A Man’s World: Masculinity in International Politics

By Eve Gleeson

7 December 2018

There is a gender gap in having your voice heard (and listened to) in international relations. (Image credit: Ellen Weinstein for Politico)

International politics is a man’s world. The practice of international relations, defined by constant efforts to identify and solve bilateral, multilateral, and global issues, has historically been guided by initiatives reflective of the experiences, interests, and characteristics of Western hegemonic masculinity.  

Besides the practice itself, membership and leadership ranging from research institutions like The Brookings Institute and news outlets such as The Economist to governance bodies like the African Union are evidence of unequal gender representation that permeates through the field. Perhaps less obvious is the masculine nature of the content and character of such organisations and their traditional approach to addressing issues spanning from political economy to security and conflict.    

States as a reflection of the patriarchy

There are parallels between key topics in the field of international relations and the facets of masculine culture, such as power, hegemony, conflict and weapons development, colonialism, and the global economy. A popular theory argued by scholars across the board is that states themselves are an expression of patriarchal power; ‘Leadership itself is monolithic, hierarchical and violent,’ argues John Hoffman.[1] The idea of concentrating power in the hands of one person, regardless of gender, so that this individual may execute dominance over the all other actors is itself a masculine concept based on hegemonic masculinity, a characteristic that glorifies the essence of ‘manhood’ as physical power, heterosexuality, elitism, and sexual dominance.[2]  

These ‘manly’ states have been built by men around the interests of men. This is evident especially in older states, whose political structures were built when women had limited rights as citizens. From the beginning of organised statehood, a state was constructed and then led by a ‘hegemon.’ According to realists like John Mearsheimer, a hegemon is a nation-state at the pinnacle of security from external threats and is idealised for its capacity to manipulate actors both within and beyond the level of the state (for example, the United States is thought of as the current hegemon, following Great Britain’s decline after the Second World War. Many scholars believe China will be next).[3] This hegemon dictates the successes or failures of its subordinates through diplomatic maneuvers coupled with overbearing military and economic power, as Alfred Mahan discusses in his history of naval warfare.[4] The idolisation of this kind of power reflects the masculinity of the international community, as each state desires to rise high enough to dictate the proceedings of every state functioning below itself.  

The gender of war 

War, violence, and the military are archetypically masculine. The notion of the ideal man is equated to the ideal soldier– someone whose belligerence and physical prowess defines manhood.[5] In his case study on the US Navy, Frank Barrett emphasises the conflation of masculine identity with ‘autonomy and risk taking’, ‘perseverance and endurance’, and ‘technical rationality’ among US Naval officers.[6] While service in the military is applauded as a demonstration of defending one’s country, long term non-violent peacebuilding efforts geared toward sustainable progress are not equally as praised as exhibitions of courage, valour, or patriotism. The value of these efforts to their nation is indisputable, though doing so as a force preserving and enforcing peace rather than quelling and inciting violence is at odds with the masculine conception of a state’s power.  

Perhaps unsurprisingly, weapons themselves are gendered to reflect traditional features of femininity and masculinity. Catastrophic weapons like nuclear bombs and warheads have historically been related to masculine characteristics. Carol Cohn, a feminist international theory icon and scholar in conflict and security, details that missiles carrying a nuclear payload are often spoken of in reference to ‘deep penetration’, ‘thrust to weight ratios’, and ‘vertical erector launchers’. Sexualising a weapon with phallic imagery suggests this decisive power that a weapon possesses.[7] The conviction that military capacity is a harbinger of a state’s power signals the primacy of ‘maleness’ in the social order, while an abundance of research suggests a state’s economic stability to be contingent on other factors such as quality of education and gender equality.[8]  

Security itself is a male-dominated field that concerns topics from military occupation and conflict to trade and energy — all of which are masculinised concepts that have preserved the technical jargon which insulates the field from a more humanistic narrative. Carol Cohn argues that by presenting information in a logical format using coded language, such as complex terminology and acronyms, harsh material is ‘softened’. One of her examples was a term applied to a type of bomb whose destructive explosive power destroyed the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. This particular type of weapon is referred to as a ‘clean bomb’, referring to its lack of lingering radiation effects. This terminology avoids the emotional fallout associated with admitting plans for ‘mass murder, mangled bodies, and unspeakable human suffering.’[9] The vernacular used by security and defense intellectuals shows the exclusive and inaccessible nature of the content. When the conversation is driven by euphemisms, it’s easy to downplay the gravity of military mobilisations and hard to recognize the dynamic and intersectional nature of conflict.  

Security as a women’s issue 

Additionally, a state’s quality of security has been linked with women’s security; as gender equality improves (e.g. through political representation or civil rights), the security of the state improves. This results from increased productivity in multiple economic sectors, elections that provide gender-diverse political representation, and the safety and security of more demographics.[10] The way women are affected by insecurity may not be addressed by typical ‘malestream’ approaches to security issues, as their insecurity results from their roles in society which often differ from roles traditionally taken by men, as the textile, education, and social work industries indicate. These industries are often overlooked and even disregarded in male-dominated international political discussion. This gendered hierarchy exacerbates insecurity for women, who, in most states, make up half a state’s population and whose safety is contingent upon conscious efforts by the state.  

