Three topics stood out in the third Women in Military and Security Conference (WIMCON), held in Bogotá, Colombia, November 6-8, 2018. First, the increase of female participation in the military forces isn’t due to gender but capabilities. Secondly, the time has come to manage human capital to make full use of men’s and women’s capabilities; and third, more women are needed in all branches.
“We don’t open our door to women because of a social agenda, but because we want our teams to be successful, and this will be more effective if we break the admission barriers in favor of those who have the skills that we need; women have them,” said U.S. Navy Admiral Kurt W. Tidd, in one of his last appearances as commander of U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM). Adm. Tidd stressed that military forces cannot arbitrarily exclude the admission of people with strong leadership potential.
“To stand out in exceptional military operations, we have to make sure that everybody has the chance to use their character, competence, and talent in missions. This entails vision, commitment, availability, and willingness to make better teams. History has shown that the armed forces can change to be successful. Nations of our region are leaders in the effective integration of women in all branches,” said Adm. Tidd.
Combining different skills
Following the conferences in Trinidad and Tobago (2016) and Guatemala (2017), the event held in Colombia marked significant progress. The 2018 edition gathered high-ranking leaders and senior noncommissioned officers from different branches of the armed and security forces from the entire region.
“I attended the first WIMCON, and was able to feel the appreciation of female participants for having their own conference. At the same time, I was able to recognize their uncertainty about the real chances of making this inclusion more extensive,” U.S. Navy Rear Admiral Martha Herb, director of the Inter-American Defense College, based in Washington, D.C., told Diálogo.
“I’m a deep-water diver. I’ve always been an operational woman, and I've held high-ranking positions in the reserve. The attitude of men toward women has changed, in spite of the subconscious tendency to treat and judge women differently. We live in an era of change, and mixed teams are on the rise,” Rear Adm. Herb said.
Changes to human capital management
In addition to defining indicators, evaluating progress, and determining the tools to reach objectives, the conference sought to elevate the discourse. “We went from gender equality to something new: human capital management. The complex challenges that we face suggest that we should maximize all the talent of the population to obtain better forces, more effective teams, more qualified armies,” said Adm. Tidd.
Honduras, a leading nation in the region in the advance of military women, shares the concept change. “In Central America, we were pioneers in having female cadets accepted to the Aviation Military Academy. Now we’re in all branches. Our progress was based on laws, not equality,” Honduran Army Colonel Irma Baquedano Canales, Armed Forces’ Health director, told Diálogo. “Equality refers to women’s constant struggle to be appointed to certain positions. But in the Armed Forces we achieved equal opportunities for men and women by meeting the requirements, not because of gender.”
With 19,000 service members in all military forces, female participation in Honduras is at 4 percent, a figure that will increase with updates in the military structure’s guidelines. “There are many female service members on their way to a promotion,” said Col. Baquedano. “SOUTHCOM’s interest is the basis of female inclusion programs in the region. Its support involves a vision toward the future. The responsibility and path of the U.S. Army are respected worldwide. Its openness has to do with the capabilities, contributions, professionalism, and dedication of women. These qualities should be exploited not as a favor to women, but as the necessary inclusion of both genders in military and police institutions.”
Skills to use
The representatives of the 28 participating nations at WIMCON 18 agree on one point: progress in their forces’ inclusion process. Peruvian Navy Commander Ingrid Fernández Gauri, head of Public Affairs of the Armed Forces Joint Command, said that the process in her country has been slow, but decisive. “In the beginning, it wasn’t an easy task. But after 20 years, the results are satisfactory, especially when it was necessary to change a world shaped for men,” she told Diálogo. “I’ll give you an example: I had my uniform modified several times, because tailors used male patterns. Designing for women was difficult for them. It’s a huge structural change.”
Ten percent of the 18,000 service members that make up the land, sea, and air forces of Guatemala are women. Guatemalan Army Captain Andrea Araujo told Diálogo that her country’s openness is absolute. “We train to perform any mission, and soon we’ll reach all ranks and positions. It’s clear that our commanders identified the advantages of our skills: discipline, concentration, precision, organization, and sensitivity. Our inclusion is necessary to achieve better results.”
Belizean Coast Guard Lieutenant Alma Marcela Pinelo provided a young perspective. “Women think differently, and that reflects in military operations. Our different focus from that of men yields good results, and now it’s valued,” she told Diálogo.
Colombian Air Force Second Lieutenant Edna Avendaño Castiblanco, of the Legal and Human Rights Affairs Strategic Department, believes that this conceptual change is a mark of progress. “It’s a matter of leadership. We’re talking about recognizing skills, not about equality. The term ‘gender’ is now used to refer to both men and women, and this will speed up processes,” she told Diálogo.
WIMCON 18’s conclusions were summed up in Adm. Tidd’s closing remarks. “It’s the first time in decades for the defense sector to talk about this issue to find a way to overcome these barriers. It’s a process that won’t turn back. SOUTHCOM is aware of the effectiveness of teams with men and women. We cannot waste that great talent. Character, competence, team work—that’s what we need to do to meet the security challenges of the 21st century,” he concluded.