The Women, Peace, and Security (WPS) Act of 2017 is a seminal piece of legislation for recognizing the role women play in their communities and their underrepresentation in conflict management, prevention, and post-conflict reconstruction. Although primarily focused on international partners, the act also requires the Department of Defense (DoD) to meaningfully employ women throughout the force and at every level of leadership. This requirement has implications for gender integration efforts and reinforces the recognition that the effects of gender-based violence against female service members deeply matter in the context of national security.
Sexual harassment, assault, and cultural norms that foster gender-based violence endanger service members.
The need to understand and address the effects of gender-based violence within the military services has been long-standing, but the topic took on heightened importance following the April 2020 murder of Vanessa Guillén. In August 2020, the Military, Veterans, and Society program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), in partnership with the Athena Leadership Project, hosted a discussion with four female service members that underscored the need for national and departmental strategy to comprehensively support women.
Sexual harassment, assault, and cultural norms that foster gender-based violence endanger service members. If the DoD is going to be a leader in implementing the WPS, as well as its own guidance, it must meaningfully tackle current roadblocks. This brief outlines the connection between sexual assault and the WPS Act, and discusses recommendations to guarantee its meaningful enaction within the DoD. Implementation is a necessary step for ensuring not just a diverse force, but a more secure world. Adopting WPS guidance is also necessary for addressing some of the cultural factors that contribute to an environment that has cultivated sexual assault for far too long.
The Women, Peace, and Security Act
The WPS Act aims “to ensure that the United States promotes the meaningful participation of women in mediation and negotiation processes seeking to prevent, mitigate, or resolve violent conflict.” It is the first whole-of-government approach that acknowledges and demands the meaningful participation of women through diplomatic efforts and programs. It also requires certain U.S. agencies—including the DoD—to construct specific implementation plans. The United States must not only lead by example, but it must truly support the development and inclusion of women in national security. Unlike previous WPS National Action Plans, the 2017 WPS Act requires the DoD to look inward, not just to allies, which will be a necessary step toward achieving the cultural change required to address issues of sexual harassment and assault in the military.
SPC Guillén’s case is emblematic of deep-rooted cultural issues that not only lead to instances of harassment and assault, but also result in a continued cycle of violence.
In June 2020, the DoD released its own strategy, the Women, Peace, and Security Strategic Framework and Implementation Plan. The plan names three objectives, the first of which directly impacts the joint force, while the second two focus on operational strategy with allies and partners. The first objective commits the DoD to exemplifying “a diverse organization that allows for women’s meaningful participation across the development, management, and employment of the Joint Force.” This will require that various departmental equities comprehensively address gender integration, sexual assault and prevention, and gender-based violence to more fully respect women institutionally and protect them from violence.
Ongoing Violence against Women within the DoD as a WPS Issue
Although the services continually struggle to foster respect and dignity toward women and prevent sexual assault, the subject takes on new meaning following the disappearance and murder of Army Specialist Vanessa Guillén in April 2020. Details about the murder, subsequent investigation, and implications for Army culture reinforce the need for a WPS strategy internal to the DoD and underscore the failings of the services to date. During a trip to Fort Hood, then-Secretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy promised to create “enduring change” in the Army. Focusing on SPC Guillén, he stated, “We have to address the challenges and barriers that our soldiers endure. The murder of SPC Vanessa Guillén has become a catalyst highlighting sexual harassment and sexual assault within the military.”
SPC Guillén’s case is emblematic of deep-rooted cultural issues that not only lead to instances of harassment and assault, but also result in a continued cycle of violence. SPC Guillén’s family reported that she had spoken to them about being sexually harassed at work, but did not report the harassment to the Army. Her reluctance to report this harassment echoes the fears that many women in the military have about reporting sexual harassment and assault. As her sister noted, “She told my mom, ‘I can’t report it, I’ve seen other girls pass through the same situation and they ignore them. They say that they’re lying. They don’t listen to them.’” Although one of the principles of the DoD WPS implementation plan is the “protection of women and girls against violence,” the services regularly fail to do so.
Junior enlisted service members are not only the group most likely to experience sexual harassment and assault, they are also the most likely to report hesitation or inability to take action to correct it.
