"Every member of the military should have an understanding of gender"
NATO, the world’s largest defense alliance, is active in a wide variety of regions around the world, with an extensive military and civilian apparatus. The editorial team at “Ethics and Armed Forces” spoke with Major Isabel Borkstett, Deputy IMS Gender Advisor in Brussels, about how the Women, Peace and Security agenda is being implemented and what importance the topic of gender has for NATO. In the interview, she explains what diversity means and why the gender perspective will determine the success or failure of the Alliance.
Major Borkstett, let’s start by defining what a Gender Advisor (GENAD) is. What are his or her responsibilities?
Perhaps I should start by outlining what we are not: The role of the GENAD, especially on the German side, is often equated or confused with that of the military gender equality officer (GleiBMil), but in fact there is very little overlap. While GENADs also deal with issues relating to women in the armed forces, they are concerned less with equalities law than with the practical need for female personnel so that we can fulfill our mission properly. GENADs are part of the advisory group on the commander’s special staff; they advise their leadership as well as the staff on all matters surrounding the implementation of a gender perspective in military tasks and activities. They look at social roles and assess what the armed forces need to do in consideration of these roles.
Apart from GENADS there are also so-called Gender Focal Points (GFPs). What do they do?
In a secondary capacity, Gender Focal Points (GFPs) are special points of contact for GENADs in the various areas of a unit or site. They have an awareness of gender aspects and monitor these aspects in the context of their own responsibilities. So each command base area, company, patrol, etc. can appoint a GFP. If the GFP notices something (while on patrol, for example) that the GENAD should know, the two will discuss it afterwards. Here at NATO HQ, we have GFPs in every division; they draw our attention to taskers (sets of task instructions) and documents that need to be double-checked from a gender perspective. The idea is that the GENAD has a network to help them fulfill their role, because obviously with such a small office – our office at NATO HQ, for example, consists of just two posts – we can’t be everywhere at the same time.
What hard and soft skills do GENADs need – and do they always have to be women?
As I said, it’s about adopting a perspective when looking at real-world scenarios. So a person’s gender is not a criterion for the job. There are male and female GENADs in NATO. However, the topic is often mistakenly perceived as a “women’s issue” and nations appoint staff accordingly, so the job landscape is very female-dominated. I would like to see more parity.
What else does it take to be a GENAD? I think a background in cultural, social or political science is helpful, and sometimes a thick skin. You deal extensively with subjects that are hard to digest – such as sexual violence as a weapon of war – and unfortunately, you still encounter a lot of misunderstandings and aversions.
NATO is committed to fully implementing the UN Security Council’s Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda. How is this reflected throughout the NATO organization?
The topic is important, as reflected in the fact that there is a Secretary General’s Special WPS Representative. It really is embedded at the very top of the institution and runs all the way down to the GFPs at the tactical level. The gender community in NATO is extensively networked. As Gender Advisors at HQ, we interact closely with the civilian WPS team, our GFPs, the GENADs in both strategic commands – Allied Command Operations (ACO) and Allied Command Transformation (ACT) – and their respective substructures, as well as member state and partner nation delegations and external stakeholders such as the EU. There are advisory bodies such as the NATO Committee on Gender Perspectives. In addition, NATO has a WPS action plan that has just been updated, as well as various policies and guidelines with a dedicated WPS focus. But we also try to treat the topic in a cross-sectional way and to integrate it into documents that are not specifically about gender.
So it seems gender gets a lot of attention …
Yes, but it’s important to point out that “gender” isn’t solely the remit of gender-related positions in the armed forces. Every member of the military should have a basic understanding of gender, and under Bi-Strategic Command Directive 040-001, commanders maintain overall responsibility for effective implementation of a gender perspective. Integrating the gender perspective is also, and above all, a leadership responsibility.
When it comes to training, for example, NATO offers courses and an education and training package on gender issues. What do these courses involve, and are they mandatory?
