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Why Gender Inclusive Militaries Do Innovation Better

June 27, 2022
Shira Eini Pindyck and Lindsay Shingler

Talking Policy Podcast

Innovations like artificial intelligence, autonomous weapons, cyber technologies, and even new capabilities in space have the potential to change the way countries fight during war time, and how they compete during peace time. But having new technologies available is one thing. Effectively using them is another. In this interview, Talking Policy host Lindsay Morgan talks with IGCC fellow Shira Eini Pindyck, where she explains why militaries that are gender inclusive are better at adopting and using innovations.

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We’re here today to talk with Shira Eini Pindyck, a fellow at IGCC, to better understand why integrating new technologies is often so difficult and why some military organizations are better at doing this than others. I want to start by asking you to give us a lay of the land for listeners who aren’t familiar with the defense technology ecosystem. How is the technology landscape changing for militaries? Are things evolving slowly and incrementally, or are we seeing rapid change?

In recent years there’s been a rapid evolution and proliferation of emerging technologies—advances in advanced computing, in big data analytics, artificial intelligence [AI], autonomy, robotics, directed energy, hypersonics, and biotech—all of which play a crucial role in how militaries today and militaries of the future are going to fight and win wars. For example, AI-enabled systems could enhance the speed of operations. They could enable new operational concepts like swarming where you might have an unmanned aerial vehicle coordinating autonomously to achieve a task.

How revolutionary these advances are is totally under debate. Some argue that these kinds of advances are paving the way for a huge revolution in military affairs, especially because a distinct feature of a lot of these emerging technologies [is] that they’re not only reinforcing each other, but also converging or interacting with older technology. Others argue that this isn’t revolutionary; that it’s just going to enhance the ability of militaries to do what they already do, just faster and more efficiently.

Regardless of what side you land on, it’s clear that the ability to develop, adopt, and integrate emerging tech is going to contribute to the balance of power in the international system. The U.S. is definitely a leader in developing a lot of these technologies, but China and Russia are also making steady progress.

In a recent paper for IGCC, you write that many military organizations struggle to use these technologies. There are lots of reasons why an organization might resist changes even when there are clear benefits, but in your research, you focus on gender. Why does gender matter in all of this?

There’s a wealth of literature out there that provides many different explanatory variables for questions about when, where, and why military innovation occurs and spreads. But I think it’s important to note that the very environment where all of those super important changes are happening has really rigid hierarchies. Those hierarchies rely on and promote a dichotomous understanding of gender. A lot has changed about warfare and the capabilities of military organizations over the course of history. But one thing that’s remained consistent is the elevation of traits that are associated with being a warrior or combat soldier—traits of physical strength and courage in the face of grave danger are associated with masculinity.

The problem is that integrating new technologies often requires a different set of skills that don’t align with being a traditional warrior. Cyber operations and autonomous systems require soldiers with skills in software programming, database engineering, and operating from the safety of an air-conditioned trailer. That requires totally different promotion pathways for soldiers who are not traditionally masculine warriors to rise up the ranks into positions of leadership. Those kinds of changes—altering the systems for rewarding and promoting soldiers—are going to be more challenging for some militaries than others.

What I argue is that an important way of thinking about a proxy for the kind of flexibility you need to integrate those kinds of changes is by looking at gender hierarchy and gender policy reform because those kinds of changes are also really hard for militaries to make.

When you mention computer software programming, I actually don’t immediately think of women in those roles, which reveals a gender bias even in terms of that group of activities as well. Of course, there are plenty of women in the tech sector, but it also is a traditionally male-dominated space. In your work, to what extent are you saying—if there are more women in militaries, militaries will be more successful. Or is gender just a proxy in the sense of flexibility in the workplace?

There are two aspects to thinking about gender in this context. The first is this idea that the traits or the characteristics that are being rewarded and promoted are associated with masculinity while positions and characteristics that are given less prestige and less recognition are often associated with femininity. That doesn’t necessarily align with differences across sexes. You can have a lower status position in which men are employed. That’s the first part.

