Interview with Professor Heidi Hardt


NATO is integrating gender perspectives across its three core tasks (deterrence and defense, crisis prevention and management, and cooperative security) and throughout its political and military structures. Although significant progress has been made in the WPS agenda of NATO, many aspects still need improvement, spanning from the budget of the Human Security Unit department to the bureaucratic discretion of the WPS special representative. In the scope of the NATO2030 Global Fellowship program, we have discussed the strategies that could contribute to NATO’s WPS agenda in line with the changes in the NATO2030 concept with Professor Heidi Hardt from University of California Irvine, who was a Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs Fellow at US Department of State between 2021-2022.


Interview conducted by Arin Demir, NATO 2030 Global Fellowship Cohort Member (Turkey)


Arin Demir: At the Madrid Summit in 2022, Heads of State and Government declared that they are advancing a robust Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda and are incorporating gender perspectives across NATO. Considering recent developments in Ukraine and also in the literature, what is the most effective approach that the NATO Committee on Gender Perspectives should follow to ensure inclusivity in across NATO’s functions spanning from decision making processes to organizational appointments?

There is a cultural problem in implementing a continuing gender perspective within the organization.

 Prof. Heidi Hardt: I would start by saying that my co-author, Stéfanie von Hlatky and I spent three years researching and developing training related to implementing the WPS agenda at NATO through the NATO grant that we received to specifically look at how this works. I want to start by naming some of the things we found in the research. As part of the research, we interviewed 50 military to civilian NATO officials. We have seen that there was a significant male-dominated culture. When you look at diversity and inclusion reports, NATO remains overwhelmingly dominated by men. In parallel, if you think about the demographics of militaries themselves, they’re not particularly gender diverse. At that point, we would have expected to see more progress in terms of women’s representation in NATO in the last five years. We haven’t seen that as researchers who has tracked some of those diversity and inclusion reports. That was something that came out strongly from the studies. The interviews showed us there was a kind of underrepresentation of women. Moreover, women’s voices often being marginalized. On the other hand, NATO really seeks to convey and disseminate gender equality across its organization. So, there is a cultural problem in implementing a continuing gender perspective within the organization. Most recently, I worked in the US Government and had the opportunity to work directly with different NATO officials. I was surprised to see that a lot of problems still continued in gender issues. There is an uneven understanding of what gender perspective is and how it should be implemented. The main essence of the problem is the assumption that the WPS agenda is something that should only be for women.


Arin Demir: Could you give an example from your interviews in which you observe the assumption that the WPS agenda is something that should only be for women?


People don’t have the tools specifically to know how to integrate that [WPS agenda] into their day-to-day workload.


Prof. Heidi Hardt: I remember someone in a very high position at NATO said to us, “Why should I participate in a study on gender mainstreaming? Women’s peace and security is a women’s issue, and I’m not a woman.” Besides this statement, NATO has done a great job promoting and disseminating the WPS agenda as a concept. NATO even reflects the agenda in its strategic-level documents. But the problem is not necessarily awareness that it exists. However, people don’t have the tools specifically to know how to integrate that into their day-to-day workload. Recently, there are some gender perspective courses that Allied Command Transformation which is one of NATO’s strategic commands provides but again not a lot of people necessarily know about that.


Arin Demir: Were there any differences in awareness of gender perspective between military officials and civilians?


Prof. Heidi Hardt: We found that there was more awareness of gender perspective among military officials relative to civilian officials. Nevertheless, the approach was “increase the number of women” in the organization. In reality, incorporating the gender perspective into the organization is much more than that. In my classes as a professor, I talk about incorporating a gender perspective, which means taking any decision or major policy in an organization following consultation with individuals who identify as women. After incorporating the gender perspective into the organization, decision-makers should ask themselves How is this policy going to affect people with different gender identities? Men versus women, men versus transgendered people or non-binary.” Decision-makers should also ask the questions before the gender policies is implemented.


Arin Demir: How can NATO spread awareness regarding incorporating gender analysis in to day-to-day policymaking within the organization?


Implementing a gender perspective is supposed to be cross-cutting civilian and military.


Prof. Heidi Hardt: My co-author and I have discussed several solutions, one of which is establishing induction training, which is streamlined along with other training that anybody coming into NATO has to do. For example, you have to do cyber security training on dealing with documents in terms of whether they are classified or confidential in NATO. So, including the gender training should also be very simple. Implementing a gender perspective is supposed to be cross-cutting civilian and military. This induction training shouldn’t be optional. The second issue I observed was that the Special Representative on women, peace and security is not currently obligated to attend all North Atlantic Council meetings. Yet what I was informed anecdotally that the Special Representative was being invited to just meetings that had to do with women peace and security. This situation is directly conflicting with the two major documents of NATO. There’s an important document called a major military document and a directive called the Strategic Directive that comes from both Allied Command Transformation & Allied Command Operations. These two documents specifically say gender perspective is something everybody at NATO should implement. On the other hand, how is that possible if a special representative on women, peace and security is not joining all NAC meetings? It’s a simple solution because WPS special representative is in a position to provide a gender perspective with considerable expertise to all meetings in different contexts.


