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The Importance of Gender in Explaining the Conduct of International Affairs

Updated on January 13, 2018

The polarised role of gender in a global context can best be summarised in the following quote:

“Does attention to women and gender address the central research problems of international relations? Or is it properly to be seen as part of a subset of human right issues, (omitted text), which, although important, are tributary rather than mainstream? Has it merely added to the range of empirical issues to be addressed, or has it made a genuinely substantive impact on how the key concepts of the discipline are conceived, defined and employed?”[1]

Through pondering the role of gender in international relations, the significance of gender in international affairs can be subsequently considered. Is also important the social construct of gender (social construct meaning non-indicative of sex; something which is biologically determined) is evaluated all-inclusively and not just synonymously with women. Only through analysing gender as something “culturally shaped and varying across time and place”[2] can its importance to the conduct of various elements of international affairs, such as war, the state and non-state affairs, be analysed.

According to Suffragette, Helena Swanwick, though militarism is something prevalent within men, it is women that fall victim to the economic downfalls and severe life loss of war[3] and, as asserted by scholar Swati Parashar, women stand as the “grieving widows and mothers, selfless nurses and anti-war activists”.

Swanwick insists this is due to the financially inferior position women find themselves in during a peacetime economy, meaning the devastating effects of a wartime economy (consisting of increased taxation, male labour shortages, reduced salaries, etc.) will disadvantage them twice as much. Not only this, but women’s roles as housewives are coincidently tarnished as the lives of their sons and husbands are taken, along with the homes such male family members were “nourished”[4] in. It is therefore valid to argue that, whilst men depict the physically brutal element of war where conduct largely involves “inflict(ing) torture, paralys(ing) and kill(ing)”[5], only women can illustrate the true emotional impact of global conflict.

Furthermore, a prominent tradition that exists within feminist international relations is that of anti-militarism; a tradition that opposes nuclear weaponry and attributes hardline militarism to hyper-masculinity. Significant feminist theory argues that masculinity forms the basis of global power foundations and that perceptions of a countries military strength and capability are derived from its degree of masculinity[6]. Consequently, men are viewed as the dominant state actors who possess the most power over wartime foreign policy, arms production and national identity[7]. It is therefore important to consider that gender is also important in assessing the ideological conduct of war and that, whilst some may feel exploring a specific gender in relation to war is of little value, reviewing gender as a whole is crucial in explaining the motivations and consequences of international conflict.

Another branch of international affairs where the importance of gender can be assessed is in terms of the state. It can be argued that the advancement of liberalism and secularism has amounted to the exclusion of women in politics; an exclusion that spread from the ‘civilized’ West via colonization[8] (presumably waged by men if feminist theory is to be applied). Assessing the status of women in politics is necessary as it allows us to differentiate between democratic, somewhat progressive states and undemocratic, patriarchal states as female disenfranchisement can act as a criterion for identifying where a state falls on this spectrum[9].

Similarly, the social status of women proves indicative of processes which may potentially be in the midst, as prior conditions relating to culture and economy can be contrasted to present day practices[10]. The example provided in Ann E. Towns’ Women and States is access to legal abortion, which serves as a signifier of cultural change as it infers the secularity and level of conservatism a state upholds[11].

It is thus evident that gender is important in explaining the conduct of international affairs as the political and social status of women, in relation to men, acts as a measurement of civilization and a past, present and future signifier of a state’s religious, political, cultural and social climate.

In analyzing the conduct of international affairs, gender regarding non-state actors and, more specifically, business and security, also serves as a point of interest. Within business, some argue that due to the unconscious and unseen biases enforced by gender stereotypes, women’s skillsets fail to be fully utilized[12]. Consequently, 78% of MPs, 80% of university professors and 97% of board chairpersons are male[13]. The stark inequalities in the gender hierarchy are also present in the wage gap, of which women earn on average £140,000 less than their male counterparts over their working careers[14]. However, a study carried out by Catalyst showed that companies with high female representation outperformed those with low female representation by 84% on sales returns, 60% on invested capital returns and 46% on equity returns[15]. The argument for gender equality in business thus proves formidable for encouraging economic growth at a micro and micro level. This thesis is also supported by the Women’s Business Council, who predict that 10% could be added to Britain’s GDP alone by 2030 if the 2.4 million unemployed women who want to work secure employment[16]. Gender is therefore highly important in the conduct of international business as, indicative of Ann. E Town’s theory previously alluded to, female representation in the work force can serve as a criterion for assessing the strength of a country’s economy and perpetuation of gender stereotypes.

