Sit at the Table

03.05.14

How Europe’s Five Female Defense Ministers Could Impact the Ukraine Conflict

Europe now has five female defense ministers for the first time in history. Why having women on defense could prove key in reacting to the Ukraine crisis.

A photo of five women sitting and posing at a conference ricocheted around Twitter last week, and with good reason. With the new appointment of Roberta Pinotti as Italy’s defense minister, Europe now has five female defense ministers in charge of executing defense strategy.

She joined Mimi Kodheli of Albania, Ursula von der Leyen of Germany, Ine Marie Eriksen Soreide of Norway, and Jeanine Hennis-Plasshaert of the Netherlands at a security conference in Munich last week. The slew of female European defense ministers is being hyped as a relative breakthrough for women, but what does this actually mean?

There have been women in charge of defense strategies since the 1970s, when Indira Gandhi held the role in India. Although the United States has yet to buck the status quo by appointing a female secretary of defense, Canada has had four female defense ministers and Norway has had five women in the male dominated-field in the last 20 years. And while it speaks volumes for equality, having five women at the table in Europe as Russia sabre-rattles in nearby Ukraine could actually make a difference in how Europe reacts.

I think we are making a bit much of the sudden appearance of all these female defense ministers, but of course that's because they've all been appointed at a similar time. I think if it had been consecutively it wouldn't have made such an impact, but the picture of all the ladies together was a good story in this media age,” defense specialist Alex Ashbourne-Walmsley, director of Ashbourne Strategic Consulting told Women in the World, referring to the now-famous tweet of the five women. “Ironically I do think that having this group of female defense ministers can only prove constructive in the Ukraine case. From experience, women tend to find a more reasonable approach and could de-escalate the rising tension.”

Perhaps, but only if they are considered equal partners at the table. Ashbourne-Walmsley, a noted defense strategist and analyst who finds herself a lone woman in many defense strategy conferences, says that women often have to work harder than men to be taken seriously in the defense sector. “You not only have to be smarter and better than men, you have to be solid and never do or say anything stupid,” she says. She also believes that the fact that defense is no longer about lining up soldiers against each other to do battle makes it a perfect field for women—even though none of the new leaders have active military service experience.

“Traditionally there has been a lot of ‘willy-waving’ in the defense sector. Women don’t do that. Now defense is about collaborating and working together. Women are better at that,” she says.

While all of Europe’s new female ministers have extensive knowledge of defense strategies through their education and prior experience either in government or on private sector defense, it’s notable that none of them have experience in military battle because Europe is still behind the mark in allowing women in active military duty.

Regardless, they are political powerhouses. Germany’s von der Leyen is pegged to potentially one day replace German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Norway’s Ine Marie Eriksen Soreide is a regular speaker on foreign policy and defense circuit in Europe, credited with her military acumen. Hennis-Plasschaert of the Netherlands, who has worked to streamline the defense budget in her country, believes that women are natural in the defense sector. “A lot of people commented that the image heralded a new era in which even the last bastions of male privilege were no longer closed to talented women,” she wrote in an op-ed piece in The Jerusalem Postto celebrate the integration of women in the Israel defense forces. “I think that’s taking it a little too far. I don’t think the military officers we work with see us any differently than if we were men. And if they do, they don’t show i

Ashbourne-Walmsley says that more than gender bias, she is far more concerned that the women charged with defense portfolios won’t have had enough time on the job to adequately understand their countries’ military capabilities ahead of the crisis in the Ukraine. “I do worry that so many of them are so new in the posts that they won't have a complete understanding of the military capabilities of the various armed forces,” she says. “But the same would be true if the new appointees were male.”

Still, she points out that as unfair as it is, women face far more scrutiny than their male counterparts.

“Gender absolutely shouldn't matter in the defense and military sectors but it sadly does,” she says. “This is because there really aren't many women at all in senior roles, and therefore when they do appear it makes an issue of itself. It's not that defense is a ‘female unfriendly’ sector—quite the contrary, in fact—but proportionately women are not drawn to it. But with the exception of a few key physical abilities, women are every bit as competent as men and are steadily making progress working their ways up through the military ranks.”