Defending the Realm: The Appointment of Female Defense Ministers Worldwide

In the following blog post, the authors summarize the forthcoming American Journal of Political Science article titled “Defending the Realm: The Appointment of Female Defense Ministers Worldwide”.AJPS Early View - Barnes O'Brien

With every passing year, women’s presence in politics continues to grow. Though there are now more women in elected and appointed office than ever before, the most powerful and prestigious political posts remain male-dominated. In Defending the Realm: The Appointment of Female Defense Ministers Worldwide we seek to explain women’s access to the most traditionally masculine political post: the ministry of defense.

Women were virtually absent from the defense ministry prior to the end of the Cold War, and the position remains exclusively male-led in 75% of the world’s countries. Yet, in recent years a growing number of governments have selected female defense ministers. Women have been appointed to this portfolio in every region of the world except for the Middle East, and countries as varied as Ecuador, Japan, the Netherlands, and Bangladesh have each nominated a woman to this position.

These appointments raise important questions about the factors that both perpetuate men’s dominance of the defense ministry and predict women’s nomination to these important posts. Our work offers three sets of hypotheses concerning women’s continued exclusion from—and initial inclusion in—these portfolios. We posit that women are likely to remain absent from the post when its remit reinforces traditional beliefs about the masculinity and prestige of the position. Alternatively, women gain access to the ministry when beliefs about women’s role in politics have changed and when its meaning diverges from our traditional conceptions of the portfolio.

We test our claims using an original and comprehensive dataset examining 166 countries over a 20-year period. As predicted, women remain excluded from the defense ministry when the position retains its stereotypically masculine remit. States that invest significantly in their military are less likely to first select a female defense minister. Likewise, only once has a military dictatorship appointed a woman to this role. And, across the entire time period under study there are no cases in which a country that experienced even a single battle death appointed its first female defense minister in the subsequent year.

By contrast, women first come to power when traditional expectations about women’s role in politics have changed.  States with large numbers of female parliamentarians are more likely to place a woman in the role. Argentina, Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, and Sweden have all selected female defense ministers. In the year preceding appointment, each of these countries ranked among the top ten states in the world in terms of the percentage of women in parliament.

Beyond women’s presence in politics, female defense ministers emerge when the remit of the position itself also changes. Women are more likely to first be selected as defense ministers in states that participate in peacekeeping operations.  Former military states governed by left-leaning parties—including several Latin American states—are also especially likely to appoint women.

Together, we believe that our results provide cause for optimism and pessimism alike. On the one hand, the feminization of politics will likely erode traditional patterns of male dominance in many arenas. As more women are elected to national legislatures, we expect to see more female appointees to powerful posts. On the other hand, women’s appointment may not always represent the breakdown of male power, as much as the shifting of power to other realms.

About the Authors:  Tiffany D. Barnes is an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at University of Kentucky and Diana Z. O’Brien is now an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at Texas A&M University. Their article titled, “Defending the Realm: The Appointment of Female Defense Ministers Worldwide” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.


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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.

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