In Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, an Athenian magistrate demands of an assembly of women: “And where do you get off taking an interest in war and peace?” The play, set during the Peloponnesian War, was first performed in 411 BC. It is staggering that we are contending with similar questions nearly 2,500 years later.
This takes on new meaning in the context of policy-wonkery in India, which has had a rather busy season. The digitalization of all but essential services has democratized public access to seminars and conferences beyond their typically niche audience. It has also shone a spotlight on the disproportionate composition of these platforms, particularly those on national security. Indeed, in most, women are altogether absent.
While this phenomenon is neither new nor uniquely Indian, the online migration has made deficiencies in the security field more visible. It has drawn particular attention to the ratio of women to men in panel discussions, and public outrage has prompted some corrective measures.
These conversations must outlast the news cycle, so we don’t regress into old patterns once the dust settles. One way of doing so is to recognize “manels” as but one manifestation of entrenched cognitive biases that often put women experts at a structural disadvantage.These conversations must outlast the news cycle, so we don’t regress into old patterns once the dust settles. One way of doing so is to recognize “manels” as but one manifestation of entrenched cognitive biases that often put women experts at a structural disadvantage.
Gendering the Subject of Security Leads to Straightjacketing Of Sub-Fields
Cognitive conditioning in this field operates at two distinct levels. One is how we view security, whose lens has traditionally been male-driven. Its association with “masculinity,” and how “masculinity” is defined, have led, among others, to an emphasis on a “hard” conceptualization of security: ergo machines, missiles, military strategy.
Our understanding is sustained through language that invokes a particular alpha maleness. Carol Cohn, professor at the University of Massachusetts, Boston and founding director of the Consortium on Gender, Security and Human Rights, has done pioneering work on the subject with respect to nuclear weapons.
Consider the imagery conjured by a victorious “penetration” of enemy defenses, the surfeit of phallic symbolism in war-fighting jargon, the “counterforce cowboys” of deterrence. You may not be in a combat role, but you are as good as being in the trenches, or the wild west—spaces traditionally occupied by men. Studying security therefore is to engage with and learn from a narrative of female exclusion.
Two is how we are socialized to understand gender, and our expectations of masculine and feminine norms. Strength, resolve, aggression, and pragmatism are still perceived as typically masculine attributes. The feminine is identified as soft, gentle, emotional, and in some cases, weak and less “realistic” (than the masculine). Definitional challenges aside, the two can—and do—co-exist. But we have so far exclusivist associations of “masculinity” with the male, and “femininity” with the female. Gendering security therefore leads to a straightjacketing of sub-fields in the domain.
Is Security Speak More Natural to Men? No.
A career in security, by and large, means navigating and conforming to this binary for both women and men. “Masculine” subjects are seen as deriving primarily from military sources, with the State as the referent object, and subjects such as climate change and health that pivot on human security take on “feminine” connotations. Nuclear disarmament, for example—a worthy goal but viewed as potentially emasculating—involves forswearing a representation of “maleness.” If anything, COVID-19’s impact shows us just how outmoded and limiting these classifications are.
A gendered security landscape has inevitable knock-down effects. One of the ways it plays out is what has led to recent outrage: imbalanced panel composition. The prominence of hard concepts in national security, their equivalence with “masculinity,” and men with masculine norms inform the notion that strategic thinking on the subject is the preserve of largely one sex.
A combination of these factors can subliminally suggest that security speak is more natural to men, while women must nurture themselves to acclimatize to the field. Such considerations are very likely to shape the selection bias exercised in the lists of usual suspects on security issues, which tend to be heavily male-dominated. One ends up working with a limited pool of experts, and it is the same set of names and faces on rotation across seminars, televised debates, etc.Why do women experts continue to be near absent from everyday security platforms when there is clearly no dearth of them? Are we able to go beyond grand occasions commemorating them because they are women, to enlisting their expertise in more quotidian settings? I should hope so.
Merit-Based Parity is Achievable — And How
Unless she consciously looks beyond this too-readily-available resource list, a woman television anchor or panel organizer is just as susceptible to hosting a “manel” as her male counterpart. She is after all part of the same cultural milieu as the power structures that keep the policy machine running and looking a certain way.
All of this has had me thinking of a day earlier in 2020 at the Munich Security Conference’s Women’s Breakfast. It is held at the Residenz, erstwhile seat of Bavarian kings and dukes—only on this particular day, there are barely any men in the room. The symbolism is blindingly obvious. Perhaps it was the 7:00 AM mimosa, or being in the company of some 60 giants in security and foreign policy while under the influence, but their easy camaraderie, depth of knowledge, and collective power had me reaching for a word I don’t use lightly, or often: inspiring.
Why do women experts continue to be near absent from everyday security platforms when there is clearly no dearth of them? Are we able to go beyond grand occasions commemorating them because they are women, to enlisting their expertise in more quotidian settings? I should hope so. Merit-based parity is achievable—but we have to first be willing to acknowledge and unlearn the cognitive and structural biases that brought us here.
Image 1: via Pikist
Image 2: United Nations Photo via Flickr