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Why NATO should have chosen a woman as its new leader

NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen delivers a speech at the start of a NATO Foreign Minister meeting in Brussels, Belgium, on April 1. (Virginia Mayo/Pool/EPA)

When, on April 4, 1949, the 12 foreign ministers of NATO’s founding membership gathered in Washington, D.C., to sign the North Atlantic Treaty, President Harry Truman gave the defining speech of the hour: “We do not believe that there are blind tides of history which sweep men one way or another,” he said. “In our own time we have seen brave men overcome obstacles that seemed insurmountable and forces that seemed overwhelming. Men with courage and vision can still determine their own destiny.”

As NATO marked its 65th anniversary last week, Truman’s words still resonate — but not just because of the alliance’s recent resurgence in this next chapter of Eastern European realpolitik. Rather it’s Truman’s choice of protagonist that reflects today’s reality every bit as much as it did in 1949: men overcoming obstacles, men with courage and vision.

For all of NATO’s rhetoric about engaging in a “continuous process of reform, modernisation and transformation,” the composition of its top leadership looks downright anachronistic. With the March 28 designation of Jens Stoltenberg as the next secretary general, it seems certain that at least 70 years will pass without a single woman serving at the very top of the organization.

The problem is not confined to the position of secretary-general. In 65 years, there has also never been a female deputy secretary-general, and Croatia’s Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic is the first and only woman to ever serve in one of the assistant secretary-general positions.

Unsurprisingly, the imbalance is every bit as pronounced within the military delegations to NATO. There has never been a female supreme allied commander Europe, and all of its 56 current chiefs of defense and military representatives are male. Its organizational chart of top civilian and military leaders shows 80 men and three women smiling gamely at the camera.

Individual member states, meanwhile, are increasingly sending women to top positions within their own governments, outpacing NATO in the slog toward gender equality. At the moment, eight of the alliance’s 28 member states have at least one woman representing the country’s security and foreign-policy priorities in Brussels or serving as a defense minister, and over half of its members have or have previously had a female head of government. As senior stateswomen with expertise in collective defense, many of these women are qualified candidates for NATO leadership positions, yet they are not making it to that top echelon.

There are doubtlessly those who question whether a gender imbalance even matters, particularly in a defense-oriented organization. Given the alliance’s challenging agenda, from countering Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggression to making the most with increasingly strained military resources, the composition of its leadership may seem like an auxiliary concern.

In fact, the types of challenges with which NATO contends would especially benefit from more representative leadership. Ample research suggests that female leadership brings about positive change for organizations, particularly in the domain of conflict resolution. Women leaders have been shown to have a more democratic and collaborative leadership style — an important attribute when trying to build consensus in a large organization such as NATO. When women play an active role in discussions about post-conflict reconstruction, research has shown that the resultant peace agreements and operational policies are less likely to marginalize parts of society and more likely to endure.

Recent literature about women in the private sector has hailed the diversity of perspective and problem-solving techniques that women bring — surely those same benefits also apply in the context of the alliance. At a time when NATO is trying to address 21st-century challenges without slipping back into a 20th-century mindset, more diversity at the top could go a long way toward keeping the organization and its thinking modern.

Beyond these practical benefits, the other reason that increasing the number of women in top NATO positions matters is, quite simply, a question of values: A collective security organization that only represents 50 percent of the population in top leadership jobs is inconsistent with the contemporary Western values the alliance espouses.

But how might NATO address the gender gap at the top? Apart from bringing attention to this imbalance, one concrete step is to change its selection process for secretary-general. Currently, the alliance’s top civilian leader is chosen through an informal consultation process, whereby member states suggest names, confer and bargain with other member states, and, after enough horse-trading, reach consensus. The process is opaque and conducted outside the public eye; we have no definitive record of which candidates were considered, his or her merits, and which countries supported each candidate.

With greater transparency, questionable patterns of bias or omission in candidate support could be noted and reviewed — in other words, member states that nominate and support exclusively male candidates may be asked to justify their decision-making. Such a systematized process may also help counteract human biases in decision-making: Harvard University researchers have shown that when candidates are considered individually, as they are in the current informal consultation process, those making the evaluations are more likely to be influenced by stereotypes, which generally hurts female candidates. However, when groups of candidates are compared systematically, performance takes priority in the decision-making process. This change in the secretary-general selection process would be good for diversity and good for the organization’s overall health and reputation.

In light of recent events, there’s no doubt that NATO is not just relevant, but a critically important player in protecting global peace, security, and order. As member states work to counter new external challenges, however, they should not lose sight of the alliance’s own internal weaknesses. Working toward a more diverse and representative leadership will bolster the organization’s credibility and effectiveness and will position the alliance as a true model of the values it espouses.

Lauren Harrison is currently a German Chancellor Fellow at the Global Public Policy Institute (GPPi) in Berlin. She previously was a Belfer Center Student Fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. This article originally appeared in Foreign Policy.