Arin Demir:  How do you assess the financial resources that NATO allocates for implementing the WPS agenda?


NATO should increase the number of permanent staff at the WPS office.


Prof. Heidi Hardt: The resources are very low for the Private Office. It used to be that there was a women peace and security office. Now it’s the Private Office. WPS Representative speaks directly to the Secretary General. The problem with the office is that it functions according to voluntary national contributions. The member countries of the alliance send temporary representatives for a short period. At the same time, they don’t have the same political buy-in as someone who’s a permanent international staff at NATO. Just simply, NATO should increase the number of permanent staff at the WPS office.


Arin Demir:   The NATO2010 strategic concept suggests that the governance style within the alliance should be defined as political engagement. In contrast to the 2010 concept, the new2030 concept refers to political cohesion rather than engagement which points out a complex interdependent relationship framed with common values. Could Women, Peace and Security agenda function as a facilitator to bolster political cohesion within the alliance?


The WPS agenda could function as a facilitator to bolster political cohesion within the alliance.


Prof. Heidi Hardt: The WPS agenda could function as a facilitator to bolster political cohesion within the alliance. I think the WPS agenda is not the only one. So, one thing that came out of the strategic concept that was very interesting and important was that there were several UN cross-cutting issues such as climate change and human security. All of those are core areas where there are apparent interests that every one of the allies can find to advance their national interest by simply adopting and learning more from fellow allies. Allies can come together, and thereby they can improve their political cohesion. Importantly, as I said, they can learn from each other. One of the beautiful things about NATO is that it brings states with shared values and allows them to learn through best practices, including learning from failures that didn’t work well.


Arin Demir:  In your book NATO’s Lessons in Crisis: Institutional Memory and International Organizations, you argue that NATO has an institutional problem that impedes NATO to learn from its experiences. In this vein, how does the institutional problem of NATO impact its WSP agenda?


Turnover affects the ability of NATO to hold on to institutional knowledge.


Prof. Heidi Hardt: In that book, I argue that NATO does learn from its experiences, but it learns primarily through informal and interpersonal means, not necessarily through the formal mechanisms that were designed to create and incentivize learning. So learning does happen within NATO, but it doesn’t necessarily occur in the ways the Allies expected it. As you said, in the book, I talked about many problems related to how NATO learns. I also made some policy recommendations for how NATO could learn differently. But I think several things come out of that the institutional dynamics are relevant for implementing the WPS agenda. I was shocked as I started to research the WPS agenda, how much those issues from that research on learning were showing up in the gender perspective. Here, the first issue is the low access to information. For example, many NATO officials are not aware that there is a NATO formal lessons-learned process that is something that everyone in the organization is supposed to be contributing to. Similarly, a lot of people in NATO do not know that there is a NATO by strategic directive that tells them, “If you’re in the military, you were supposed to be incorporating a gender perspective.” 


The second issue is turnover. Turnover affects the ability of NATO to hold on to institutional knowledge. The high turnover within the organization means the whole of difficulties in holding onto institutional knowledge related to gender, incorporating a gender perspective and the WPS agenda more broadly. The WPS office has done a fantastic job over the years under special representatives. There have been a lot of different campaigns and events that they’ve done within the organization. Nevertheless, that knowledge can be lost because of the turnover and low resources problems. At that point, the book discusses how informally, people pass on knowledge to each other. I think the WPS agenda is mainly an area with a really low amount of knowledge on this particular area. So it makes it even harder to disseminate experience through informal means. A very small number of people understand how to incorporate a gender perspective into their day-to-day work. What I mean by low information is if you’re not getting information about it, then, of course, it becomes difficult to prioritize it through the organization.


Arin Demir: NATO’s A Compendium of Essays on Women, Peace, and Security report suggests that a gender analysis will also support the identification of the strengths and the support the population can provide towards our activities as well as the risks posed. One of the critical parts of gender analysis is the qualified experts who can analyze the data and advise leaders or commanders, which is key to accurate analyses. How do you evaluate the institutional capacity of alliances’ member bureaucracies from the gender analyses point of view?


If NATO wanted to conduct gender analysis across alliances, it would be nice to have a specific gender focal point in each of those divisions and not just isolated into the WPS office.


