Canada Needs More Women of Mass Destruction

“Security is too important to be left just to men.”

by | Mar 2, 2018

Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland poses with counterparts at the Vancouver Foreign Ministers’ Meeting on Security and Stability on the Korean Peninsula in Vancouver, Canada on January 17, 2018. U.S. State Department Photo

“It’s no accident many accuse me of conducting public affairs with my heart instead of my head.”

On the second day of the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, after learning the dramatic extent of the Israeli losses from the previous day’s fighting, Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Dayan proposed the unthinkable. As nuclear historian Avner Cohen recounts, “Mr. Dayan, casually leaning against the door and talking as if he were raising only a minor point, asked the prime minister to authorize […] the necessary preparations for a ‘demonstration option’—that is, a demonstration of Israel’s nuclear weapons capability.”

In response, Golda Meir, Israel’s first and only female prime minister, told him to “forget it.”

Although Meir’s was the only female voice in the room, it was also the only one that mattered. This remains one of the only instances of absolute female authority over critical nuclear policy decisions—and therefore represents a highly illuminating case study.

In an interview months before the war, Meir acknowledged, “It’s no accident many accuse me of conducting public affairs with my heart instead of my head.” This type of gendered critique—often always aimed at women—is not uncommon, especially in military circles. As Polina Sinovets notes, “In the world of nuclear policy, men see their own supposed rationality as more important than women’s supposed sensitivity.”

It is evident that the gendered contrast between pragmatism and emotion exists well outside the insular field of nuclear policy. Any woman who dares to challenge the patriarchal status quo is often labelled too loud, too bossy, too bitchy, too “nasty.” Nuclear weapons, however, are the most powerful weapons ever created. Therefore, empowering women with a central role in nuclear policy might do more to enact a feminist societal shift than perhaps any other initiative. To that end, Canada has laudably pledged to introduce a feminist approach into its foreign and international assistance policies—including its commitments to non-proliferation and disarmament. But what form should this intersection between gender and disarmament take?

This author argues that empowering female voices at every level of the policymaking process is the most crucial and most effective form of establishing feminist non-proliferation and disarmament policies. Not only will this help establish equality, diversity, and subsequent improvements in policymaking, but doing so will ultimately contribute to a gradual change in nuclear discourse, shifting from the masculine-coded “pragmatism” —which underpins the current nuclear order—to the feminine-coded “sensitivity” which would underpin a future disarmament regime.

“The Canadian Government should encourage more women to enter nuclear-related academic fields”

Firstly, it is critical to note the difference between representation and empowerment. The former might imply satisfaction with “tick-box” inclusivity: representation merely for its own sake, or for the sake of meeting a set of token criteria. The latter, by contrast, envisions representation as a means to an end, as a method of actually challenging the status quo. This means not only including more women in nuclear policy delegations, but putting them in charge of those delegations. It means not only adding more spaces for women in policy discussions, but having them lead those discussions. It means not only giving women the floor to speak, but letting them finish without being interrupted.

Starting at ground level, the Canadian Government should encourage more women to enter nuclear-related academic fields like military planning, security studies, physics, arms control, non-proliferation, and disarmament. Particular attention should be paid to research emphasizing the “softer” human realities of nuclear weapons, as well as research on gendered nuclear theory to challenge prevailing conceptions of security. Such efforts should be supported by financial incentives and scholarships. Additionally, when awarding project grants the Government should prioritize teams that include gender diversity in both composition and perspective.

The Government should also tailor its recruitment policies towards female outreach. Jenny Nielsen notes that the International Atomic Energy Agency is a good role model in this regard, as it offers hiring preference to qualified female candidates over comparable male candidates, and has established points of contact for female recruitment within its member states. However, this feminist policy must also extend towards treatment of women within organizations: there must be a zero tolerance policy towards sexual harassment and sexual assault; all claims must be taken seriously and investigated fully.

“The male-dominated nuclear policy community tends to sexualize, infantilize, and deify nuclear weapons”

The Government should engage with the arguments of feminist nuclear NGOs like Reaching Critical Will, Article 36, and the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. In particular, the Government should publicly encourage academic institutions and conference organizers to abide by Article 36’s “no manels” initiative, which asks male policy experts to boycott all-male panels.

These feminist policy priorities will contribute to a gradual and necessary shift in nuclear discourse. Carol Cohn has introduced the term “technostrategic discourse” to describe the uniquely abstract way in which the male-dominated nuclear policy community tends to sexualize, infantilize, and deify nuclear weapons. As an example, one need look no further than President Trump’s recent tweet that his nuclear button is “much bigger and more powerful” than Kim Jong Un’s.

Technostrategic language is often tinged with masculine-coded words like “rationalism,” “realism,” and “pragmatism,” and terms like these contribute to the intractable nature of the nuclear problem. If keeping nuclear weapons around is the “rational” thing to do, then it follows that disarmament is naturally “irrational,” “unrealistic,” and “emotional”—all terms that are typically coded as feminine.

Not only are these abstract masculine terms utilized for grand nuclear strategy, but they also typically extend to descriptions of nuclear detonations themselves. Sanitized depictions of civilians as “collateral damage” are intended to excise all humanity from the devastating effects of nuclear explosions. Consider the following technostrategic description of nuclear employment by a “rational defence intellectual:”

The principal collateral effects [of a nuclear detonation on hard and soft targets] arise from thermal fluence (or surface heat), initial radiation and fallout.

Now consider the following description of the same event, from a Hiroshima survivor:

Parts of their bodies were missing, and some were carrying their own eyeballs in their hands. And as they collapsed, their stomach burst open. Everybody was slowly shuffling. Nobody was running and shouting for help. Nobody had that kind of physical and psychological strength left.

Clearly, the actual effect of a nuclear explosion is not “rational.” It is chaotic, emotional, nauseating. Yet between these two descriptions, the former is ironically considered to be more “realistic” in male-dominated nuclear policy circles. Carol Cohn and Sara Ruddick highlight an example of a male physicist who was tasked with modelling fatalities from counterforce nuclear attacks. Aghast at the cavalier way in which his other male colleagues had just killed 30 million souls on paper, he recounts his colleagues’ disdainful reactions to his empathetic outburst: “‘Silence fell upon the room. Nobody said a word. They didn’t even look at me. It was awful. I felt like a woman.’ […] [T]he physicist added that he was careful to never blurt out anything indicating that he was thinking about the victims again.” Until the human realities of nuclear weapons are considered as a matter of course—rather than as a symptom of emasculating weakness—disarmament will remain but a faint possibility.

By encouraging and empowering female voices in its nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament policies, Canada would play a leading role in changing the nuclear discourse. Ray Acheson argues that gendered nuclear analysis helps to “redefine terms such as ‘strength’ and ‘security’ so that they more appropriately reflect the needs of all people.”

Canada’s defence policy has been titled “Strong. Secure. Engaged.” Perhaps these terms need to be re-evaluated, in order to pry them away from their traditionally masculine codings. Instead of emphasizing physical strength and national security—both of which are difficult to reconcile with disarmament—Canada should emphasize moral strength and human security by empowering female voices at every level of the policymaking process. After all, to quote Tibor Tóth—Former Executive Secretary of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization—“Security is too important to be left just to men.”


Matt Korda
Matt Korda is an Analyst with the WMD and Non-Proliferation Centre at NATO HQ in Brussels. Find him at @mattkorda