Strategy is not unisex: A FORCES Conversation on Women and Careers

Forces Research News

On Aug. 18, 1920, the 19th Amendment was ratified. To honor the 100th anniversary of the amendment that gave women the right to vote, FORCES  asked Susan Bryant, executive director of Strategic Education International, to discuss challenges faced by women seeking careers as security strategists. SEI is a nonprofit that works to improve current and emerging national professionals’ understanding and practice of security strategy, and Bryant is a retired military officer with decades of experience as a security strategist.

An Army veteran who served 28 years on active duty, Bryant held strategic level assignments for more than 20 years, including as a senior military fellow at the National Defense University; chief of staff of the Army’s Strategic Studies Group; deputy chief of staff for Plans, Programs and Assessments for the United States Security Coordinator for Israel and Palestine, and as the division chief for the Strategy, Concepts and Doctrine Division on the Army Staff. Her overseas tours include assignments in Israel, Afghanistan, and South Korea. 

Bryant graduated from Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, and teaches Grand Strategy and Military History at Georgetown University and Defense Policy Making at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. She is also a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies at National Defense University.

She received a master’s in international relations from Yale University, a master’s degree in operational planning from Marine Corps University’s School of Advanced Warfighting, and a doctorate in liberal studies from Georgetown University. She is also former Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs Fellow, as well as a Columbia University Next Generation Fellow.

Question. What do you think is the single most important grand strategy challenge facing the United States in the near future (5 – 10 years)? What would be one of the most immediate and effective ways to tackle it?

Answer. Currently, there are two intertwined challenges impeding the formulation and effective implementation of a grand strategy for the U.S. First, a successful grand strategy rests on an agreed upon ideological foundation. Whether it’s “avoiding entangling alliances” or “containment,” there is must be a clear, easily understood and generally agreed upon idea that underpins grand strategy. Today, the U.S. is missing the foundational idea upon which to construct its grand strategy. Until that is resolved the problem will remain. The second major challenge is the bright line American policymakers draw between war and peace. Conflict and competition do not have to involve military forces nor do they necessarily require military action. The U.S. understood this well during the Cold War and must relearn this lesson in order to develop an effective grand strategy for the current international environment.

Question. 100 years ago, the 19th Amendment was ratified–a major step toward women’s rights in this country. Since then, women’s rights have significantly advanced, but inequities still exist. What barriers existed when you began your career?  

Answer. I was commissioned in 1989, and during my years of service, I watched barriers to military service for women crumble. In 1988, Congress enacted the “Risk Rule,” which barred women from non-combat jobs if the assignment exposed them to greater or equal risk than serving in the units they supported. In the wake of Desert Storm, the “Risk Rule” was repealed and women were allowed to serve on combat ships and aircraft.

The legislation was replaced with the “Direct Combat Exclusion Rule,” which prevented women from serving in Combat Arms roles such as Infantry, Armor and Special Forces. Its fundamental logic was tested in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the line between “combat” and “non-combat” roles became blurred to the point of absurdity.

As a result, the exclusion rule was rescinded in 2015 and direct combat roles were opened to women. Although this brave new world is still in its infancy, it provides opportunities for women far beyond mere service in the combat arms. Promotion to the highest levels within the armed forces occurs almost exclusively through service in direct combat roles. It is now possible for women to be promoted into these ranks, although it will likely take decades to see the result.

Women only constitute about 5% of the Army’s Strategists.

Susan Bryant, executive director, Strategic Education International

Question. How will global security be impacted by women’s increased leadership as strategists?

Answer. Women only constitute about 5% of the Army’s Strategists because strategists are drawn disproportionately from the combat arms branches, which until recently were 100% male. As a result, I found myself in a lot of rooms where I was the only woman present. Over time it became clear to me that the needs of women in the service and within post combat societies were never deliberately ignored; they were unrecognized. My favorite illustrative anecdote is “The Case of the Unisex Pants.” When I joined the army all uniforms for physical training and combat were unisex: read sized for men. This meant most women worked the majority of their careers wearing pants that didn’t fit. To get enough room in the hips meant that the waist was 6-10 inches too large. This didn’t change until the Army promoted a woman to Surgeon General. She made the simple statement “There is no such thing as unisex pants” and work out shorts and combat uniforms became available in women’s sizes. It took me 26 years to get a decent fitting pair of shorts to run in. Now extrapolate the “pants” example to larger problem sets. There are many gender specific “fit” issues that men don’t see, because the problem doesn’t apply to them. Only by having women in leadership roles will broader issues of security be considered in a gender inclusive way.

Question. Systemic changes are required in order for society to make important progress for underrepresented groups. What role can higher education play in helping more women develop as strategists?

I think the term “Security Studies” suffers from a definitional narrow casting that has tendency to exclude women.

Susan Bryant, executive director, Strategic Education International

Answer. I think the term “Security Studies” suffers from a definitional narrow casting that has tendency to exclude women. When people think about security studies they tend picture such things as military conflict, nuclear deterrence and political economics rather medicine, educational programs and meeting basic human needs. All of these topics are encompassed in security studies. No one can master them all. As a result, making and implementing good strategy is both a team sport and the ultimate interdisciplinary game. The current pandemic illustrates this perfectly. Thinking strategically is thinking holistically and in time about a particular problem set. I think that higher education can play a huge role in bringing underrepresented groups into security and strategy simply by illustrating that strategy is more than the study of military history or nuclear game theory. We in academia can work to make it more relevant to multiple interests by increasing the amount of interdisciplinary practical work within a program’s curriculum. Strategy is more a way of thinking about problems than it is about the mastery of a particular discipline.

Question. What advice would you give young women at the undergraduate and graduate level who envision a career in strategy and security systems?

My advice to female students is simple. …Most of what your male counterparts bring in with them is tactical knowledge rather than strategy and they have a tendency to overestimate their respective skill sets as much you have a tendency to underestimate your own.

Susan Bryant, executive director, Strategic Education International

Answer. I currently teach in two graduate level programs that focus on global policy and security studies. My advice to my female students is simple. First, it doesn’t matter if you didn’t play war games in high school and you have no military experience. It’s irrelevant. Most of what your male counterparts bring in with them is tactical knowledge rather than strategy and they have a tendency to overestimate their respective skill sets as much you have a tendency to underestimate your own.  If you apply yourself, you will make up the gap within in a semester. If you don’t know the background to what is being discussed, don’t suffer in silence, speak up! I guarantee you are not alone. Good teachers want you to succeed and will help you do so. You have earned your place at the table, figure out how to own it. Find mentors, both male and female to bounce ideas off of and to get advice from. I have seen too many women in uniform avoid female mentors for the look of the thing. There is nothing wrong taking advice from women who have come before you and there is nothing wrong seeking advice from more senior men who have done the jobs you want to do. It’s not either/or. It’s both/and. And remember, take time to have fun. Otherwise, what is the point of it all?

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