There is a wide training offering that nations can take advantage of. The “Nordic Centre for Gender in Military Operations” in Sweden is is NATO’s Department Head and as such comparable to a Centre of Excellence, so to speak, and we also support other training institutions such as the Crisis Management and Disaster Response Centre of Excellence in Bulgaria, and the NATO School Oberammergau in Germany. NATO’s e-learning platform JADL offers gender training courses too.
The E&T package is designed to better integrate gender into national training. Essentially, it teaches the basics of the gender perspective and provides practical examples of its implementation. However there is no obligation to use it, which is why unfortunately it is not very well known.
The courses, for example at the Nordic Centre for Gender, are aimed at all kinds of target groups. There is the NATO-certified training for prospective GENADs – usually ranking from OF-2 to OF-4 – but there are also courses for GFPs or key leader seminars for military leaders above these ranks.
Our office acts as an intermediary with the relevant institutions if there is any uncertainty about where to go for training for yourself or your personnel. I would like to do some direct advertising here: You can contact us at any time!
What are your most important tasks as Deputy IMS GENAD?
I mentioned that our team here is a manageable size, so everyone does everything from time to time. As deputy GENAD, I mainly do content-related and administrative work, while my boss tends to define the key priorities and coordinate our general direction of travel with the leadership.
In the International Military Staff (IMS), we are the link between ACO and ACT on the one hand and our superiors on the other; so first of all there is a lot of coordination and consultation involved. But each gender advisor office also has its own responsibilities. ACO GENAD, our counterpart in SHAPE, focuses on NATO operations and provides gender advice to their leadership. ACT, in turn, is focused on training.
The IMS here in Brussels serves as a strategic advisory element of the NATO Military Committee, so we primarily advise the Director of the IMS (DGIMS) and the divisional leaders on various issues. In addition, the GENAD office provides administrative support to the NATO Committee on Gender Perspectives (NCGP), which prepares gender-specific recommendations for the Military Committee.
You also prepare an annual report for the NCGP. What’s in the report?
It is the annual analysis of the “Summary of the National Reports” – a comparative assessment of the steps that NATO Member and Partner Nations have taken to integrate gender perspective in their armed forces. The IMS GENAD office collects the data, analyzes it, and produces the report, which is then published through the DGIMS. This unique publication identifies the achievements, milestones and challenges in the area of gender.
What is happening for example regarding the representation of women in the militaries of NATO Member and Partner Nations? Are there specific targets such as the UN’s 15 percent goal?
We follow the UN target as far as personnel for NATO operations are concerned. On average, NATO has not yet achieved the 15 percent mark, but there are large differences between nations – after all, we are talking about 30 member states, each with their own nuances. Some nations have already far surpassed the target, while others are still below it. Germany is in the NATO middle range with approximately 12 percent.
You completed the GENAD training yourself in Sweden in 2014. What did you think of it?
The course in Sweden was very practice-oriented. At the time it was still quite focused on Afghanistan, but of course the content is adapted to requirements over time. I participated with a clear purpose in mind. I was in the Bundeswehr Department of Foreign Area Specialists (Interkulturelle Einsatzberatung, IEB), and my task was to familiarize myself with the subject matter so that I could then integrate it into IEB training. Gender above all is a cultural factor that you have to understand in order to comprehend and navigate the area of operations.
Have you been able to put your knowledge to use?
Actually I was able to use and pass on the knowledge not only theoretically but also in the field – I was deployed to the Mediterranean a Foreign Area Specialist and as such was involved in a sea rescue of almost 1200 people, including many women, expectant mothers, girls and boys. I am also a trained UN Military Observer and will definitely need the gender perspective when there is a UN deployment at some point. Obviously it is a benefit in my current role …
Why is the topic of gender close to your heart?
