Gendered structures and practices of European security:the case of NATO

NATO has an important place in terms of European security architecture. Its constituents may span the North Atlantic, but the alliance’s heart is in Europe. Gender has always mattered to NATO. For example, the NATO Committee on Gender Perspectives has its origins in the 1960s (Wright, 2016, p. 354). Unsurprisingly then, NATO has also been the most visible among the European security institutions (EU CSDP, OSCE) in its engagement with the WPS agenda. The chapter now turns to examine NATO as an institution of hegemonic masculinity, before contextualising this against the alliance's engagement with WPS.

The ‘family photos’ taken of Heads of State at NATO Summits (see Figure 9.1) demonstrate the continued underrepresentation of women at the decision-making table. They show how small and fluctuating gains in women’s broader political representation across Europe have been. NATO Summits provide a space for ‘vital diplomatic and political activity’ and provide ‘additional shape, purpose and impetus’ to the alliance (Park, 1996, p. 89). In other words, they matter. The near absence of women is, therefore, cause for concern, if not unsurprising in a military institution based on masculine bodies and practices (Kronsell, 2015). It also reflects a lack of gender balance more broadly within the alliance.

NATO has been elusive in publishing data on gender balance within its organisational structure. A case in point is the fact that the last publicly available report was published six years ago (NATO, 2012). This means it is difficult to ascertain the overall representation of women within NATO. The most recent data on gender balance among NATO civilian staff

Family portrait of NATO Heads of State and Government at the NATO Brussels Summit, 2018

Figure 9.1 Family portrait of NATO Heads of State and Government at the NATO Brussels Summit, 2018

Source: NATO (2018) 'Family Portrait', NATO Summit Brussels 2018: Official Portrait and Opening Ceremony, 11 July 2018. Available at: (accessed: 24 October 2018).

come instead from the global study on the implementation ofUNSCR 1325 commissioned by UN Women. This finds that just six of the 38 (16%) executive leadership positions at NATO headquarters are held by women. In the regional offices, this figure is slightly higher, with two of the seven (28%) held by women. In 2015, this meant that just 19% of all civilian leadership roles within NATO were held by women (Coomaraswamy, 2015, p. 258). Today, this figure has increased slightly with the appointment of Rose Gottemoeller as NATO Deputy Secretary General, the first woman to hold such a senior post within the alliance. While this is welcome, it belies the fact that masculine bodies are significantly over-represented in decision-making roles in the alliance. The lack of up-to-date figures on gender balance within NATO makes it difficult to hold NATO to account and indicates that gender balance is a sensitive issue among allies. The lack of transparency is particularly concerning given the alliance’s commitment to implement the WPS agenda.

NATO’s engagement with Women, Peace and Security

On the surface, the most up-to-date NATO Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security2 seems to support the increased representation of women in NATO. One of the core outcomes is the ‘improved gender balance at all levels at NATO Allies and partners’ defence and security institutions’. Yet, if we dig a little deeper into this statement, we find it omits mention of the representation of women within the International Staff or International Military Staff (NATO, 2016). So, while increasing the representation of women in allies’ own forces or in national delegations, if realised, is likely to have some trickle down impact on gender balance within delegations to NATO and seconded staff, it will not address the gender imbalance among those employed directly by the alliance.

