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Gender Advisors in NATO Militaries

Gender Advisors in NATO Militaries

Photo credit: Staff Sgt. Richard Andrade

This analysis summarizes and reflects on the following research: Bastick, M., & Duncanson, C. (2018). Agents of change? Gender advisors in NATO militaries. International Peacekeeping, 25(4), 554-577.

Talking points

  • Assuming they have adequate resources, gender advisors can achieve incremental success in integrating the Women, Peace and Security agenda into the institutional structure of the military.
  • In the case of Afghanistan, by identifying women as leaders in their communities and encouraging them to join the Afghan security forces, Military Gender Advisors actually put civilian women at a greater risk of harassment and abuse due to a lack of cultural understanding.
  • Within multilateral organizations, such as NATO, there is a definite gap between the stated commitments to the Women, Peace and Security agenda and the reality on the ground.


United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1325 and its accompanying seven UNSCRs comprise the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda, which was first enacted in 2000 with the adoption of the inaugural UNSCR 1325 and later expanded with subsequent resolutions. The WPS Agenda is meant to guide and encourage the protection of women and girls from the violence of conflict, including sexual violence, and advance the participation of women in efforts to build peace and security, as well as meet the needs of women and girls in conflict-affected areas.  

The importance of the WPS agenda to protect women and encourage their participation in conflict zones contributed to other international organizations, such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), to incorporate a similar agenda into their operations. NATO enacted its first policy on Women, Peace and Security in 2007 and later incorporated Military Gender Advisors in 2009. Feminist scholars have noted a tension between the WPS agenda and NATO, as the demand that militaries adopt a feminist agenda may inherently militarize feminism and defeat the purpose of the WPS agenda. Some argue that this tension speaks to the larger point that militaries or intergovernmental alliance organizations like NATO are incapable of advancing any feminist agenda. The authors are interested in exploring this and other tensions at the heart of incorporating feminist ideals into militaries by speaking directly with NATO Military Gender Advisors, who are the sole drivers of incorporating the WPS agenda in NATO. Despite the above-mentioned friction, the authors are more optimistic about the ability of militaries to contribute to women’s security and protection in places where they are already deployed. The authors chose to examine the WPS agenda’s incorporation within NATO because it has proven to be a model for other organizations, such as African Union peacekeeping militaries and other partner and allied forces.

To understand how the WPS agenda is unfolding in NATO operations and structure, the authors conducted interviews and a focus group with 19 former or current NATO Military Gender Advisors in Afghanistan and Kosovo and two individuals from headquarters with similar roles. All individuals were employed between 2009 and mid-2016. The interviews took place in 2015 and 2016 and the focus groups convened in 2016. Within NATO, Military Gender Advisors are assigned the responsibility of advising on and promoting the WPS agenda operationally. The authors sought to understand the Military Gender Advisors’ perceived goals, successes, and shortcomings, leading to an examination of how the WPS agenda has manifested in the institution and whether it has made a credible impact in achieving the agenda’s goals.

The information collected by the authors speaks to how the stated goals of Military Gender Advisors align with the WPS agenda and highlights their successes and challenges. From the interviews, it is clear that Military Gender Advisors achieved the most success in changing mindsets, institutionally and individually. The advisors were able to convince individuals of the relevance of gender and, in turn, incorporate feminist considerations into the operational functions of NATO. The advisors also noted success in security and women’s empowerment, albeit less so. The advisors described success in mitigating harm—in particular, “limiting the accidental killing of women in NATO operations”—due to their guidance. Military Gender Advisors would be able to inform NATO of when and where women might be at a certain point of time and thus NATO would refrain from attacking that specific location when women were present. Yet, with regards to empowerment, the advisors generally spoke of more “hoped-for” impacts in the direct contact with women, rather than tangible changes. Many spoke of hoping to inspire just one woman to play a larger role in her society or to join the security forces, yet they could not present any evidence of such empowerment. Interestingly enough, the advisors active from 2013 to 2015 reported more success in achieving the goals outlined in their job description, which corresponds with revisions of NATO’s action plan regarding the WPS agenda. Essentially, each revision of the action plan allocated more support and resources toward the role of Military Gender Advisors.

