Increasing the number of women working and leading in the sphere of security is a losing strategy. This was my personal reflection as I saw the developments in the past decade dedicated to women and security. I witnessed the significant efforts within international organizations, following the adoption of the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325. I took part in this effort from its early days, developing action plans and reporting year after year achievements both internationally and nationally. I welcomed the creation of high level positions to champion women in various institutions. The commitment from many was definitely uplifting and the results not insignificant but, after a few years, my sense was that we needed a different approach.
There seems to be two types of approaches in this business: a quantitative one seeking always more advisors on women issues, more champions of the cause, and if possible at higher level in the institutional hierarchy; and a qualitative approach, which begs the question – what is it that would make the security field more welcoming to women? What kind of a working environment would retain the professional women that have been investing in this field for years and are now leaving in droves? I have been working in the field of security for three decades, and the few women with whom I grew up professionally over the years are becoming fewer and fewer. I hardly need statistics. I live it day by day.
Let me start by a very simple postulate. How is it possible to advocate security internationally when people within organizations promoting security do not feel safe and secure in their own jobs – safe to speak their truth, safe to bring their talents forward? There is a clear disconnect between advocating peace and security and living daily a sense of unease internally within the security apparatus. This in turn breeds insecurity at home to raise children and keep a safe work-life balance – will I be perceived as reliable and trustworthy if I choose to spend one day a week at home? This is a qualitative issue. Women need to feel that their professional security is not at stake to be able to advocate peace and security with integrity vis-a-vis themselves. In other words, there will be no more women in the field of security, if there is no greater sense of security for the women professionals who work in this field. This is a core issue of inadequacy between internal values and actions.
What should a working environment in the field of security look like to be attractive to women? I would like to put forward five key principles that would qualitatively change the field, and become more attractive to women.
The first principle speaks of an open mindset. In this field, most leaders talk about being number one, being the best, beating competition, prevailing over enemies. In reality, there is no such thing as being the best. Feeling peace and security is not a winning business. The goal is to feel whole and at peace, to outdo yourself, reach your own balance and unity, learning from others rather than pushing them aside. It speaks of interconnectedness, community identity, and a sense of belonging. By definition, peace and security is never finished. It is community-based and requires an open mindset.
Along with open-mindedness, lies the second principle of flexibility. In the security field, things are often set in a straight-jacket. There is little room for maneuver and flexibility to the point of being stifling. There is little openness towards constant improvement, towards a better future. It is often about defending the gates, with many guardians of the threshold spreading a sense of fear and control. It is about perfection rather than excellence. This leaves little room for regular strategic shifts with possible short-term loss to ensure that we remain at the cutting edge of new thinking and creativity. Women tend to re-define themselves throughout life (before and after childbirth for instance) and value this process. It echoes nature, cycles and evolution. Fundamentally, they are convinced that if you do not redefine yourself, following natural evolution, the environment will force you out. This is not about adjusting to the new environment in a defensive manner, but rather anticipating and being pro-active – a posture that is yet to be achieved in the field of security.
The third principle lies with the need for a vision, an ideal. Perfect security does not exist. It is a far-fetched goal, but a necessary one to motivate people, and possibly even consider some sacrifices on the way. This ideal vision is attractive and worthwhile. When you struggle to get to work, to manage home life, business trips, and long hours at times, you need to strive for an ideal vision. In other words, even if you might make more money somewhere else, you feel that you are making a contribution to something bigger than yourself. This is attractive to women. For as long as they can make a contribution to peace and security, women will be attracted to this field. They have a natural connection to peace and security for having experienced violence individually and collectively far too long, and for having sought to protect children from times immemorial.
The fourth principle rests with the idea of safety and trust from your management that you are performing, and will continue to perform at your best. Often performance in security institutions (big bureaucracies) have little to do with the ideal vision of peace and security. It is measured against some standards that are far from uplifting. In reality, leadership generates trust, not the other way around. This is a leader’s job. In the business of security, trust is fundamental. It is of paramount importance that people feel that their leadership protects them; that mistakes are possible; that training can be offered; and that leadership recognizes its own mistakes. There should never be a fear of being downgraded or put on the shortlist for layoffs. Otherwise, we end up with people who will never volunteer their ideas, and never ask questions for fear of being cast out. People then hide behind their jobs and, as a result, do not progress and curb creativity. This is not an environment where women thrive. They need a more trusting environment where they can feel safe to become their best.
The fifth principle pertains to courage. Women are expecting a different environment with a new leadership style showing the courage to put people first (people over strategy), to change the way we look at security with the willingness to try and embrace different viewpoints rather than compete with, and eventually dismiss others. This is not only for the sake of cooperation. There is a genuine desire among women today to seek real leadership that generates innovation and releases the potential of the people ready to contribute something new. This would no doubt rival with others’ view of security, but it would surely be a worthy rival, which would fuel women’s vision of what the world of peace and security could look like in the 21st century.
When all is said and done, you may argue that this vision of security with its five core principles may not only correspond to women’s vision. Indeed, the point is that women are not solely aspiring to a world involving more women in the field of security, but more importantly one in which the quest for security corresponds to their values. In the end, it is a world where security exists for all, irrespective of gender, age and origins. It is an inclusive vision of security.
Isabelle François is an international security expert who served in government, worked in international organizations, think-tanks, universities, non-governmental organizations, and as a consultant. She is also a certified leadership coach.
Disclaimer: The author’s views represent solely her own.
Image credit: Flickr CC - NATO