Prof. Heidi Hardt: There are several ways to increase the institutional capacity of NATO from the gender analysis point of view. First, increasing the resources and expertise in the WPS office is ultimately something that the WPS office could do. Professionals who worked in the UN, the EU, or the African Union could come to NATO and could bring their expertise or work as gender advisers. A gender focal point has that set of skills because it’s a skill set. Someone in the department and having those people carry out that analysis would be excellent. Nevertheless, as I indicated, the special representative’s time is extremely limited because that person simultaneously represents the face of NATO in attending workshops or many events including at the civil society level. Therefore, the individual who is serving at that position is extremely busy. That position has a huge responsibility with a few resources and a few staff. So, hiring people would be the first thing.


The second thing I think is to expand the number of workshops through the civil society panel. NATO has an office called the Science for Peace and Security Office and the grant that my co-author, Professor von Hlatky received as part of the grant was to work on precisely this kind of assessment. We aim to evaluate the implementation of the gender perspectives within the alliance and then develop training. Thus, people across the NATO community could freely access online training. Making the gender trainings like that publicly available and letting people know about them is crucial for deeper understanding. There was also an in-person component of the training.


The third issue is about the existing divisions within NATO. NATO has these different divisions, from operation to policy planning department. If NATO wanted to conduct gender analysis across alliances, it would be nice to have a specific gender focal point in each of those divisions and not just isolated into the WPS office. Another point of view that I would like to point out is that there can be negative consequences of building an office with the name learning in it because it incentivizes other people. In other words, it disincentives other people from learning because they use that as an excuse for not learning. That was something that I heard in my interviews. Many officials were saying “Why do I need to be thinking about learning lessons or that’s not my job.” We heard people say, “I don’t need to be involved in incorporating a gender perspective because there’s a women’s peace and security office that already does that. Therefore, I don’t need to be part of that education.” That manner is so problematic because it’s antithetical to the political committee documents’ actual strategic directive, which calls on all people across the organization to be involved in mainstreaming gender into their respective positions.


Arin Demir:  NATO 2030 Strategic Concept emphasizes the cross-cutting importance of integrating the Women, Peace, and Security agenda across the organization’s core tasks. What are some of the benefits of gendered approaches in NATO’s activities when systemic threats are considered? Can you also elaborate on Russia and China’s position towards gendered approaches and how the differences between NATO, Russia, and China play out when it comes to gendered narratives?


Prof. Heidi Hardt: NATO has engaged or labeled as challenging or threatening actors have been quite successful in incorporating a gender perspective themselves. I would argue that is even more justification for why it’s so important that everybody in NATO is aware of it. For example, the Russian Government has successfully advanced narratives through social media to traditional forms of media that sort of quote on quote defeminize Ukrainians and emphasize Russian nationalism in a very masculine way playing on gender norms. Bolstering Russian nationalism increased recruitment and support for some of these narratives. In the context of Russian nationalism discourse: “what does it mean to be a man?” Being a man means protecting one’s country, loving one’s country and being strong or willing to fight. People working within NATO should know how autocratic actors benefit through these narratives. Particularly, Russia and China have been very successful in subverting gender norms to their benefit. The downside is then that NATO can be in a sort of weaker position by not being prepared for how to best engage in deterrence or how to best engage in strategic communication. I think it’s essential to be aware that NATO’s values in its discourse conflict with autocratic values.


Arin Demir: What are the appropriate gender narratives that work for NATO which could be conducted for non-state actors? 


Prof. Heidi Hardt: Non-state actors are relevant in the context of gender narratives and were something that came out in our research as well. During NATO’s long-serving ISAF operation in Afghanistan, the Taliban were successfully using gender norms and cultural norms in many cases. For example, women dressed in burkas in Afghanistan crossing checkpoints hide bombs. Another example, the Taliban used the genders of individuals even in selecting roles for the attacks they carried out. Therefore, if soldiers who are serving in a NATO capacity don’t incorporate a gender perspective and stick with traditional gender norms, they will highly be watching people go through a checkpoint and a person approaching in a burka in which they assume that the standard gender stereotype isn’t a threat, it’s a woman. They may say, “I’m going to let her go by. I’m not going to check her,” due to their gender stereotyping. However, this is a huge security threat. You could argue to the alliance just because there are all sorts of downstream consequences to people, to the effectiveness of the operation. If you have people systematically not thinking in line with the gender stereotypes, they will assess the possibility that women actually could be perpetrators or engaged in terrorism. So people don’t think how gender stereotyping could lead to the emergence of high-security threats. A lot of people in NATO could think gender issues are not relevant to them. Nevertheless, I highly recommend they look at the works of Professor Mia Bloom, who has written the fantastic book Bombshell: Women and Terrorism. In her book, she goes through how female terrorists can subvert these gender norms and the assumptions that women are victims or peaceful. 