Similar to business and further supporting feminist militarism theory, gender imbalances are rife in the security sector due to career choices appearing more natural for men to aspire to than women. This has been attributed to a lack of female role models contrasted with a history of dominant, male figures within the industry, along with the problematic recruitment process whereby anonymity of security roles makes for insufficient quotas[17]. Due to the militaristic elements of careers in security, masculinity can also be naturally associated with the industry which further fuels stereotypes and makes for poor female representation[18]. Upon reflection however, due to the limited scope of information on gender in security the assumption can be made that, whilst gender is important in explaining the conduct of most of the categories falling under an international affairs bracket, security as a non-state actor is perhaps less effectively explored from a gender perspective.

To conclude, the quote “Who pays attention to women as clerical workers when, allegedly, it is elite men (and a handful of elite women) who determine the fates of nations?”[19]perhaps best summarises why gender is highly important in explaining the conduct of international affairs. It is simply because through investigating the perspectives of those overlooked, a more comprehensive, insightful bigger picture of international affairs can materialize that accounts for the lives of more than just those at the top of the patriarchy. In terms of the conduct of international conflict, gender provides ideological reasoning for it is typically men that initiate war, yet women who fall victim to its impacts. Gender studies in relation to state also proves necessary as, through comparing the status and role of women within different countries, assumptions can be made regarding political stances, levels of secularity, human rights and cultural importance. Furthermore, whilst gender may not be as important in explaining the conduct of non-state actors, by scrutinising the role of women and men in the work place and security, further ideological reasoning behind the conduct of international affairs is provided. Consequently, the thesis can be derived; men are the dominant gender in the conduct of international affairs and it is militarism, the product of masculinity, which accordingly evokes decisions women must adhere to due to their lack of representation and thus lack of power, or fall victim to in the case of war.



[1] Evans, G. and Newnham, J. (1998). Dictionary of International Relations. Penguin Books, pp.193-194.

[2] Tickner, A. (2008). The Globalization of World Politics. Oxford University Press, pp.262-277.

[3] Swanwick, H. (1915). Women and War. London Union of Democratic Control, pp.1-2.

[4] Swanwick, H. (1915). Women and War. London Union of Democratic Control, pp.2.

[5] Swanwick, H. (1915). Women and War. London Union of Democratic Control, pp.2.

[6] Cohn, C. and Ruddick, S. (2004). A Feminist Ethical Perspective on Weapons of Mass Destruction.

[7] Cohn, C. and Ruddick, S. (2004). A Feminist Ethical Perspective on Weapons of Mass Destruction.

[8] Towns, A. (2010). Women and States: Norms and Hierarchies in International Society. University of Delaware, p.56.

[9] Towns, A. (2010). Women and States: Norms and Hierarchies in International Society. University of Delaware, p.47.

[10] Towns, A. (2010). Women and States: Norms and Hierarchies in International Society. University of Delaware, p.47.

[11] Towns, A. (2010). Women and States: Norms and Hierarchies in International Society. University of Delaware, p.47.

[12] Player, A. (2017). Gender equality: why women are still held back. [online] the Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/business/economics-blog/2013/dec/06/gender-equality-women-stereotypes-stop-progress [Accessed 4 Nov. 2017].

[13] Gender. (2017). Women and Work: The Facts. [online] Available at: https://gender.bitc.org.uk/all-resources/factsheets/women-and-work-facts [Accessed 4 Nov. 2017].

[14] Gender. (2017). Women and Work: The Facts. [online] Available at: https://gender.bitc.org.uk/all-resources/factsheets/women-and-work-facts [Accessed 4 Nov. 2017].

[15] Catalyst. (2017). Catalyst Study Reveals Financial Performance is Higher For Companies with More Women at the Top. [online] Available at: http://www.catalyst.org/media/catalyst-study-reveals-financial-performance-higher-companies-more-women-top [Accessed 4 Nov. 2017].

[16] Player, A. (2017). Gender equality: why women are still held back. [online] the Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/business/economics-blog/2013/dec/06/gender-equality-women-stereotypes-stop-progress [Accessed 4 Nov. 2017].

[17] McCann, K. (2017). It's no secret: we need more women in security. [online] the Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/women-in-leadership/women-in-leadership-blog/2013/oct/18/women-in-security [Accessed 4 Nov. 2017].

[18] Cohn, C. and Ruddick, S. (2004). A Feminist Ethical Perspective on Weapons of Mass Destruction.

[19] Enloe, C. (2014). Bananas, beaches and bases. Berkeley, Calif: University of California Press, p.4.

© 2018 Lauren Eales

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