It seems “gender equality” is on track to be the 2016 phrase of the year. It’s certainly been trending on social media. What receives less attention, however, is the far thornier topic of unequal access to opportunities.
As a four-star Combatant Commander and U.S. Ambassador (who was also the 15th Sergeant Major of the United States Marine Corps), our long careers have enabled us to recognize and respect the role women play in advancing our national interests and our country’s goals of peace, stability and prosperity. We recognize that what makes us diverse makes us strong. And we recognize that no nation, including the United States, can get ahead if half its population is left behind.
With a combined 66 years of service to our nation, we’re looking to impart some of these hard-learned lessons on the importance of equal opportunity in our respective services.
It is noteworthy and encouraging that there have been three female Secretaries of State in the last 15 years. However, the Foreign Service (much like the U.S. Military) was not always so accommodating to women. In the “Mad Men” era of the 1960s, it was assumed that women would resign from the Service once they got married. And it wasn’t until 2015, that the U.S. military formally opened up 220,000 formerly closed positions and occupations to women.
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Equal opportunity is more than just lip service or filling a quota in today’s security environment; it is a strategic imperative. As leaders in defense and diplomacy, we’re here to tell you: This isn’t about leveling the playing field; it’s about putting the best possible team on the field. As we have seen over and over across countless professions, when given the same opportunities, women repeatedly show just how equal they are to their male colleagues. Like millions of others, they serve magnificently in our Embassies and on our front lines. They are seasoned diplomats and combat-tested soldiers, U.S. Ambassadors and four star Combatant Commanders . . . who just happen to be women.
How accepting is our own hemisphere of the principles and pragmatism of gender inclusion? Let’s look at some numbers. Women now account for roughly four to seven percent of militaries in the Americas — and in Argentina and Uruguay, they make up 11 and 16 percent. Since 1973, the number of women in our enlisted ranks has increased seven fold to 14 percent, and among our officers has quadrupled to 16 percent.
There are now over 1,200 United Nations Police women from 63 countries serving in peacekeeping missions around the world, and in 2014, for the first time, a woman was designated as force commander of the U.N. Mission in Cyprus. Latin America’s female representation in peacekeeping operations, while still low, is higher than most.
But of the 36 countries in our hemisphere, only four — soon to be five — have a National Action Plan to advance the principles of women in peace and security. Seven out of the top ten countries in the world with the highest murder rates of females are in Latin America.
Every year, tens of thousands of women and girls are victims of human trafficking and sexual exploitation. Women in our hemisphere overwhelmingly bear the burden of insecurity and instability — which means they must be a large part of the solution. And from Buenos Aires to Mexico City, millions of women across the hemisphere are doing exactly that, joining together to call for an end to gender-based violence.
It’s for these reasons, and many others not listed, that we are beginning this dialogue, which we started last week in the inaugural 2016 Women in Military and Defense Conference, co-hosted by the Trinidad and Tobago Defence Forces and U.S. Southern Command.
While we’ve come far, there are yawning gaps between words and actions still to close, entrenched cultural challenges still to address, and ceilings still to break.
Let us not dwell on the past, but rather use our individual histories to shape solutions and help our institutions tackle roadblocks that still prevent us from fielding our best, most capable teams.
We salute the men and women throughout the hemisphere who are committed to changing their communities and countries for the better. Let’s get to work!
Admiral Kurt W. Tidd is commander of the U.S. Southern Command. John L. Estrada is U.S. Ambassador to Trinidad and Tobago.