Arin Demir: Civil Society Advisory Panel on Women, Peace and Security is intended to function as a channel for dialogue and civil society feedback to NATO on implementing the WPS agenda. As a military security alliance, how could NATO ensure a good governance model with IGOs and NATO’s bureaucracy to improve its effectiveness in the implementation of the new findings?


Prof. Heidi Hardt: I’ve never personally attended any of these events, but I’m glad such a panel exists. I think that a panel exists like that automatically contributes to the broader awareness and battle. In other words, the Civil Society Advisory Panel on Women, Peace and Security responds to the awareness problems that NATO has about WPS. At that point, based on experiences as a government official and academic, I have the impression that often civil society is unfairly sidelined. I have attended many workshops, and I sense there tends to be a separation between those who attend workshops related to women’s peace and security issues, and whose necessarily in decision-making roles. There is a problem that one thing that I can say definitively is that there continues to be a broader problem of communication between civil society and people who are in political positions. People in political positions can take more of these actions that would increase awareness and resources to the women, peace and security agenda not just at NATO within the foreign ministries and the defense ministries of NATO’s 30 allies. Civil societies’ voices are not necessarily being represented and heard very frequently. I think there are a lot of opportunities for improvement of communication between international organizations such as NATO and non-state actors such as civil society. People active in civil society and specifically interested in increased implementation demand that the Special Representative on WPS is present. She should be in the NAC and multiple-level meetings like the ambassadorial level. The particular representative shouldn’t be sitting in the background but at the table and being allowed to contribute a gender perspective to those meetings. There are tangible ways where you could take some of this gender expertise. I know that WPS Office is very active in interfacing with civil society and is a clear conduit. We understand how difficult it is to change bureaucracies. From my point of view, that could be done to take expertise to the table. Officials are already communicating with civil society and just increasing access to the WPS Office. It has to exist with critical political decision-making spaces within NATO headquarters. So just looking for more ways to expand that access would be very beneficial for the broader when we talk specifically about incorporating gender perspective with people interested in increasing good governance at the civil society level.


Policy Recommendations of Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs Fellow 2021-2022, Professor Heidi Hardt on Women Peace and Security topic for the NATO’s organizational structure;


  • Every incoming NATO official or Allied official coming to work in a NATO capacity should receive induction training on the WPS agenda along with tailored gender analysis toolkits and templates so that they know how they can implement WPS within their respective roles. Without NATO officials sharing a common baseline understanding of what the WPS agenda is, why it matters or how to implement it, there will continue to be a cultural problem of resistance to implementing a gender perspective.         


  • The 2022 NATO Strategic Concept states that the Women, Peace and Security agenda, as a “cross-cutting” issue should be implemented across all of NATO’s core tasks, however, most NATO officials are only able to give examples of implementation in one core task (i.e. crisis management) - suggesting a need for further education and training for those working on the other two tasks (i.e. cooperative security, collective defense).  


  • If gender mainstreaming is to truly meant to be a “cross-cutting issue”, then the WPS Special Representative - NATO’s premier expert on gender mainstreaming - should be invited to attend NAC and DPRC meetings on all topics (be it counter-terrorism to cybersecurity) - instead of just the ones solely focused on WPS.


  • NATO should increase the number of International Staff assigned to the Human Security Unit, headed by the WPS Special Representative to combat the knowledge loss in the office due to high turnover from more temporary staff such as VNCs (Voluntary National Contributions).


  • The WPS agenda offers the opportunity of functioning as a facilitator to bolster political cohesion within the alliance, particularly because there is already a large body of agreed-upon text and documents to support WPS implementation - including the 2021-2025 WPS action plan.    


  • Just as the WPS Special Representative advises the NAC and the Secretary General, there should be one gender focal point per International Staff division whose job it is to advise the Assistant Secretary General, respectively, on gender mainstreaming in that specific area (e.g. Operations, etc.)     


  • WPS implementation trainings at NATO should be publicly available, free and unclassified to increase access to people across the NATO community and minimize classification barriers. Secondly and as importantly, officials need to regularly be reminded that these trainings exist and are free to them as knowing they exist is crucial for deeper understanding. The mere presence of a training will not guarantee people will go take the training. There should also be positive career incentives built in to incentivize them to take the trainings.    


Dr. Heidi Hardt’s policy recommendations/views do not belong to her institutional ties on public policy issues; the views represented herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the US Department of State/UCI/CFR or its staff/ trustees.