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Higher number of women soldiers ‘leads to better decisions’

Defence Forces chief tells Hague conference greater gender balance improves capability

Chief of Staff of the Defence Forces Vice-Admiral Mark Mellett: ‘We need more women in our Defence Forces not just for peacekeeping but for everything else’. File photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times

The evidence is “overwhelming” that more women soldiers have led to better decision-making, the Chief of Staff of the Defence Forces, Vice-Admiral Mark Mellett has declared.

Speaking at an International Women’s Day conference on Women in Peacekeeping in The Hague, he said a better gender balance benefits all levels of military forces.

Better gender balance was a driver of military capability, he argued: “Capability that has utility on land in the air and at sea; capability that has utility in peacemaking, peacekeeping, stabilisation and civil society”.

Therefore, in military organisations women, gender, equality, diversity and inclusion are all matters of leadership, leadership that will enable women in peacekeeping to become force multipliers for better outcomes.

He said the Defence Forces, which has targeted women in recruitment campaigns in recent years in an effort to increase the current level of around 6.4 per cent, needed more women for practical reasons.

“We need more women in our Defence Forces not just for peacekeeping but for everything else – and not just because it is politically correct or [it] makes us a better reflection of the society we defend, [and] not just because 50 per cent of our citizens are female.

“It is a capability issue and it is an essential enabler to maximise our capabilities. Better gender balance in key leader decision-making gives better outcomes. Indeed better gender balance at all levels gives better outcomes.”

Vice-Admiral Mellett was addressing a HagueTalks event at the Peace Palace in the Dutch seat of government. Also speaking was Ameerah Haq, a former United Nations under-secretary-general for field support; Maj-Gen Martin Wijnen, Deputy Chief of Defence, Netherlands; Commander Ella van den Heuvel, a Dutch gender and security expert; and Capt Deirdre Carbery, a former gender adviser of the Defence Forces’ United Nations Training School and a member of Vice-Admiral Mellett’s staff.

Vice-Admiral Mellett recalled a point earlier in his career that saw him involved in setting up a partnership between the military, business, academia and civil society.

This taught him that disruptive partnerships, mixing science and humanities, entrepreneurs, soldiers and NGOs “led to game-changing concepts, technologies, knowledge generation – the positive outcomes were much greater than the sum of the parts” and helped break down silos of isolation.

“Silos undermine trust, efficiency and effectiveness and the hedge to overcoming silos was to have common agreed values and principles,” he said.

‘Greater access’

Capt Carbery, who is one of Europe’s leading experts on gender issues in the military, while also teaching gender awareness at the UN military school in the Curragh, spoke of her own experience as a platoon commander with Unifil, the UN peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon.

“I saw first-hand,” she said, “how my very presence, and that of the other females deployed with me – allowed greater access to the population we served, the population we are mandated to protect.”

War and conflicts exacerbated existing inequalities and reinforced gender stereotyping, she said.

“I used my ‘perceived’ femininity as an asset, not as a vulnerability, and used the gender bias present in the local culture and the local perception of the ‘role of women’ to our advantage so as we could gain the trust of both men and women,” she said.

“From my experience, the women want their voices heard, they want their experiences shared and they want to be part of the peace-building process – not passive recipients of ‘security’.

“In certain countries, where there are religious or cultural constraints which don’t permit interaction or communication with males – such as within certain communities in South Lebanon – the mere presence of women on patrols, on checkpoints enables us to engage, to listen and most importantly to act on the information we gain. What I found from this experience is that once the initial meeting or interaction was conducted by a female and a relationship was established then it was much easier for the male military personnel to continue the interaction when on patrols – the lines of communications had been established.

“With local males and with the local security forces [who were exclusively male] – I could speak to them candidly, it allowed me gain more detailed information on their families, their careers, their experience of the conflict and how it has affected their families.”

Capt Carbery said she was a soldier like every other member of the Defence Forces, male or female, and in seeking to break down stereotypes, asked why it was that men cannot be seen as “compassionate, empathetic and sensitive”.

“Why are these only seen as attributes that only women possess?” she wondered.

She continued: “There are, in particular, many, many more girls and women who possess all the necessary attributes, traits and skills – the untapped potential – to become professional military soldiers and peacekeepers – great leaders – leaders of women and men.

“To them I say, take the leap, ignore those who say you can’t because ‘you’re a girl’. We need you because you are you, you are unique and you will make our organisation better, stronger and more responsive to the needs of those we serve.”

The Women in Peacekeeping event was organised in co-operation with the Irish Embassy in The Netherlands, the Dutch ministry of foreign affairs, Just Peace and the Carnegie Foundation.