security and senior military leaders assume that the dominant perspective of security is an objective one. This is worrisome, particularly given how the links between diversity and outcomes in other areas are increasingly established.

Unlike in security, the idea that diverse teams can be more effective has gained broad traction in the business community. Emerging research indicates that diverse teams make better decisionsperform at a higher level, and are more innovative. Performance metrics are likely easier to collect in the business sphere than in the security one, suggesting that translating findings neatly to the military could be challenging. But given that security is at stake, these questions should be asked.

Security research has engaged with these questions with compelling results. For example, Valerie Hudson’s work on the links between gender and security demonstrates the deep connections between the security of women and the security of states. Research on peace processes finds that women’s participation increases the likelihood of longer-lasting stability. And the New America Foundation’s report on gender and national security recognizes that while gender remains neglected in many national security decision-making processes, including a gender perspective is critical for effective security policy development and implementation.

Despite this foundation, research specifically into gender and military effectiveness remains thin, creating a gap between the operational experiences of female veterans and the security picture embraced by military leaders and national security decision-makers–upon which policy and strategy is often built.

Fortunately, the path to bridge the gap is visible. Scholars should draw inspiration from the observations of the feminist scholars and practitioners whose efforts demonstrate that security for women can look very different from security for men. This knowledge holds implications for substantive research into military applications.

The United States is completing its 18th year of overseas conflict. During these years, over 300,000 women have served in Iraq and Afghanistan in uniform – in unprecedented numbers and in glass-breaking roles. Through their work, they have developed important perspectives and impacted national security in ways that we do not yet fully comprehend. The experiences of these women, who have actively participated in combat operations at different levels of leadership, offer an exciting space for research. By studying their experiences, perspectives, and actions, we can develop a clearer understanding of how a gender lens can change the security picture – and of the power of diversity to improve military effectiveness.

Conflicts will continue to develop and evolve in the future, and the complexity of warfighting will continue to confound its wisest scholars. By building a fuller understanding of the tools at our disposal, particularly diversity of perspective and thought within the military, we can increase the effectiveness of leaders, improve the development and implementation of policy, and better understand security as a whole.

This piece, first published by the Council on Foreign Relations, is used with permission.