The gender imbalance within NATO should be a pressing issue for the alliance given its stated commitment to the WPS agenda. That it is not indicates this is an issue with considerable political sensitivities among the allies and one considered separate from WPS. In 2007, NATO formally engaged with the WPS agenda. For many, NATO’s adoption of a policy on WPS was the first time the alliance’s concern with gender issues became visible to them and took them by surprise (Cockburn, 2011). However, this overlooks the decades of consideration given to ‘manpower’ issues and, relatedly, the status and role of women in the armed forces by the alliance. It upholds the notion that international security is above concern with gender relations, rather than constituted through them. In order to challenge this view, it is necessary to start from the conception of NATO as a gendered institution. This exposes how gender is not a ‘new’ issue for the alliance, but, rather, one that is at the core of how it functions day-to-day. NATO has been concerned with gender issues under the guise of ‘manpower’ for decades. The alliance formally recognised the Committee on Women in NATO Forces within the military structure in 1976 (Wright, 2016, p. 353). This committee would become the institutional locus for NATO’s initial engagement with WPS when it was renamed the NATO Committee on Gender Perspectives in 2009. Later, the creation in 2014 of the high-level position of the NATO Secretary General’s High-Level Special Representative on WPS would shift the focus to NATO’s civilian structure. UN Women pointed to the creation of such a position, reporting directly to the Secretary General on NATO’s engagement with WPS, as one of best practice in a 2015 report (Coomaraswamy, 2015). The position has had three incumbents, all of whom have been women, pointing to a broader issue within NATO that it is women who have tended to staff roles with responsibility for gender issues, despite their broader underrepresentation within the alliance (Hurley, 2018, p. 74).

Like the EU, NATO’s engagement with WPS has continued to provide a central role for partner states. The NATO policy on WPS was adopted in 2007 in conjunction with the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council. Indeed, it was NATO partner states, primarily Austria and Sweden, which proved pivotal to realising this (Wright, 2016, p. 356). NATO has also relied on partner states to staff key positions on gender within NATO HQ, including within the Office of the Special Representative on Women, Peace and Security (Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 2014). This indicates that WPS serves an instrumental purpose for both NATO and partners. For partners, it provides a non-contentious issue on which to engage NATO (Wright, 2016, p. 351). Japan, for example, had no formal ties to NATO prior to seconding a member of its foreign service to take up a support role within the office of the NATO Special Representative on WPS. For NATO, it has provided a shared starting point and means to foster a sense of community with partners, in particular those that were engaged in the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan (Wagnsson, 2011, p. 598).

In respect to operations, NATO has also underscored the instrumental value of WPS as a means to increase operational effectiveness. WPS has been tied to NATO’s pre-existing concern with the status of women in NATO militaries and has been used to reinforce the essential-ist notion that better gender representation will lead to more effective outcomes. In framing women soldiers as adding something ‘different’ to NATO militaries, the gendered underpinning of NATO as a militarised institution is not challenged. Rather, the existing masculine practices are normalised and constructed as naturally associated with the institution (Kronsell, 2012, p. 67).


Drawing on a Feminist Security Studies’ approach shows that security is a deeply gendered issue. It also challenges the preoccupation of Security Studies’ scholars with ‘high politics’, demonstrating how the personal is not only political, but also international (and, in this case, regional). While the focus of this chapter has been on two key European security institutions, the EU’s CSDP and NATO, their engagement with the WPS agenda has the potential to challenge traditional understandings of security and to provide for wider consideration of what security means, and for whom. The politics underpinning WPS, its origins in civil society and the journey the agenda has been on since its adoption by the Security Council have not stripped the agenda of its efficacy. The WPS agenda provides a catalyst for states and other international actors to consider how their own institutional structures support deeply gendered outcomes. For example, the marginalisation of women from decision-making roles creates institutions premised upon masculine bodies and practices. Even with their engagement with WPS, this gender imbalance has proved difficult to challenge given that both the

EEAS/CSDP and NATO are reliant on member states to improve gender balance within them. This has created a significant barrier to increasing gender representation, despite both institutions adoption of policies on WPS. As a result, European engagement with WPS has drawn attention to the ways in which the agenda has been used instrumentally, to support neo-liberal logics or as a tool to increase operational effectiveness, rather than as a means to challenge gendered structures. This speaks to some of the weakness of the WPS agenda. Nevertheless, their public-facing engagement with WPS provides a tool for civil society actors to hold NATO and the EU to account for their lack of measures to effectively address gender imbalances within their institutions.

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