Gender Sidestreaming? How women slip through the cracks in national militaries and peacekeeping.

By Dr Vanessa F. Newby

What is meaningful participation in the context of national militaries and peacekeeping? In a recent paper co-authored with my colleague, Clotilde Sebag, we investigated this question. Drawing on publicly available empirical data we highlighted the problems inherent in mainstreaming Resolution 1325 across national militaries and peacekeeping operations. We found: first, that are women under-represented in their national militaries and in high-status combat positions affecting their chances of promotion. Second, societal inequality impacts the retention and recruitment of women in the armed forces. Third, we identified the occurrence of a unique feature of women’s service as military personnel: the relegation to specialised spaces in peacekeeping operations. We capture these issues under the term ‘sidestreaming’ and discuss how this occurs both in national militaries and peacekeeping operations.

In 2000 UNSCR 1325 called for gender mainstreaming across all peacekeeping operations.[1] Twenty years after the passing of Resolution 1325, the participation of women in international peace and security as military personnel remains limited. Women currently comprise around 11 percent of national militaries and just under five percent of uniformed military personnel in UN peacekeeping missions.[2] On 13 October 2015, UNSC Resolution 2242 called on the Secretary-General ‘to initiate, in collaboration with Member States, a revised strategy, within existing resources, to double the numbers of women in military and police contingents of UN peacekeeping operations over the next five years’.[3]

Increasing women’s participation in peace operations requires not only an increase in the actual number of women serving in national militaries but also a change in mind-set to improve recruitment and retention. While increasing numbers is important for mainstreaming, an increase in women’s meaningful participation in military life requires a shift in how status is awarded to different roles in the military and a change in how women are deployed.

Gender Sidestreaming

The concept of gender sidestreaming as we define it is: “the practice, deliberate or unintentional, of sidelining women and relegating them to specialised spaces in international peace and security while attempting gender mainstreaming or increased gender integration.” We felt this term captures how the process of gender mainstreaming can be subverted, fail to challenge hegemonic masculinity, and perpetuates a simplistic and traditional dichotomy of women and men’s capabilities as protector and protected.

In the context of national militaries and peacekeeping, sidestreaming highlights the tension between the overt recognition women receive for the unique roles they can play in military contexts where gender sensitivity is required; and simultaneously, how the low status of non-combat roles obscures women’s visibility and the value of their contribution. This negatively impacts female recruitment, retention and promotion leading to low representation in national militaries and contributes to the low numbers of female military personnel we see in peace operations.

Resolution 1325 & The Windhoek Declaration

Some inspiration for what meaningful participation means can be found in the precursor to Resolution 1325, the Windhoek Declaration. In that document, the authors clearly understood that women need to be assimilated at all levels of a security institution:

In order to ensure the effectiveness of peace support operations, the principles of gender equity and equality must permeate the entire mission, at all levels, thus ensuring the participation of women and men as equal partners and beneficiaries in all aspects of the peace process…[4]

The declaration provided a comprehensive outline of the steps required to mainstream gender in UN peacekeeping: (1) the need to increase the number of women in military and police forces who are qualified to serve in peace operations at all levels including the most senior; (2) the need to encourage other potential troop contributing nations to develop longer term strategies that increase the number and rank of female personnel in their respective forces; and (3) that the eligibility requirements for all heads of mission and personnel should be reviewed and modified to facilitate the increased participation of women. [5]

Women Remain in Low Status and Specialised Positions

Our research found that not only were women in national militaries across the world still grossly under-represented, but that they are also located predominantly in spaces that have been feminised and regarded as low-status. This was true of militaries across the global north and south despite a great deal of rhetorical commitment from the global north.[6]

For example, NATO reports show that 33.1 per cent of servicewomen in member states’ armies were employed in non-combat services and supply corps, as technicians, military assistants, planning and management professionals, load masters, and different specialists.[7]

Furthermore, the lack of combat experience and low presence in high status occupations means women are often passed over for promotion. Our research found few women occupy higher rank positions in national militaries, and that women who do hold senior ranks are mostly in administrative roles.[8] Career progression in the military is highly inflexible, often requiring officers to obtain career targets following a strict timeline, and any absences, such as maternity leave, carry ‘career penalties’.[9] Moreover, promotions to higher ranks is often tied to having combat experience. By being barred from such roles, and being sidestreamed into administration and support, women are by and large not accessing the positions that later enable them to reach the most senior ranks.[10]

In addition, retention remains poor because servicewomen consistently report they are unable to balance family life with the demands of military life.[11] This speaks to the societal pressures women continue to face owing to their role as primary care provider within the family unit.

