SECURITY ROUNDUP: A Conversation with Our Secure Future and the Leadership of International Stability Operations Association

ISOA and OSF in conversation about women peace and security

Since 2019, Our Secure Future has collaborated with ISOA to support their bold agenda to lead the security community in transforming how it approaches the Women, Peace and Security agenda (WPS), and improving security outcomes.  This is now more important than ever as the United States and the world strive to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.

What follows is a discussion among Sahana Dharmapuri, director of Our Secure Future, Howie Lind, President and Executive Director of ISOA and Michelle Quinn, Chairwoman of ISOA’s Women Peace and Security Working Group and Senior Vice President of Patriot Group International.


SAHANA DHARMAPURI: I’m very excited to be working with you all on your agenda. Can you tell us a bit about ISOA and why Women, Peace and Security matters so much to you?

HOWIE LIND: We’re excited to be working with Our Secure Future as well. ISOA is a worldwide association representing companies that work to create long-term stability and growth in the world’s most unstable places, especially now during the COVID pandemic As the only association uniquely focused on stability and peace operations worldwide, ISOA sits at the nexus of contingency operations, peace operations, disaster relief efforts, and long-term development programs. Instability stemming from any number of destabilizing factors requires a coordinated and adept response led by governments and multinational organizations, and supported by the expertise of the implementing private sector community -- our membership.

MICHELLE QUINN: Our member companies work on every continent in the harshest environments, and we see up close that women bear the disproportionate impact from conflict and instability. If our national security strategy is going to be successful, we need to ensure women’s participation[1] . That’s why ISOA has made Women, Peace and Security one of our top issues, even in the midst of this global pandemic.

DHARMAPURI: We have the facts to back that up, and one of the most interesting things most people don’t know is that this is also a major focus of the United States government. Can you describe how that impacts your membership?

QUINN: Our ISOA member companies work with the State Department, the Department of Defense, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Intelligence Community, and other federal agencies and world organizations. In 2017, Congress passed the Women, Peace, and Security Act, and right now these agencies are developing their strategies for how they will integrate women into all aspects of decision-making, stabilization efforts, and security operations. Our members will be on the frontlines of making that happen, so our efforts are focused on positioning our industry to be a strong partner to these agencies, ultimately helping them achieve better outcomes. The entire peacekeeping community is also being asked to sharpen our focus through the $1.2B Global Fragility Act and a major component of this is women. We need to be ready.

LIND: One of the things we are most proud of in ISOA is that our industry has been a bellwether of change since our founding in 2001. We help our members stay on the cutting edge. The environments we operate in change quickly and we have to be ready to adapt, just like they are doing now in response to COVID-19. That means working with experts and identifying the best ways to change the way we work to meet the needs we see on the ground.

DHARMAPURI: These laws are new, certainly, but WPS has been around for years. And we’ve known for years that women are disproportionately impacted by conflict. Michelle, you have some fascinating stories of how you’ve seen this play out in your work.

QUINN: It’s true. We’ve known for years that women see conflict first and also face the steepest climb to stabilize their countries. I saw that as something our company could help address. In our work in fragile/austere regions, we made it a priority to hire women.

We found that they are loyal employees and excellent at their job providing security. We took small steps like providing day care for our employees because we discovered that most of our employees were single head-of-household, and this simple step enabled them to focus and be more effective in their critical work of keeping American assets safe.

As a result, we now have more women trained in these roles and they are taking leadership positions. That changes the dynamic not only in the workplace but in their communities as well. Women are driving change and making their communities safer.

DHARMAPURI: What strikes me most about that story is that it is a real-life example of how historically women have been kept out of peacekeeping roles. It’s a male-dominated field to be sure. How have you overcome that and have you faced resistance?

LIND: Stability Operations is certainly a male-dominated field, no question. But the reason we’re focused on WPS is for one simple reason: Outcomes. When women participate fully in all aspects of society—including security—countries are more stable. That’s critical to our member companies because it is critical to the security interests of the United States. All of us have an interest in that. Men win too when countries become more stable. Plus, companies who have prioritized hiring women get better results in day-to-day operations.

QUINN: It’s true. Our female employees stay longer. Less turnover means better value for the United States dollar for dollar, but more importantly, it means we have more experienced security professionals protecting our men and women around the world. It means women being able to feed their families and increasing the talent base and economies of the countries in which we work. You can’t put a price tag on that.

DHARMAPURI: So how exactly do you change an industry to bring a more gender-sensitive approach? Especially one so associated with conflict?

QUINN: First, we work with experts like you, and also the people who sit on the ISOA Advisory Council. They’re policy leaders to be sure, but they also know how challenging these environments can be. Second, we start with education. Many of the leaders of our member companies simply weren’t aware of this issue. It’s not that they don’t consider women, they simply never applied a gender lens to their work.

LIND: That’s a really critical point. Our members have embraced this agenda because simply by becoming aware of it, they’ve realized they can do more in fairly simple ways. Prioritizing hiring women--focusing on a potential untapped talented labor force—allows them to overcome the traditional bias that exists in the countries in which we work. It doesn’t take a massive change, it’s simply making people aware of the opportunity we have to do better.

QUINN: Exactly. My male colleagues know women can drive cars in our motor pool operations. They know women can serve as security personnel. The challenge is that in most countries women don’t know they can apply for these roles. No one is asking them to do it. In some cases, women can’t open bank accounts to deposit their paychecks in. Those are simple solutions we have the ability to implement. Simply by raising awareness, we’re seeing companies become more conscientious about their decisions.

DHARMAPURI: These small decisions speak volumes though, and given that you all are on the front lines, there are lessons in this for your US government clients too.

QUINN: Absolutely. Our most valued relationship is with our U.S. Government clients who trust us to help them implement their objectives. So, when we see these changes work, we share that with them.

We have data to demonstrate that increasing the presence of women in our work leads to better security outcomes and more stable nations. For them, that means more informed policy as they develop the standards and requirements of the implementation plans for Women, Peace, and Security Law, and for the Global Fragility Act.

We are glad they have welcomed us to the table. They know that to be successful, policies can’t be top-down. When they hear the experiences of the people implementing the work—and the stories of the women in these roles around the world—they can implement more meaningful policies that work for all of us.

DHARMAPURI: What does success look like for ISOA on Women, Peace and Security?

QUINN: Success for all of us will be the full participation of women at every level of decision-making in our companies and in regions and nations around the world. That’s a tall order, but we have to start somewhere!

LIND: We want to make sure every one of our companies is educated about WPS and understands their role in helping achieve better outcomes. We also hope that as an organization we can lead by example and other industries—especially in the national security field—will follow suit. Right now, ISOA is unique in prioritizing WPS. We hope our leadership can help make it the norm.

DHARMAPURI: We’re here to help. It’s been refreshing to work with you and to see the facts we have translate into real action. I also think it’s critical that the private sector takes a leadership role in transforming the way we view security. We can’t just leave this to governments. Each case demonstrates that change is possible and as you said, it’s in all of our interests to get this right.

QUINN: Women are key to the security interests of the United States and of democratic nations. Women are key to better security operations, even more so now during COVID-19. If we seek to foster and advance stability across nations, we must include and engage women, and we’re happy to be part of this global transformation in the way we make the world safer.