The second part is, you see throughout history that lower status positions are often relegated to women. It’s funny today, in Silicon Valley, in computers and tech, we think of this as a male-dominated industry. But the first computers were [programmed by] a group of women working in militaries. Women often served in computer divisions early on because those were low-status roles.

You see these trends and cycles throughout history where, when a position doesn’t have any prestige, women fill those roles. Once they’re awarded more prestige, there’s a re-masculinization and there are no women in those roles.

When you think about computers and tech, you’re like, wait, but this is a male-dominated industry, and that’s completely right. But there’s this interesting relationship with prestige, technology, and the role of women.

In your research, you looked at whether more inclusive military organizations were better at integrating disruptive innovation. What did you find?

I looked at two innovations that challenge the gender status quo—i.e., they reduce exposure to risk, or they require less physical strength. The first is the adoption or use of drones or unmanned aerial vehicles. Here, operators are removed from the battlefield. They don’t necessarily need to be physically strong to conduct their operations. To look at this, I conducted a nested case comparison of the Israeli Air Force and Artillery Corps, which are two military organizations that were integrating remote platforms at the same time, but had really different degrees of gender inclusion and very different gender policies.

For the second innovation, I look at population-based counterinsurgency. This is an innovation where soldiers are exposed to a high degree of risk. Their boots are very much on the ground. And in counterinsurgency, there’s no clear front and rear of the battlefield. You can be a logistics officer or an engineer, and you can still be exposed to a very high degree of risk. It [also] introduces a whole range of positions that fall outside of combat operations like awareness, support, and cultural intelligence. I examined ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] in Afghanistan, and specifically the Turkish Armed Forces and the Australian Defense Force.

For all four organizations, I conducted interviews with military personnel, I looked at government documents, military journals, field manuals, and other primary sources. And in both [innovation] cases, I find that the organizations with the higher degrees of inclusion—the Israeli Air Force and the Australian Defense Force—were way more effective in the way that they integrated the innovations than those that were less inclusive. In the case of drones, the Israeli Air Force was remarkably less resistant than I anticipated they would be to the creation of remote platforms. In the Artillery Corps, drone operators are still considered warriors and not only that, felt that their units didn’t have [sufficient] prestige or recognition and that this was exacerbated when they allowed women into those units.

So drone operators already felt like they weren’t prestigious and putting women in those units made them even less prestigious.

Right. In the case of population-based counterinsurgency, the Australian Defense Force took far more steps to integrate a population-based approach. This resulted in gender policy reform, to make it easier to incorporate female engagement teams. In the Turkish Armed Forces, the population-based counterinsurgency operations were relegated to civilian agencies and the military resisted utilizing it at all and used enemy-centric approaches against the PKK [Kurdistan Workers’ Party] at home.

When you say that the Israeli Air Force and the Australians had better gender policies than the others, what did that look like? How many women were serving as a percentage of the total and did these women have positions relevant to these innovative areas or were they working in other areas?

The way I conceptualize inclusion is to look at gender policy reform—institutional changes aimed at recruiting and retaining a more inclusive force. So I look at: what are the institutional steps that these militaries have taken? Are there occupational rank restrictions on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity? Those are the kinds of shifts that are really hard to make and that demonstrate that they’re going to have the flexibility to elevate drone operator career paths, to elevate the role of female engagement teams, to elevate the role of operations that are considered humanitarian assistance.

The Israeli Air Force was the first [Israeli] military service to open up combat roles to women and the Artillery Corps is one of the last, and some of those roles are still restricted. Women were primarily serving as simulator trainers on base. [Most] people I spoke to hadn’t encountered any female operators in the field. Data on percentages of women in the military, at least at the service and unit level, isn’t released to the public. With the Australian military, there were far more positions open to women than in the Turkish Armed Forces, but there were still restrictions, and that made it really difficult to [systematically] utilize female engagement teams.

What sorts of institutional changes do military organizations make in order to be more gender inclusive, and what sparks movement in this direction?

There’s a long history of women’s roles in militaries expanding and contracting and then expanding again over time. Often you see during times of war women are called to fight and then demobilized at the end of war and again relegated to secretarial positions or unacknowledged for the roles that they played in wars.

