Why are so few women deployed in UN peacekeeping?

This article is part of ASPI’s 2020 series on women, peace and security.

It’s complicated.

Over the past several years, many countries have worked hard to get more women involved in their militaries, and the United Nations is making a big push to deploy more military women on peacekeeping operations. Some parts of the military have had great success, and in other areas there’s been very little ability to effect change. The reasons for this are many—and the solutions needed to change the status quo are far from straightforward.

And when you’re wanting to increase the number of military women being deployed into UN peacekeeping, the levers that the UN can pull to make improvements are few and the cultures involved are many. See—it’s complicated already.

First and foremost, the UN can’t deploy military women if they don’t exist. And while Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has made gender equality a cornerstone policy for the UN, neither he nor anyone else in the organisation can make nations change their policies to give more women access to military employment. Even countries like Australia, which has made significant changes to provide more equitable opportunities, are still falling short in attracting women in some areas.

Despite concerted efforts in recent years in Australia to increase the number of women serving in the Australian Defence Force, women are still significantly under-represented in combat and security (such as infantry) and in engineering, technical and construction roles.

For myriad reasons, women are not joining the military in these areas. And this isn’t just Australia’s problem—it’s global.

Of course, not all nations are putting in the effort that Australia’s military is. Many don’t allow women to join the military in combat roles. Some don’t allow women to join as enlisted personnel, while others only allow women to join in a small range of roles. And of course, some militaries don’t allow women to join at all.

Even without these overt institutional barriers, the proportion of women involved in the military still doesn’t come close to reflecting women’s participation in the civilian workforce. There are a whole range of reasons for this.

Unconscious bias plays a role. Well-meaning people, who are not even aware that their decisions—about who’s chosen for enlistment or commission, who gets deployed, who gets promoted—are guided by presumptions and prejudices they don’t know (or acknowledge) they hold. Assumptions persist that only certain styles of leadership cut it in a military context, that ‘softer’ (read: women’s?) leadership styles lack authority and aren’t suitable in a military environment. This is despite civilian studies that find women are highly effective leaders.

Gender stereotypes and care expectations are barriers as well. Many women continue to be the primary caregivers for their children and other family members. This is a difficult thing to manage when you routinely have to go away on military exercises and are then required to deploy for six months or more.

Perhaps this reality is part of why few women apply for combat roles. But perhaps there just aren’t enough women already doing the job to inspire young women to consider it as an option.

Some countries manage to deploy significantly higher proportions of military women than others, including in combat roles—and African nations lead the way. The latest UN figures (from January 2020) show South Africa, Ghana and Ethiopia topping the list of countries meeting or exceeding UN targets for the percentage of women deployed by nations with over 1,000 troops in UN peacekeeping.

Unfortunately, there’s no simple answer for why countries like South Africa and Ghana are successful and other countries aren’t. From a statistical perspective, it’s almost impossible to compare participation rates for military women around the world, as few countries report on their military sizes, let alone provide gender-disaggregated data. NATO nations report their statistics in detail. Otherwise, there’s very little data available—except for UN gender reporting, which details each month how many military women are deployed on each mission, and by each participating nation, and whether they’re meeting the targets set out in the UN’s uniformed gender parity strategy (UGPS).

The UN’s UGPS was introduced in 2018 to set targets and provide strategies for increasing the participation of women in military, police, and justice and corrections roles in peacekeeping. It acknowledged that the strategies introduced to increase the employment of civilian women in the UN were simply not suitable for the unique circumstances facing uniformed women. The UGPS sets out strategies for different categories of uniformed employment—for military women that means employment at UN headquarters, in individual (staff officer and military observer) positions and as part of formed units (overwhelmingly infantry battalions, though also others such as aviation and medical units).

There has been a significant increase in the number of women deployed in recent years in individual staff officer or expert-on-mission positions thanks to the strategies implemented under the UGPS. And there has been improvement in formed contingents as well, though this is much slower. Of the 74,009 military personnel currently deployed in peacekeeping, 70,738 are part of formed contingents, largely made up of infantry troops (which are overwhelmingly male). Only 5%, or 3,405 troops in formed units, are women. Significantly changing these figures will require every contributing country to make real changes to their cultures and policies to encourage women into these roles and address the barriers to their participation. And it will require more women to want to perform these roles and believe they can do the job.

The UN’s parity strategy is slowly reshaping the opportunities for women in the world’s participating militaries. And while I do believe that parity rates will continue to increase over time, I don’t believe that we’ll see 50–50 gender parity in the military in my lifetime. And I don’t think we have to. What we do need to do is give the world’s women (and all minorities) opportunities to find meaningful careers wherever they choose. Women are as capable as men to perform military roles, and diversity in any organisation makes that organisation better. That, at least, isn’t complicated.