Critical Success Factors to Operational Gender Mainstreaming

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In 2020, I deployed as the gender advisor for Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR), as part of Australia’s ongoing commitment to the global coalition to defeat Da’esh in Iraq and Syria. Embedded in the Strategy and Planning branch (CJ5), I worked with the intelligence, information operations and civil affairs teams to understand how gender roles and responsibilities within Iraqi culture affected our operations. Employing a gender perspective during this campaign enabled the operation to identify and address gender related vulnerabilities, threats, and opportunities.

Using this operation as a case study, this article explores what enabled the successful integration of gender perspectives into operations. But to get there, you must know what success looks like. 

Gender mainstreaming is achieved when policies and programming integrate gender considerations into their design and execution. The true measure of success is the survivability of gender initiatives and planning considerations independent of the gender advisor. As one planner reflected to me, “you have to bake it in, not sprinkle it on” (an effective analogy despite its gender nuances!). Incorporating gender considerations into planning has become normalised when others advocate for these issues on your behalf. The focus shifts from having to ‘make the case’ for gender, to others starting to own it. 

This was evident during my deployment when the (male) Operational Plans Chief, unprompted, argued a gender based risk to a mission and convinced the higher headquarters it was worthy of their attention; when the Fires Advisor back briefed me on a gender consideration he had identified on a target pack; and when the CJ5 discussed gender as one of the four supporting concepts to the campaign to defeat Da’esh with the head of operations in the Iraqi Security Force. 

But the most telling evidence was at the end of the tour, when the three-star Commanding General delivered his Operational Assessment to the Combined Forces Commander and National Chiefs of Joint Operations. In his opening address he stated, “the inability or unwillingness to include women in peace and security processes is an impediment to addressing the root causes of instability”. This demonstrated that gender initiatives had committed leadership support; were delivered as part of the broader operational mandate (not as a standalone topic); were owned by the staff, not the gender advisor; and, most importantly, were operationally relevant. 

While seemingly innocuous (anyone can write a good set of talking points!), I think this quote demonstrated how ingrained gender perspectives had become (gender had been included in this speech by the Plans staff instinctively while the gender advisor was in isolation due to COVID). Gender had become normalised as part of operational considerations. The success of integrating the OIR gender advisor within a core staff function, reinforced with informed leaders committed to gender concepts and empowered staff demonstrates how gender mainstreaming can be achieved in an operation level headquarters. 

So how did we get there?

It’s not me, it’s you – empowerment and ownership 
Focusing on empowering others to help mainstream gender is important for multiple reasons. Firstly, as the (often) lone gender advisor within a mission, you simply cannot span the breadth of all headquarters planning yourself. Having others working on your behalf enables you to influence more broadly. 

Secondly, by empowering others you give staff ownership of the outcomes, thereby building a sense of responsibility. In essence, they start to care about it. The mainstreaming approach taken in OIR was designed on entrustment and delegation – enabling staff to understand and apply gender perspectives and own the gender outcomes as they applied to their work area. This requires discussing gender perspectives in a way that is useful and digestible. 

Some of our biggest gender achievements were not gender advisor led, but the information operations, civil-military, or strategic communications teams taking carriage of gender considerations within their portfolio, with the gender advisor in support. Once staff branches were empowered, results spoke for themselves, and it was commonplace for gender issues to be discussed in operational forums. 

It took a conscious effort for the gender advisor’s work to remain largely indistinguishable from routine operational effort, rather than dedicated gender advisor product. During my deployment, I delivered only two gender focused documents and only one gender brief. 

It wasn’t that gender never featured during operational planning or Commander’s Updates, rather the gender inputs were included and briefed by other staff functions. The point here was gender was not to be seen as a standalone concept that was briefed and then just as quickly forgotten. Delivering gender in this way made it more powerful because it was part of the total force. 

The level of leadership support provided to gender advisors is the most critical factor to their success. Identifying and influencing the appropriate stakeholders who facilitate outcomes and enable tangible operational contributions is key. 

The sponsorship, advocacy and foresight of the CJ5 in a three-star headquarters led to identifying and delivering a gender-sensitive and gender-responsive operational plan within the higher headquarters and partner forces at the most senior levels.

Leadership isn’t just about providing direct support, but also shaping the environment; engagement sets the tone for the staff to follow. Leaders expected their staff to consider gender in their work and it created a ‘pull’ rather than ‘push’ approach at the practitioner level.

The connection between Gender Advisors and Operational Planners 
The ability to mainstream gender relies on a complementary relationship between the gender advisor and operational planners, each bringing their own expertise in their specialised areas. 

Often described as the influencer and integrator of an operational headquarters, the CJ5 Strategy and Planning branch is responsible for visualising the future and designing operational efforts. Therefore, the gender advisor is linked with all staff directorates so gender can be incorporated at all stages of planning and execution. The gender advisor must be fluent in operational planning processes, systems, and frameworks to bring the two worlds together. 

In the same way gender subject matter experts bring an in-depth understanding of the complexities of gender dynamics in the operating environment, gender mainstreaming is also reliant on the expert knowledge of operations staff. The connection between these areas creates a synergy that makes gender theory operationally relevant and enables gender to be truly mainstreamed. 

When we discuss Gender, Peace and Security in an operational environment, we often hear the term ‘contribute to operational effectiveness and mission success’. But what does this actually mean?

Military gender advisors need to provide tangible relevance that demonstrates what gender brings to a commander charged with delivering operational effects and end states. As a Gender Advisor you need to be able to draw threads through the operational plan to illustrate how the Commander can leverage gender to contribute to those outcomes, or conversely the risk of not doing it.

Applying a gender perspective to operations needs an ability to demonstrate effects to create purpose and consequence, in a way staff can easily grasp it. Gender dynamics are inherently complex; the skill is being able to take gender concepts and translate them to be applicable. More than generalisations, you need to reframe it to deliver the ‘so what’ factor in a way staff can easily grasp.

If commanders and staff are not able to see how gender directly links to the mission, it will prove difficult to maintain support. It’s important to be able to pragmatically situate gender amongst the myriad of challenges within the operating environment. 

About the Author: Wing Commander Jade Deveney was the Gender Advisor Plans on Operation Inherent Resolve.

Cover Image Credit: CPL Brandon Grey, Defence Image Gallery