I believe firmly in the values that we stand for as members of the military, and which we swear to uphold. At the core of this framework of values is the inviolability of human dignity, which must be our top priority to protect and defend. The injustice that we see in the world today is gender-based to an incredibly large extent, and even more so in conflict or armed conflict. Sexual violence is used as a weapon in wars around the world, to humiliate other groups and undermine their social fabric. The absolute majority of refugees and internally displaced persons worldwide are women and children, most of whom have a weak social and legal position at the same time. As an actor in the crisis area – and that is what NATO is – you cannot ignore this; it is part of the situational awareness and must affect your own actions. Taking a gender perspective into account can also be understood as an element of own force protection …
You are touching on the point that gender mainstreaming should also act as a “force multiplier” to increase the effectiveness of missions.
Part of the gender perspective is that you have to work on your own gender bias to become more militarily effective. There are armed groups that have been extremely successful in using female (suicide) assassins because no-one at the checkpoint thought it possible that a 15-year-old girl could be a serious threat. Gender and how to exploit it is something that adversary groups often think about much more than we do. This is often not recognized, either.
So even in such a male-dominated field as the military, it is not only a question of increasing the number of women across all levels and establishing an understanding of their particular concerns? How and where can the gender perspective play an important role for men, too?
First of all, gender perspective is not the same as women’s perspective. It is an extremely broad field, and an important integral of NATO’s core tasks collective defense, crisis management and cooperative security. So it is not enough to focus only on increasing the number of women in the armed forces. It is about analyzing social roles, which means masculinity concepts are also part of it. For example, in many places boys in particular are at high risk of falling victim to mines or explosive devices, because culturally they often have more freedoms than girls and are allowed to play farther away from their parents’ homes. If we are committed to human security and include aspects such as “safe and secure environment” in our mandates, then awareness of these critical situations is not tied to a particular gender in the first instance – male colleagues should also be aware of them.
Does the “gender lens” help you to see more, as it were?
Former NATO Secretary General Javier Solana once said very aptly that unless security concepts take people’s circumstances into account, they are bound to be ineffective. To be very clear: If we do not make a concerted effort to develop this understanding, we risk failure, or at the very least making ourselves superfluous. What is the point of a security alliance, and for whom, if it does not provide security? And yes, having more women in the military is an important factor; humanity is not homogeneously male and white. So how can we possibly develop responsive approaches that are suitable for the contemporary world if we do not reflect this diversity internally? But that doesn’t mean that we can tick gender off the list if we manage to increase the proportion of women from 12% to 13%.
But it is surely a complex task to integrate a gender perspective everywhere – from conflict analysis to planning and especially in the field. Are there standards or best practices?
Integration requires a cross-sectional approach. Currently, the gender perspective is often still seen as an “add-on” – for example attaching a gender annex to the operational plan. But gender runs through all topics, from equipping our troops to general logistical issues, information activities, rules of engagement, key leader engagement and threat analysis. This is complex, for sure. But that’s the challenge, and exactly why our Gender Focal Points are so enormously important. There are new counter-IED regulations? Let GENAD take a look at them. Artificial intelligence and autonomous weapons systems? They learn from human bias, which is why NATO wants to take proactive steps in AI-based technology development to minimize unintended bias.
As a human factor, gender affects all our actions, and of course we don’t have best practices yet for the entire spectrum. But advice is provided, for example by the GENADs, and our Nordic Centre for Gender offers learning and training materials on its website, not only for course participants.
An important element of the WPS agenda is protection against sexual violence in conflict and crisis zones. What is NATO doing to ensure this?
This is a terrible issue that has a very high priority, as can be seen not least from the fact that NATO has its own policies and military guidelines specifically on this subject. Our forces are committed to protecting vulnerable populations from these atrocities, both preventively and reactively. This begins with raising awareness of the urgency of the issue in training and on exercises and includes appropriate operational plans, as well as developing suitable analytical tools, working with civilian aid organizations on the ground and integration into reporting.
It is often argued that women in the military bring essential skills to the table, e.g. for reconnaissance and contact with the local population. What is your opinion on this as a female officer, and also personally: Do female soldiers do things differently, do they have special skills?