In terms of what sparks [greater gender inclusion], that’s debated. There’s a whole host of explanatory variables that drive gender policy reform. It could be threat perception, or the position that women are playing in different sectors in society. In my research, I find that technology and innovation is a really powerful explanator of gender policy reform. In the case of the Australian Defense Force, there was a lot of domestic mobilization around gender inclusion in the military, and a lot of this was centered around instances of sexual assault and harassment. But another important driver, especially within the military community, was observations of challenges and failures when it came to implementing teams of female personnel to engage with local female residents on the field and how hard that was especially given occupational restrictions. It meant that women were serving in roles that they technically weren’t even supposed to be serving in. I think that ended up being a really important driver.

Is your main message that innovation makes militaries more inclusive or that gender inclusion will help militaries adopt innovation?

It’s both, and I think it’s mutually reinforcing. In the case of the Australian military, there was [already] a more flexible atmosphere and openness. [When they saw] the challenges of integrating an important tactic, an important doctrinal shift, it led to important changes in gender policy. So, I think that gender policy reforms indicate whether or not your organization is going to be flexible enough to alter really entrenched hierarchies and ways of doing business that are tied up with the identities of soldiers.

In your conversations with members of the defense community, do they think these kinds of reforms are good to do in themselves? Is it good to be gender inclusive in itself, or because they believe that ultimately it will make them better at protecting, fighting, and winning?

On some level, there’s an awareness that inclusion is broadly good for a military and good for any organization. On a basic level, a military that can reach a wider range of potential recruits with different skills, with different backgrounds—that’s seen as something that can help.

On another level, there’s not necessarily a willingness to link inclusion with effectiveness. There’s a long history of understanding gender inclusion as something that maybe will help in the sense of recruitment and retention but isn’t necessarily going to help when it comes to the effectiveness of operations. Luckily there’s some really excellent recent work—for example, Jay Lyall has a great book out on ethnic inclusion and military effectiveness—that debunks a lot of these assumptions.

It’s also important to note that there are a lot of different ways that scholars approach measuring inclusion and measuring effectiveness. So when we talk about inclusion, we can just talk about women. But we can also talk about gender policies, like family leave programs, sexual assault, and harassment monitoring protocols and procedures. Those are things that are not necessarily linked to someone’s sex.

Where is the U.S. in all of this? If you had to give one or two key messages to U.S. policymakers about where they should be focusing their efforts, what would you tell them?

There are two things to think about where the U.S. is. With regards to gender policy or reform, the U.S. has removed occupational and rank restrictions on the basis of sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity [such as Trump’s transgender ban]. There are [also] some interesting recent retrofitting efforts that are underway to apply new standards to gear that takes into account women’s narrower shoulders, shorter torsos, and even allowing women to wear a bun. Body armor isn’t [traditionally] designed for women. More could be done with regards to the design of weapon systems to make sure that [they can be utilized by] a wide spectrum of people with a wide spectrum of physical shapes that won’t lead to fatigue or accidents. And obviously there’s a great deal more that could be done with regards to sexual assault and harassment monitoring.

With regards to elevating people who have the skills you need, the DOD [Department of Defense] has definitely [identified] this personnel challenge, especially with regards to artificial intelligence. The DOD [arguably] has the [talent], but [the question is] are they being utilized well? [And] are the people who don’t necessarily need to be conducting cyber operations, don’t necessarily need to have those skills, but need to work adjacent to them, do they have familiarity with these weapons systems? There’ve been a lot of recent organizational changes to help streamline this. With AI, there’s the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center, and a lot of [other] new organizations and departments that are cropping up to try and centralize things. And I think that that’s great. But more than that, [DOD needs to] define and find ways to measure what are the appropriate assignments for personnel with these skills and how are we determining the talent needs and making sure that those needs are met? That’s going to require literacy amongst leadership, which is really challenging, especially when leadership is trained in old systems and old ways of doing things.

My big suggestion is to think about the power structures and the hierarchies that are in place. The force of the future is going to look really different than the force of the past or the force of today. This means that we’re going to need to celebrate and promote a very different kind of soldier that might make some people uncomfortable.

Read Shira Eini Pindyck’s policy brief on gender and military innovation.

Thumbnail credit: Israel Defense Forces

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