The ingrained masculinity of this field can be distinguished through trends of colonialism and military occupation that have been plagued with the sexual exploitation of native women in colonised and occupied countries. Feminist international relations scholar Cynthia Enloe details this in her review of American troops in the Philippines in the 1980s and their troubling relationship with native women.[11] Colonialism, a consequence of a strong state’s entitlement to “invade” or “penetrate” an unsuspecting weaker state, channels norms of masculine sexual aggression through the idea that the protector or conqueror can rightfully exploit the feminine, or feminised, object.[12]  

Women in the economy

The market and economy also reflect male-dominated spaces. The economy is propelled by productivity in labour and employment, but scholars often fail to consider how the exclusion of women from the labour market and the fields of work where female workers are most often exploited. The textile industry, on which many multinational corporations rely, has been criticized for labour exploitation, as substantiated with incidents at Nestlé, Nike and Coca-Cola. Abuse runs rampant through Bangladesh’s garment industry, where women of all ages and socioeconomic classes are exploited.[13] Established theories of economics have disregarded how women’s limited political freedoms, labour rights, and access to education stifle economic growth, especially since the study of economics began far before women contributed to economic prosperity. The field is also discussed by professionals who use structured arguments of supply and demand, which are undoubtedly critical, though a qualitative understanding of global economics considering the foundations of the marketplace reveal how traditional gender roles, like women in informal economic positions such as child care professionals and domestic workers, impact the economy.[14]  

By excluding the female perspective on important issues like security, the concerns of which are experienced differently by women than men, thought-leaders perpetuate an approach to problem-solving that focuses on more established approaches to international challenges that idealize power, subjugation, aggression, conquest, autonomy, and hegemony. Diplomacy, a practice among states to negotiate contrasting national interests to reach common goals, can be complicated by this illustration of hegemonic masculinity. A political ‘strongman’ has come to describe authoritarian political leaders like Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin whose leadership style derives from resistance to external suggestions, hostility towards opponents, and rejection of institutional authority. This is a culture of a ‘my way or the highway’ type modern diplomacy, indicating a hesitation toward collaborative or intersectional approaches, and resistance toward making concessions for fear of emasculation. However, intersectionality and a diversity of contributions to problem­-solving can create solutions that are more dynamic, amenable, and responsive to unpredictable environments.   

From the outside looking in, female professionals in international politics recognise the necessity for diverse opinions on issues, as Michèle Flournoy emphasised in an interview with Susan B. Glasser — ‘the more diverse the group around the table making decisions, the better the performance of the organization and the better the quality of the decision-making.’ As victims of exclusion from a system that determines how to mediate global issues, women are in a special position to criticize how their approach to and involvement with international politics differs from the established ways, and how it could improve the efficiency of the system. In reality, global issues impact both men and women, and often in very different ways. The tendency for discussion on these issues to be led by men — in systems constructed by men, that are reflective of the characteristics of men — makes it so that these approaches often fail to consider women’s issues and instead idolise masculine solutions.    

Eve Gleeson is a master’s student in International Relations at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London, as well as the Communications Manager of Strife. Her courses focus on security challenges in the evolving global context, including cyber threats, nuclear and biological programs, and security in new states. Eve holds a BA in International Studies with a focus on conflict and security from Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, USA. You can find her on LinkedIn and on Twitter @evegleeson_.


[1]Hoffman, John. “Patriarchy, Sovereignty and Realism.” Gender and Sovereignty: Feminism, the State and International Relations, Palgrave, 2001, p. 9.  

[2] Connell, R. W., and James W. Messerschmidt. “Hegemonic Masculinity.” Gender & Society, vol. 19, no. 6, 2005, pp. 829–859. SAGE, doi:10.1177/0891243205278639.  

[3] Mearsheimer, John J. The Tragedy of Great Power Politics. W.W. Norton & Company, 2014

[4] Mahan, Alfred Thayer. The Influence of Sea Power upon History: 1660-1783. Dodo Press, 2009

[5] Mishkind, Marc E., et al. “The Embodiment of Masculinity.” American Behavioral Scientist, vol. 29, no. 5, 1986, pp. 545–562., doi:10.1177/000276486029005004.  

[6] Barrett, Frank J. “The Organizational Construction of Hegemonic Masculinity: The Case of the US Navy.”Gender, Work & Organization, vol. 3, no. 3, July 1996, pp. 129–142., doi:10.1111/14680432.00011.  

[7] Cohn, Carol. “Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, vol. 12, no. 4, 1987, pp. 687–718. JSTOR, doi:10.1086/494362.  

[8] Global Gender Gap Report 2015: The Case for Gender Equality.” World Economic Forum, 2016, reports.weforum.org/globalgendergapreport2015/thecaseforgenderequality/.  

[9] Cohn, “Sex and Death” p. 696  

[10] Hudson, Valerie M., et al. “The Heart of the Matter: The Security of Women and the Security of States.” International Security, vol. 33, no. 3, 2008, pp. 7–45. MIT.  

[11] Enloe, Cynthia H. Bananas, Beaches and Bases: Making Feminist Sense of International Politics. University of California Press, 2014.  

[12]  Youngs, Gillian. “Feminist International Relations: a Contradiction in Terms? Or: Why Women and Gender Are Essential to Understanding the World We Live in *.” International Affairs, vol. 80, no. 1, 2004, pp. 76., doi:10.1111/j.14682346.2004.00367.x.  

[13] Ahmed, Fauzia Erfan. “The Rise of the Bangladesh Garment Industry: Globalization, Women Workers, and Voice.”NWSA Journal, vol. 16, no. 2, 2004, pp. 34–45., doi:10.1353/nwsa.2004.0042.  

[14] Hochschild, Arlie, and Barbara Ehrenreich. Global Woman: Nannies, Maids and Sex Workers in the New Economy. Owl, 2004.  

Image source: https://www.politico.com/interactives/2017/women-rule-politics-graphic/

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