Isn't It Bromantic: Thoughts on Soft Biases and Gender Demographics in Military Affairs

Isn't It Bromantic: Thoughts on Soft Biases and Gender Demographics in Military Affairs

Jill S. Russell is a military historian whose interests lie in contemporary security affairs. She has recently submitted her doctoral dissertation on logistics, subsistence and American strategic culture. She has worked as a defence consultant and in the American professional military education system. You can find her writing at Kings of War, Strife Blog, and CCLKOW, and on Twitter @jsargentr.

There is a lurking and pernicious gap in the voices on military affairs. [1] Despite rather respectable numbers of women in the associated fields, there are too often times when these are left out.

My invitation to write on this came on the heels of a series of tweets drawing attention to the significant presence of serious women of substance talking about war. I named only a few, though there are many more. I did so in response to a trend I noted amongst many of my male followers on this subject, that I was the lone woman they followed. That is a compliment for me, but a rather sad statement of where we still find ourselves a decade and a half into the 21st century. But I was spurred to speak out in that precise moment because I was confronted yet again with a networking clique in the field that included zero women. The pictures of these smiling, perfectly nice men, proud of their endeavors to spark innovative thinking in military affairs, betrayed not a single clue to the problem of their demographics. Given no one will argue against the value of networking to professional advancement, it should be no leap to suggest that our base level networks, even as they seem casual, influence more formal outcomes elsewhere.

That the professional visibility of women is a problem is not unique to my perspective. There is a rising tide of voices recognizing the problem of the Absent Woman in professional and intellectual networking events. Better still is the movement against this phenomenon, as in the pledge made by increasing numbers of men to eschew panels that lack women. [2] Although insufficient to solve the problem as they deal only with the symptoms not the cause, such efforts point the way forward.

I don’t doubt that there are men in military affairs who will never respect women’s capabilities. There is not much that can be done about that. But there are too many more who would proclaim their support for women’s equality if asked who yet still manage to continue creating around themselves socio-professional networks and opportunities that leave off women.

I cannot speak for other fields, but in military affairs one cannot help but note that it must be second nature given the mono-sexual demographics of vast swathes of the experience and working environment. The absence of women in the quotidian professional context is normal for many. Whether in the armed forces or in many halls of academia and expertise, the presence of women is limited.

But this is where it gets pernicious. Because this experience means it is easy to overlook women in the creation of overlapping webs of social and professional relationships, women become marginalized. Absence becomes the standard, the normal image.

And yet, in academia there is an impressive mass of women writing and thinking in military affairs. It can hardly be claimed we lack an authoritative voice. Add to that the journalists and other commentators and other commentators and there is certainly no void of women speaking and writing on military affairs. Furthermore, globally the matter of women in war is gaining critical importance. The Kurds, the women who have put the lie to western military excuses regarding women and frontlines, combat units and capabilities, and the strength of command and leadership. Elsewhere, in more formal contexts women in the military and defence are ascendant. There is the appointment of Norway’s Major General Kristin Lund to command the UN peacekeeping operation in Cyprus, whose able service is now led by Minister of Defence Ine Eriksen Soreide. In September of last year, given its poignancy in the fight against IS and its meaning within the confines of regional cultures, we cheered Major Mariam Al Mansouri of the UAE Air Force. Here in the UK more women are taking command of units once barred to them. Finally, the many gendered aspects of the fight with IS, such as the “jihadi brides” and radicalization of women or the enslaved Yazidis, put critical issues related to women at the forefront.

Thus, to paraphrase how I summed it up in my original tweet, we have more than a critical mass of women’s expertise. And so now the men must do something. Until they start asking why it is they can end up in a professional group – panel or other initiative – that is all male it will not stop. It is time to have that conversation. Frankly.

It is no longer acceptable to associate and coalesce according to easy, self-selecting male packs that reflect the normalcy of absence. This behaviour must be questioned at every level. And to help out, I would the Panel Rule be applied more widely. Men of War, start refusing to participate and make your stance known.

Although they have been present in war throughout history, it is now quite clear that they are a force to be reckoned with whose voice and importance can no longer be denied.


  1. I am using the term “military affairs” broadly to encompass the associated fields of military history, contemporary military policy, defence, national security, and the many areas associated with the manifestations of conflict. Big tent here, people.

  2. On the problem of all-male panels, see:
    On the origins in the Jewish Professional community of the movement to forsake participation in all-male panels, see

“A simple solution to phase out all-male panels at tech conferences,”

In politics, “Too many men: the problem with all male panels”

From the Scandinavian Campaign, “Men say no, thanks”

It continues even in 2015, “Opinion: A protest against all-male panels and conferences,”