The interviews also revealed the common challenges the advisors faced in completing their work: initial resistance to the acceptance of the WPS agenda, inadequate resources to complete their job, and incomplete understanding of the cultural norms and history of the country to which they were assigned. The most glaring of the challenges was the insufficient cultural and intelligence briefings Military Gender Advisors received, as well as a lack of training. NATO’s lack of support for its Military Gender Advisors illuminates a gap between the political commitment to gender equality and the reality on the ground. Yet, the authors point out, the measured success of Military Gender Advisors in influencing NATO’s operational structure to be more inclusive of gender equality is, nonetheless, a success. Institutional change is incremental, and the authors argue that Military Gender Advisors can be agents of change within militaries—they are slowly moving the needle of progress to bring NATO onboard with the WPS agenda.

Practical Implications

These findings speak to larger debates within feminist security studies around the capacity of militaries to advance the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda. As others have argued, merging a feminist security agenda with militarism risks a militarization of feminism. Furthermore, it risks legitimizing the “war system,” which is antithetical to the WPS agenda’s stated goals of protection. Militaries are, at base, instruments of collective violence, and women and girls often face the brunt of violence perpetrated in armed conflicts. In addition, feminists argue that the misogynistic overtones of militaries are self-reinforcing and can ripple into civilian life in societies where militaries have a large presence. Lastly, the authors point out that when a military is present, most resources are typically dedicated to its existence and a military economy develops, which takes away funding that could be dedicated to promoting security for women and girls. Despite the above-mentioned incompatibilities, the research presented indicates that incremental change within the mission and operational structures of NATO is achievable if adequate support is provided. However, the authors note that more research should be dedicated to understanding whether this incremental structural change improves security and participation of local women in which the militaries are active. Although some may argue that incorporation of a feminist agenda into militaries is fundamentally impossible, the authors are more optimistic. Through their research, the authors argue that there is the potential for militaries to contribute to the security of women in the communities they are deployed. Moreover, they argue there is an opportunity for militaries to become more invested in the feminist agenda and, in turn, facilitate a feminist vision of security.

More generally, the research highlights the opportunities and risks associated with integrating the WPS agenda within militaries. Interviews with Military Gender Advisors clearly identify institutional change as their greatest achievement. The minimal success reported by Military Gender Advisors related to security and empowerment was the direct result of the advisors’ contact with women in the field. Yet with this perceived gain came increased risk to the civilian women themselves. In the context of Afghanistan, the Military Gender Advisors reported that identifying women as key leaders in their communities and encouraging them to join the Afghan security forces actually endangered the women and put them at risk for harassment and abuse from their other men within their communities. For example, NATO’s encouragement and assistance at elevating the rank of women in Afghan police force subjected those women to harassment from male colleagues within the Afghan police force. The advisors lament that this was a consistent challenge and that, had they been provided adequate briefings related to cultural and contextual understanding, this could have been avoided. This scenario confirms the assertion of feminist anti-militarist scholars that militaries are not capable of promoting protection and participation of women and that this task is better suited for nonprofits and civil society organizations.

Contemporary Relevance

This research directly connects with the ongoing armed conflict in Afghanistan. The authors interviewed Military Gender Advisors who took part in three separate missions deployed in Afghanistan between 2009 and 2015. The challenges identified in the research speak directly to the barriers that exist to protecting and promoting the participation of women in conflict zones. These challenges can be at least partially overcome if more resources and preparation are allocated to Military Gender Advisors so they can fulfil their stated goals. Protecting women is central to the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda, and if NATO is inadvertently putting more women at risk for abuse and harassment, perhaps NATO should rethink its allocation of resources and mission preparation.

An overarching theme in the interviews was an apparent gap between “rhetoric and reality.” Military Gender Advisors reported that, although NATO had committed to achieving gender equality and promoting the WPS agenda, there was a tangible lack of support from the organization in implementing this agenda. Advisors lacked access to translators, armed escorts and vehicles to venture into the field as well as adequate cultural and intelligence briefings, all of which stymied their efforts to achieve the goals outlined in their job descriptions. The evolution of the WPS agenda should address these challenges by stipulating a level of institutional support so that powerful institutions can achieve more than just incremental change. According to the author’s research, it is a matter of institutional support and more resource allocation. Contrary to the previous research, the authors assert that the incorporation of a feminist agenda into militaries can be achieved. It may not be a sweeping change, but incremental progress indicated in their analysis of NATO indicates it is possible.

Continued Reading

Keywords: militarism, Women, Peace, and Security Agenda; Military Gender Advisors, NATO, feminism

The following analysis is from Volume 3, Issue 6 of the Peace Science Digest.

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