July 14, 2017

Overcoming Toxic Masculinity in the Armed Forces

Security and defence have climbed up the political agenda: Europeans are increasingly aware of the need to strengthen their own defence while the nature of threats is rapidly changing. The security and defence debate is incomplete, however, if policy makers and societies do not reflect on the kind of armed forces they want and need to deal with non-conventional threats such as terrorism, hybrid- and cyber-attacks. Here, the diversification of talents and skill-sets within the armed forces is crucial. While the discussion on gender equality and diversity in the armed forces is not new, it is worth analysing existing obstacles.

According to Joan C. Williams, a prominent feminist legal scholar currently serving as Founding Director at the Center for Work Life Law, “toxic masculinity” is one of the main challenges which needs to be overcome.

Williams describes toxic masculinity as an extreme form of masculine behaviour, which leads people (mostly men) to take unreasonable risks and makes them adverse to admit the mistake they might have made. Toxic masculine behaviour often leads to masculinity contests between men who want to prove to themselves and others how masculine they are.

What’s the specific problem with masculinity contests in the armed forces? Don’t we need strong men and real fighters in our ever more insecure world? How can masculinity be toxic?

Masculinity contests in the armed forces are problematic mainly for three reasons. First, the specific nature of the military job in itself is dangerous. Soldiers need to be prepared to fight and might lose their lives defending their country. But in a war or conflict situation, taking unreasonable risks just for the sake of being perceived as a “strong man”, is not only unnecessary but also endangering the life of the soldier, the whole team and civilians. We need soldiers who are prepared to risk their lives for safety and stability, but we should also have a vested interest in them behaving as reasonably and cool-headed as possible in order to prevent further conflict, destruction and death.

Second, armed forces in which only one form of masculinity – toxic masculinity – is valued, exclude a major part of their members. Not only women, but also a lot of men cannot identify themselves with toxic masculine behaviour. The working atmosphere can become poisoned. Overcoming toxic masculinity in the armed forces can therefore be regarded as an issue of gender equality and non-discrimination. If that sounds not yet convincing, gender equality, diversity and non-discrimination are not only important to create a working environment in which everyone is respected; it is long proven that diverse teams perform much better then homogenous ones. This is true in the private sector – a Harvard study (http://gap.hks.harvard.edu/impact-gender-diversity-performance-business-teams-evidence-field-experiment) found that teams with an equal gender mix perform better in sales and profits than male dominated teams – as well as for the public sector where studies (https://www.economics.utoronto.ca/index.php/index/research/downloadSeminarPaper/33279 and https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/08/police-departments-women-officers/497963/) in the US found that the quality of police forces increases with a higher percentage of women officers. Crimes, especially in domestic violence and sexual violence against women, are increasingly reported and prevented when the police force is not male only.

Thirdly, in today’s changing security environment, the armed forces need more diverse personnel than just the “classic” fighter: soldiers need to execute diverse tasks, are increasingly involved in training missions, peacekeeping operations, or cyber defence where diverse teams with varied skill sets are vital. Just recently, the setting-up of a Norwegian all-female military special forces unit (the first in the world!) was proven justified by the special added value of women on the frontline. In cultures where men are not allowed to contact women who are not part of their family, only female soldiers have access to the local women communities. This is a huge advantage for information gathering and building relations with locals, tasks which men at times, just by the fact of their gender, simply cannot execute in places like Afghanistan.

Research (https://books.google.be/books/about/Women_Lead_the_Way.html?id=05TZa_d14lQC&redir_esc=y) suggests that a positive cultural change of the working environment from within starts when about 30% of the workforce at every level of an organisation are women. Today only 11% of NATO military forces are women, so there is still a long way to go. Recruiting more women to serve in the armed forces might be part of the solution, but women cannot shift the culture alone: male and female soldiers need to live the principles of equality. The more heterogenous the armed forces become, the less toxic the environment.

Notwithstanding the need for soldiers (both, male and female) who are prepared to fight and take risks when absolutely necessary, the armed forces need to embrace a culture of diversity in which men and women feel valued, gender biases are overcome and mistakes admitted. In the context of the recent scandal within the German armed forces where a young, right wing extremist officer was arrested for planning a terrorist attack and living a double life as a refugee, the Inspector of the German Army and the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Armed Forces agreed that a so-called “error culture” in which mistakes are admitted and constructively dealt with are one of the most important aspects of today’s military professionalism.

Western armed forces are defending democratic values, including human rights and gender equality, all over the world – it is high time to genuinely incorporate the equality principles in the armed forces themselves. The military should become truly reflective of the societies it serves and protects. Overcoming toxic masculinity in the armed forces is therefore in the best interest of policymakers and societies, who wish for the best possible security and defence in turbulent times.

Rebekka Haffner is a member of the WIIS Brussels Steering Committee and a Project Officer at the European Organisation of Military Associations (EUROMIL).

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Rebekka Haffner

Rebekka Haffner

WIIS Brussels Steering Committee Member

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