SPC Guillén’s disappearance, the perception of a slow Army response, and the eventual discovery of her brutal murder shone a spotlight on military sexual harassment and assault during an already turbulent year, and the details of her story reopened wounds for many military women, including for the women veterans participating in the CNAS panel. These women came from different military branches and eras of service, including a Coast Guard veteran, a Marine Corps veteran, a retired Navy senior enlisted member, and a prior-enlisted reserve Marine Corps officer. The panelists brought to life the breadth and scale of the impact sexual harassment and assault has on the military, illustrating that the decades of supposed efforts to document, educate, and prosecute sexual harassment and assault have been insufficient.
According to the Department of Defense, in 2018, an estimated 24.2 percent of women and 6.3 percent of men serving on active duty indicated that they experienced sexual harassment. To compound these numbers, “active duty women who experienced sexual harassment were at three times greater risk for sexual assault.” Twenty percent of those who report harassment also report assault. Sexual harassment and assault go hand-in-hand and are increasingly linked with entrenched cultural problems in the services.
The panelists and SPC Guillén’s case highlight enlisted women’s unique burden. Junior enlisted service members are not only the group most likely to experience sexual harassment and assault, they are also the most likely to report hesitation or inability to take action to correct it. They comprise the youngest and lowest group of individuals in the DoD hierarchy, putting them at a disadvantage. While officers are not immune to harassment and assault, they have the benefit of rank and access to leadership that often allow for more ready access to resources to address the behavior. Junior service members and minorities, however, do not. It is critical that enlisted women’s voices are heard.
Enduring change means changing the culture, and that is a tough mission. In addition to combating harassment and/or assault, cultural change must address gender discrimination, which encompasses microaggressions, gendered language meant to demean others, and norms that prioritize men’s careers. Sexual violence exists within an institution and culture that labels women unfit to serve, demeans women, promotes leaders who remain accidentally or willfully ignorant of problems, and fails to follow words with convincing actions. These beliefs are reinforced by leadership statements questioning whether women can succeed in the combat arms.
The four testimonials shared in the panel discussion, the experiences of thousands of female service members, and SPC Guillén’s murder and alleged harassment demonstrate that recommendations proposed by well-meaning leaders over the years have not led to the changes envisioned. These include congressional proposals to change the prosecution process, how reporting is recorded, and who is responsible for bringing the case to court. These also include the oft repeated observation that sexual assault “is a leadership issue.”
Such process recommendations and amorphous reference to personal responsibility highlight a troubling gap between where the DoD is today and where it needs to be to meet its own guidance. Sexual harassment and assault remain firmly entrenched in the military and within the broader national security environment. Without launching preventative measures and institutionalizing a cultural change, the DoD will not be able to comply with its own WPS implementation plan objectives and lines of effort, nor can it expect meaningful participation from women on the part of its allies and partners.
The WPS Act and implementation plans focus broadly on women’s participation and value to an organization. The DoD has been so narrowly focused on process that it has missed the overall need to create a more inclusive and dignity-affirming culture. The panelists’ experiences reinforce the need for the enduring change promised by then-Secretary McCarthy in his trip to Fort Hood and offer some insights into how that change may come to be.
The idea of cultural change in the military is intimidating; the concept raises more questions than it answers. Military culture is deeply engrained and can often have a positive influence on the institution by building comradery and unit cohesion. However, the same culture that builds the “band of brothers” also has exclusionary undertones that have negatively impacted integration attempts. Culture change is also difficult to measure, which is particularly challenging for an organization built on tangible metrics. But the services pride themselves on the ability to “train out” undesirable behaviors during recruit training and “train in” behaviors that fit the military mission and culture. Addressing gender discrimination, sexual harassment, and sexual assault—as well as the cultural norms that allow them to fester—must be done in the same way. Most attention is focused on how to prosecute judicial and non-judicial punishments, but to train in good behavior, the services must take steps at recruitment, initial training, and every subsequent touchpoint to reinforce respect for others.
Seeing women as leaders from day one will address the negative behavior CNAS panelists noted, including lack of respect and viewing women as “others.”
The DoD WPS implementation plan names four multi-pronged lines of effort that begin to address this change: support women’s participation; promote women and girls’ human rights, safety, and access to resources and support; adjust U.S. programming; and encourage partner nations to support the WPS Act. To effectively integrate women and benefit from the diverse perspectives that women bring to warfighting and conflict management, the DoD must fully implement the WPS Act. Four additional actions should be taken:
Integrate the services. The DoD must continue efforts to meaningfully integrate the services with particular attention to holistic inclusion into the core competencies of the military, rather than a focus on numbers. Only through full and effective integration of women at all levels of training and operations can the DoD meet the standard of meaningful participation of women and reap the benefits of gender-diverse perspectives and skills in the security arena.