First of all, on the point that we need more women in the field – that this is the case becomes clear at every checkpoint. Men search men, women search women. We cannot apply lower standards in the societies where we operate, which are often much more sensitively structured than our own in terms of gender issues, than we do at home. Even here in Europe at the airport, women are patted down by women. That is admittedly a simple example, and I am not saying that we should instrumentalize more diversity purely for practical operational needs.
In this context, however, – and this is my follow-up thought – I categorically reject the idea that there are special “female” traits. That is biologism – always seeking to place what is divisive ahead of what we have in common. As if all female soldiers were per se gentler, more sensitive or whatever than men! As discussed earlier, it is more about the benefits of diversity in general, which strengthens us as a force. The broader our base, the more potential we can draw on, and the more perspectives we gain to help us fulfill our mission.
Certainly by now, with the war in Ukraine, there is a sharper focus on deterrence and Alliance defense. Is this perhaps pushing gender back into the background?
As I mentioned before, the gender perspective is a central element in all of NATO’s core tasks. So we do not need to construct a new raison d’être for the gender perspective because of the new focus; it has again shown its urgency in light of the war in Ukraine. We have received countless reports about Ukrainian women who have been raped, and about human traffickers who prey on refugees as soon as they get off the train, attempting to force them into prostitution. Ukrainian males over 18 years of age are not allowed to leave the country – this too includes a gender perspective. Gender is used to deliberately influence the information environment, such as when Mayor Klitschko of Kyiv, wearing body armor, hands out flowers in front of destroyed homes on International Women’s Day, and shares this on Instagram. And gender is also massively instrumentalized in the context of fake news. So the issue is not being pushed into the background at all – on the contrary.
Overall, what is your assessment of the state of implementation of the WPS agenda in NATO? Is gender sensitivity really being taken on board everywhere?
The topic has become more and more established in recent years, and I think this trend will continue. The bottom line is that NATO is always a mirror of its member states, of their policies and of developments in civil society and society as a whole. Nations might not always have identical views on gender, but time is still not running backwards. Germany’s new government, for example, is now advocating a feminist foreign policy. There is a lot of catching up to do, to put it simply, especially in terms of how the topic is approached – many misperceptions and prejudices still need to be cleared up at the working level. When I say, for example, that gender is an element of hybrid threats and countering violent extremism, people sometimes look at me with irritation, having assumed that GENAD just wants to enforce gender-inclusive language for political correctness only.
Can you imagine that one day the topic will seem so self-evident that GENADs and similar positions won’t be needed anymore?
That would actually be great – but I don’t see that happening right now. I do hope, however, that GENAD’s value will be increasingly recognized, and that staffing will be increased so that we can broaden our advisory services.
Major Borkstett, thank you very much for the interview!
Questions by Rüdiger Frank.
ACO: Allied Command Operations, responsible for the planning and execution of all NATO military operations.
ACT: Allied Command Transformation, one of two Strategic Commands at the head of NATO’s military command structure. ACT leads the military adaptation of the Alliance, coordinating national efforts.
IMS: International Military Staff, the executive body of the Military Committee (MC), NATO’s senior military authority.
SHAPE: Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe.
Major Isabel Borkstett was born in 1983. She studied cultural studies, joined the Bundeswehr in 2007 and has a degree in political science from the University of the Federal Armed Forces in Hamburg. After completing her officer training, she served as a Foreign Area Specialist in the Bundeswehr, where she designed the course “Gender Perspective in Operations”. She worked in the German Federal Ministry of Defense (BMVg) (department for Innere Führung) before joining the International Military Staff of NATO (current position D/GENAD). She completed training as a NATO-certified Gender Advisor in 2014, and as a UN Military Observer in 2019. In 2017, she was deployed as Foreign Area Specialist to EUNAVFOR MED operation “Sophia” in the Mediterranean Sea.