How Gender Diversity Improves Defense Operations

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Jan 9, 2024

A U.S. paratrooper helps a woman and child evacuating from Afghanistan in August 2021, photo by U.S. Central Command Public Affairs

A U.S. paratrooper helps a woman and child evacuating from Afghanistan in August 2021.

Photo by U.S. Central Command Public Affairs

Disoriented and traumatized, tens of thousands of Afghan evacuees started to arrive in the United States in late August 2021. They had escaped from Kabul as the Taliban closed in. Now, as they filed into temporary housing units on U.S. military bases, officials realized they had miscalculated. These were not all men.

What followed was a race to provide everything from separate housing units to baby formula to information sessions for Afghan women. It was a test of the military's commitment to better address women's needs and safety—and, more than that, to center women as leaders and advisers. It became, RAND researchers found, an example of how to do that, and how important it can be.

“The Department of Defense has all of these strategic documents, strategic frameworks, and implementation plans,” said Joslyn Fleming, a defense policy researcher who led the study. “We wanted to give the implementers, the commanders, an idea of how it looks in action. We wanted them to say, oh, that's what it means to incorporate a gender perspective.”

Those strategic documents and frameworks all refer to “Women, Peace, and Security.” It's an umbrella term that covers a few different ideas. It means making sure women play a meaningful role in matters of war, peace, and security. It means recognizing the disproportionate impact that conflict has on women—and taking steps to ensure their safety. And it means embedding women's perspectives in all levels of decisionmaking.

It's been U.S. policy since 2017, and not just as a moral imperative. The Department of Defense says meeting those objectives is key to building a more lethal force. For years, it has pointed for an example to the all-women teams that worked alongside special operations forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. They were able to build relationships in local communities that men never could, often yielding mission-critical intelligence.

All-women teams that worked alongside special operations forces in Iraq and Afghanistan were able to build relationships in local communities that men never could, often yielding mission-critical intelligence.

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But military leaders wanted more, and more recent, examples of what it looks like on the ground to apply a gender lens to planning and operations. Researchers developed a set of real-world vignettes to demonstrate the how and the why, drawn largely from interviews with women who had served. Many had worked as gender advisers—GENADs in military lingo—a role the military created to provide that gender lens.

A few years ago, for example, U.S. service members were in Guyana for an annual training exercise with partners in the Caribbean. They included gender advisers, who noticed that the Guyanese women in uniform were doing menial jobs like serving food. At the time, Guyana badly needed soldiers to defend its border with Venezuela. But the advisers learned it had not built separate facilities for women there, so it could not deploy them. They worked with U.S. and Guyanese officials to get the facilities built. Within months, two units of women were patrolling the border.

On the other side of the globe, U.S. Indo-Pacific Command developed an index to track gender equity and other developments in its area of operations. It flagged the small Southeast Asian nation of Timor-Leste as a hot spot of human trafficking. Command officials sponsored a workshop to help Timorese labor inspectors spot trafficking victims and get them help. The country identified ten trafficking victims and 32 other possible victims in 2022 and early 2023, up from one the year before.

“As we are trying to counter adversaries like Russia and China, this is an area where we can walk the walk and really be a partner of choice for these nations,” said Fleming—who, in addition to her work at RAND, is a lieutenant colonel in the Marine Corps Reserve. “Incorporating these principles sets us apart from them and helps us in that competition.”

But, she added, “it's not just about looking at other countries. There's an internal focus here, too.”

Captain Emily Copple leads a Female Engagement Team as Afghan women and children arrive at a U.S. base in Germany, photo by Spc. Elliott Page/U.S. Army

Captain Emily Copple leads a Female Engagement Team as Afghan women and children arrive at a U.S. base in Germany.

Photo by Spc. Elliott Page/U.S. Army

In the summer of 2021, as the Afghan government collapsed and the Taliban swept back into Kabul, tens of thousands of people crushed the gates of Hamid Karzai International Airport. U.S. forces had expected to evacuate mostly men who had served as interpreters or security partners. Instead, as they loaded people into cargo planes for one of the largest airlifts of noncombatants in history, they saw that many of the men were accompanied by women and children.

The U.S. bases that would house the evacuees had as little as three days to get ready. Expecting young men, they had plentiful supplies of soda, but not baby formula. One base in Virginia hosted 150 pregnant women and had to scramble to find doctors for them. A base in Indiana didn't have enough soldiers who were women to patrol separate housing units for women and children.

Working across U.S. bases, gender advisers helped commanders anticipate the needs and cultural sensitivities of the new arrivals from Afghanistan in 2021.

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The military deployed more than two dozen gender advisers to help with what became known as Operation Allies Welcome. Working across bases, they helped commanders anticipate the needs and cultural sensitivities of the new arrivals. They provided women-only recreation areas and organized women-only town halls. They set aside more time for women in base supply stores, because they realized women were shopping not just for themselves, but for their entire family—often with children in tow.

The gender advisers “made a compelling case for taking a comprehensive approach to consider gender dimensions for all aspects of the mission,” RAND researchers wrote. The commander of U.S. Northern Command, General Glen VanHerck, described their contributions as “truly groundbreaking and critical.” The advisers, he said, “helped enable the success of Afghans resettling into American communities.”

RAND researchers are now developing case-study reports for individual combatant commands and service branches. They're also looking at how leveraging the principles of Women, Peace, and Security could help the military combat sexual assault and harassment.

The military, too, is trying to get the word out. The gender advisers who worked with Afghan refugees in the United States developed a training curriculum from what they learned. Among the countries that have asked for their insights is Bangladesh. It has hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees living in camps on its southern border, one of the worst refugee crises in the world. More than half are women and children.

Doug Irving