Gender bias, harassment, and any derogatory or degrading behavior must be among the first behavioral traits to be “trained out.” This starts with exposing young recruits, cadets, and officer candidates to diverse instructors from the day they enter service. Whether at recruit training, officer candidate school, ROTC, or a service academy, training institutions must be deliberate in ensuring that their instructor cadre is diverse throughout the training pipeline. Seeing women as leaders from day one will address the negative behavior CNAS panelists noted, including lack of respect and viewing women as “others.” Behavioral change is an essential precursor to cultural change. Findings from focus groups run by the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services suggest that early exposure to diverse instructors has a positive impact on future behavior and unit cohesion. In particular, men’s early experience with women leaders reduces the likelihood that they will harass women peers in the future. Training out discriminatory and harassing behavior can be done through effective and completely integrated training and leadership from the beginning.
The full and effective implementation of a true gendered perspective—one that incorporates gender into planning, strategy, and policy decisions—will help bring about needed elements of cultural change.
Holistically implement gendered perspectives. Currently, professional military education (PME) addresses the WPS through communities of interest, electives, and research groups. While this is an important step in recognizing the need for the WPS as part of the military system, to create enduring change it must move from a community of interest into the totality of the services’ intellectual life.
Implementation must apply to initial training scenarios, leadership schools, service-wide planning processes, joint wargames, and international exercises. The full and effective implementation of a true gendered perspective—one that incorporates gender into planning, strategy, and policy decisions—will help bring about needed elements of cultural change. The backbone of the WPS Act is the evidence that holistic gendered perspectives and women’s security makes all of society more secure. From a military perspective, this means forming an institutional understanding of the benefits of diverse perspectives in warfighting. Internalizing these perspectives will not only make better warfighters, but also create a culture of mutual respect among military members that will combat the root causes of harassment and assault. This cannot be a “one and done” attempt; this learning must be reinforced at every step along the military career path, and it must be tied to career progression and leadership development.
Intentionally diversify leadership at every level of the chain of command. Because of the relatively low numbers of women and minorities at higher ranks, increasing representation should include unprecedented effort from the top.
Leadership’s role in culture, norm-generation and internalization, and accountability cannot be understated. Leaders set norms, embody norms, and drive the culture of their units. Diverse leadership is proven to reduce the risks of sexual harassment and assault, as leaders set the tone for the organization as a whole. By developing and promoting leaders who have different backgrounds and experiences, who embody empathy and accountability, and who expect their subordinates to do the same, the perspectives considered at every level can broaden, bringing about enduring change.
Clearly tie military sexual assault and harassment to the WPS Act. The DOD must ensure that leaders at every level recognize the national security implications of failing to meaningfully address sexual harassment and assault internally, as well as within partner nations. Implementing gendered perspectives begins to address this, but it must extend beyond PME. Small unit lessons, safety briefs, and training evolutions must include a focus on dignity and respect. Sexual harassment and assault cannot be combated in isolation. They must be fully integrated into all training.
By institutionalizing a culture that respects the perspectives of everyone who serves, the military advances preventative measures to address sexual harassment and assault.
These recommendations represent just a start of what is needed—a start that deeply matters for human rights and national security. By institutionalizing a culture that respects the perspectives of everyone who serves, the military advances preventative measures to address sexual harassment and assault. In reducing cases of gender-based violence, the military can more effectively recruit, develop, promote, and retain women. Full implementation of the WPS Act, particularly ensuring that the DoD exemplifies “a diverse organization that allows for women’s meaningful participation,” can and will strengthen our nation.
About the Authors
Dr. Kyleanne Hunter is an Adjunct Senior Fellow in the Military, Veterans, and Society Program at CNAS, Managing Director of the Athena Leadership Project, Assistant Professor of Military and Strategic Studies at the U.S. Air Force Academy, and a Marine Corps veteran.
Emma Moore is a Research Associate at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). Moore is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Brute Krulak Center for Innovation and Creativity at Marine Corps University.
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