In peacekeeping, female military personnel in peacekeeping operations are often directed into specialised spaces restricting their full professional development. It is here that the tension between the ‘special’ role of women, and gender equality for female military personnel is very evident. Despite 1325 being a UN initiative, in the military aspect, peace operations are not being used as an opportunity to expand and grow women’s experience in combat or mainstream women in line with the resolution.

In conclusion we found that women’s visibility is only part of the problem and that a more gender-equitable military structure will be required to avoid sidestreaming.[12] Until now, gender has been dealt with by national militaries from an essentialist perspective. For national militaries to evolve, gender needs to be viewed as a learned social behaviour which could enable armed forces to recognise that so-called feminine and masculine behaviours can be trained. In turn this might lead to a more gender-balanced military environment. For meaningful participation to occur, we also suggest reducing or removing the need for lengthy combat experience to reach senior positions. Militaries need to find ways to reduce masculine hierarchies increasing the value of women’s contributions in a way that normalises their presence at all levels and in all roles.

The full open-access article this blog is based on can be viewed here: Newby, V., & Sebag, C. (2021). Gender sidestreaming? Analysing gender mainstreaming in national militaries and international peacekeeping. European Journal of International Security, 6 (2): 148-170.

The opinions expressed here are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of Women In International Security or its affiliates. 

About the author: Dr Vanessa F. Newby is President of Women in International Security Netherlands (WIIS-NL) and an Assistant Professor at Leiden University. Her research interests include women peace and security, human security, peacekeeping, peacebuilding, humanitarian aid and disaster response, and the international relations of the Middle East. Vanessa is the author of Peacekeeping in South Lebanon: Credibility and Local Cooperation with Syracuse University Press (2018) and has published in international peer-reviewed journals such as the European Journal of International Security, the Australian Journal of International Affairs, Third World Quarterly, Contemporary Politics and International Peacekeeping.

[1] United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325, para 2, p.2. It should be noted the concept of mainstreaming was developed by the Economic and Social Council at the UN, available at: {}, accessed 2 October 2020.

[2] United Nations Peacekeeping, Gender, August 2020, available at: {}, accessed 1 October 2020.

[3] United Nations Security Council Resolution 2242 (2015) 13 October 2015, available at: {}, accessed 20 November 2020.

[4] Windhoek Declaration and Namibia Plan of Action on Mainstreaming a Gender Perspective in Multidimensional Peace Support Operations, United Nations Security Council, A/55/138-S/2000/693 (2000), 14 July 2000, p. 2, available at: {}, accessed 20 November 2020.

[5] Windhoek Declaration and Namibia Plan of Action, p. 4. United Nations Security Council Resolution 2538 (2020) reiterates the sentiment of these points.

[6] For example Laura J. Shepherd and Jacqui True, ‘The Women, Peace and Security agenda and Australian leadership in the world: from rhetoric to commitment?’, Australian Journal of International Affairs, 68:3 (2014), pp. 257-284. In addition Western rhetorical commitment to WPS can be seen in its dedication to producing National Action Plans on WPS, see ‘The NAP Map’, available at: {}, accessed 1 October 2020. See also the EU Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security, available at: {}, accessed 1 October 2020 , and NATO website for extensive material on its commitment to the WPS agenda, available at: {}, accessed 1 October 2020.

[7] NATO, ‘2016 Summary of the National Reports of NATO Member and Partner Nations to the NATO Committee on Gender Perspectives’ 2016, p. 17 available at:

[8] Maryvonne Blondine, ‘Women in the armed forces: promoting equality, putting an end to gender-based violence’, Parliamentary Assembly Council of Europe, Report No.14073 2016, pp. 3, 10.

[9] Kidder et al., ‘Battlefields and Boardrooms’, p.16.

[10] Ministry of Defence (New Zealand), ‘Maximising opportunities for Military Women’ 2014, p. 30, available at: {} accessed 15 February 2020.

[11] Erika L. King, Diana DiNitto, Christopher Salas-Wright, David Snowden ‘Retaining Women Air Force Officers: Work, Family, Career Satisfaction, and Intentions,’ Armed Forces & Society 46: 4 (2020), pp.677-695; Kirsten M. Keller, Kimberly Curry Hall, Miriam Matthews, Leslie Adrienne Payne, Lisa Saum-Manning, Douglas Yeung, David Schulker, Stefan Zavislan, and Nelson Lim, ‘Addressing Barriers to Female Officer Retention in the Air Force’, RAND Corporation, 2018.