Planners Need to Take Gender into Account

Lieutenant Andrea N. Goldstein, U.S. Navy Reserve

Intelligence Gathering Takes Gender-Balanced Teams

Thousands of women served in military intelligence during World War II, most notably in the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) and the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (OSS). A number of the 4,000 women in the OSS served as field agents: saboteurs and human intelligence collectors conducting what is now known as “special reconnaissance”—covert collection of strategically or operationally significant information by paramilitary forces and other means. 4  The OSS and SOE deliberately employed women as human intelligence collectors because, in occupied France, “Femininity was indeed the best disguise.” 5  Despite women’s success in the field, the military intelligence community failed to institutionalize the lesson that gender-specific considerations are integral to human intelligence collection.

The Marine Corps took more than 60 years to form Lioness teams (forerunners of female engagement teams)—in 2007—and allow women to attend the counterintelligence/human intelligence course at Dam Neck—in 2008. (The course was never formally closed to women in the Navy.) Specifically designated and trained female support technicians did not join SEAL teams until 2011. As security analyst Robert Egnell noted, gender-specific personnel considerations “were not introduced as a politically correct nicety to please the women’s movement, but as a direct result of operational necessities.” 6

In all post-9/11 U.S. conflicts, women have been able to gain access to information that men could not. In Iraq, Afghanistan, and other contingency operations, cultural considerations have demanded the presence of servicewomen to interact with local women and girls because, in many cases, men are not permitted to do so. This prohibition does not work the other way around. American servicewomen came to realize they occupy a “third gender” in the eyes of the local men: neither male nor constrained by the same social or religious norms as local women. 7 Local women, on the other hand, see American servicewomen as fellow women. Therefore, coalition servicewomen are able to engage with both local men and women, whereas male soldiers can engage only with men. From an intelligence collection perspective, this means women have considerably more access.

The benefits go beyond intelligence gathering. As Egnell observed, “Gaining access to local women . . . can also improve the unit’s relationship with the community, its perceived legitimacy, and improve force protection of troops in the area of operations.” 8  Units that engage with local populations should strongly consider deploying gender-balanced teams to reap these benefits. This may apply on the high seas as well and could lead to a need for mixed-gender visit, board, search, and seizure (VBSS) teams. While some units take these considerations into account, few institutionalize them. It is a lesson relearned again and again, and it will be rediscovered repeatedly until it is deliberately written into intelligence doctrine and training curricula.  

Gender Can Shape “Indications and Warnings”

Thinking actively about gender in the intelligence cycle is critical to developing a complete operational picture in support of maritime operations, including what events may demand the response of Navy and Marine Corps units. This gender mainstreaming process merges not only indications and warnings of “traditional” security concerns, such as violent conflict, but also “nontraditional” ones, such as health, economic empowerment, and political participation. 9  Gender cuts across all of those and illuminates the functioning of individual and group relationship power dynamics. 10

NATO’s Bi-Strategic Command Directive 40-1 addresses incorporation of gender perspective into military operations. The order makes it the responsibility of the director of intelligence to:

[c]ontribute to the understanding of the operational environment with an integrated approach incorporating gender-related data, analysis of transnational issues and threat analysis of attacks/aggression to civilians and local population. Address gender perspective impacting intelligence collection (i.e., Human Intelligence, risk assessments), analysis and production. 11

Being conscious of gender and gender-specific issues in intelligence collection, analysis, and production affords a more-complete understanding of the operational environment. Men can be driven to piracy, for instance, both by the need to be providers in order to marry and bydefinitions of masculinity. 12

Sexual violence can be an early warning indicator of civil unrest and future conflict. From the Balkans to Boko Haram, for instance, sexual violence has been used as a weapon of war: it disrupts communities through the trauma both to the victims and their families, leaving their male relatives powerless. As the U.K.-based nonprofit Saferworld notes, “[E]vidence suggests that a high prevalence of [gender-based violence] may be a trigger or enabling factor for armed conflict and instability at the national level.” 13  Engaging with women in local populations can help reveal these hidden causes and indicators of conflict. 14

Absent such considerations, the intelligence community is “looking at the strategic process without a sound understanding of all aspects of the conflict—such as the actors involved, the political climate, the local culture, the economic situation on the ground, etc.” 15

Gender Considerations Make the Operational Picture More Complete

To bring the best intelligence and planning to the fight, the Navy and Marine Corps must move gender considerations into the mainstream. To accomplish this, the services will need to do more than recruit and retain more women—gender perspective is not the responsibility of servicewomen, but of all personnel. Properly implemented, an expansion of the understanding of the role of gender will give the United States a significant competitive advantage, as many potential adversaries do not incorporate gender into their planning. Examining how men, women, boys, and girls are affected differently by conflict makes it easier to understand the stability of a state—a consideration that often does not work the other way around.

1. United Nations, Directive, DPKO Policy. "Gender Equality in UN Peacekeeping Operations" (2006).

2. P.L. 115-68 “Women, Peace, and Security Act of 2017.” www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/senate-bill/1141/text .

3. Gunhild Hoogensen and Svein Vigeland Rottem, “Gender Identity and the Subject of Security,” Security Dialogue 35, no. 2 (2004), 155–71.

4. Elizabeth P. McIntosh, Sisterhood of Spies: The Women of the OSS , (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1998); Department of Defense "Joint Pub 3-05 Doctrine for Joint Special Operations." Office of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (2014), www.dtic.mil/doctrine/new_pubs/jp3_05.pdf .

5. Juliette Pattinson, “Passing unnoticed in a French crowd: the passing performances of British SOE agents in occupied France” National Identities . vol. 12, no. 3 (September 2010), 301.

6. Robert Egnell, "Gender Perspectives and Military Effectiveness: Implementing UNSCR 1325 and the National Action Plan on Women, Peace, and Security."  Prism: a Journal of the Center for Complex Operations  6, no. 1 (2016): 72.

7. Andrea Goldstein (writing as Anna Granville), “The Story Of The Incredible Women Who Served With Special Ops Units In Afghanistan,” Task & Purpose , 29 April 2015, taskandpurpose.com/the-story-of-the-incredible-women-who-served-with-special-ops-units-in-afghanistan.

8. Egnell, 77.

9. Brandon Hamber, et al., “Discourses in Transition: Re-Imagining Women's Security” International Relations 20, no. 4, (December 2006): 491.

10. Hoogensen & Rottem, 163–64.

11. NATO Bi-Strategic Command Directive 40-1, “Implementing UNSCR 1325 and Related Resolutions into the NATO Command Structure,” 8 April 2017.

12. Brittany Gilmer, “Hedonists and husbands: piracy narratives, gender demands, and local political economic realities in Somalia,”  Third World Quarterly  38, no. 6 (2017), 1366–80.

13. Saferworld Briefing, “Gender and Conflict Early Warning.” 28 May 2014, www.files.ethz.ch/isn/180703/gender-and-conflict-early-warning.pdf , 5.

14. Ibid, 2

15. Egnell, 77.


Lieutenant Goldstein is an intelligence officer who served on active duty 2009–16, with diverse assignments on amphibious ships and with Naval Special Warfare. She currently serves in the Navy Reserve as a gender advisor to NATO Allied Command Transformation while completing her M.A. in Law and Diplomacy at the Fletcher School at Tufts University. She is a Pat Tillman Scholar and won first prize in the Naval Institute’s 2016 Naval History Essay Contest.

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