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Gender diversity within the workforce is increasingly considered key to providing responsible security, but to what extent, and how, is it present within the private security sector, notorious for its masculine character?

In this blog post, Camille Deagostini, Myrtle-Cleona Priddy, and Maya Warakaulle, three master’s students at the Geneva Graduate Institute, present the findings of their Applied Research Project on ensuring the provision of responsible security through greater gender diversity, completed in partnership between the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva and ICoCA.



What is gender diversity? 

There is an ever-growing appreciation of the fact that gender diversity is not only morally desirable, but that it also plays a significant role in promoting the responsible provision of security. As police forces and militaries have become more diverse and included more women, these have also tended to use less excessive force and trust within the communities they serve has generally increased. This raises the crucial question of how well gender diversity is being integrated within the Private Security Industry (PSI), renowned for its opaque and masculine nature. This is the question our recent report sought to unpack, focusing on Kenya and Tanzania.

Answering this question requires a clear definition of gender diversity, as well as untangling its unique relationship with the PSI. The definition of gender remains subject to much debate, but most still adopt a vision of it as the biological and/or sociological differences between men and women. In the context of security, this has historically meant defining men as the protectors and women as the protected. This report sought to dive deeper, embracing instead a feminist lens which looks at gender through the frame of masculinities and femininities.

Here masculinity is understood as those sets of values, capacities and practices that are commonly understood to be exemplary for men and that are usually more valued than feminine attributes. In the PSI, the dominant masculine identity has been taken a step further to speak of “hypermasculinity”. This concept is synonymous with the “alpha male”, where individuals displaying toughness, physical strength, and aggression are considered the most valuable security providers.

Femininity, on the other hand, is constructed in opposition to masculinity, and as such is perceived to embody values including empathy, peacefulness, and cultural sensitivity. Within this rich understanding of gender, each individual is understood as combining a different set of masculine and feminine attributes. Based on this, the report puts forth the idea that gender diversity must be seen as the acceptance of gender minorities who deviate from the “alpha male” representation. Essentially, this requires that private security companies (PSC) eliminate any hierarchies between gender identities so as to ensure that all individuals – regardless of whether they conform to dominant norms – are believed to be capable of performing the same security tasks to the same standard.

This is a particular challenge for the PSI which, as the report explores, has come to embody a space for masculinity. This is due to the fact that the privatisation of security was, in part, a reaction to the increasing feminisation of the public security sector. Indeed, as state forces opened up to female recruits it had the parallel impact of disrupting traditional masculine identities within national forces, which may in turn have encouraged some individuals to join the PSI to protect their masculine identities. This reveals how the very emergence of the PSI can be viewed as a gendered experience and serves as a reminder for why deconstructing masculinities in these companies is all the more complex.

Existing policies and frameworks

So, what has been done to try and undo this intricate relationship and foster greater gender diversity in the private security sector?

At the international level there are certainly a plethora of frameworks that address gender and security, the most notable of which are the UN Women, Peace and Security Agenda (WPS), the International Code of Conduct, the Montreux Document, and the DCAF Gender and SSR Toolkit. While these are all comprehensive documents, it is not always clear how useful they are in guiding the private sector. The WPS architecture, for example, has frequently been criticised for its nebulous character and excessive focus on female participation, with little consideration as to whether this participation is meaningful and how it relates to men’s experiences. More crucially, there is a clear lack of intersection between the issues of gender diversity and the PSI. For instance, while the WPS Agenda discusses the question of gender in international and national security at length, it entirely eschews mention of the private sector. Contrastingly, the Montreux Document elaborates an intricate framework to regulate the PSI and yet makes only passing mention of gender diversity as an important principle.

This gap is felt vividly by PSCs themselves, who admit that international guidance is not sufficiently relevant to their lived experiences. Often these remain highly inaccessible to the average employee, especially in East Africa where security guards may not have the language capacities or access to such documents presenting their rights. Ultimately, it was noted that greater collaboration would be needed to make international policies relevant and more accessible to private security companies.

At the national level efforts have largely consisted of demonstrating political commitment to gender diversity and the development of strategies and policies. In Tanzania, for example, commitment was shown through the appointment of Dr. Stergomena Tax as Minister for Defence, who has made clear her intent to challenge the masculine character of security. In Kenya, this took the form of a National Action Plan, which contains detailed objectives reflecting the four pillars of the WPS Agenda, such as the active and developed participation of women in all decision-making levels in institutions. However, much like at the international level, national frameworks focus heavily on increasing the number of women within the security sector and struggle to adequately consider the PSI, limiting the legal network on which companies could rely to elaborate gender diversity goals and strategies.

If these lacunae are evident at the international and national levels, how do companies themselves promote gender diversity? This question is essential given that PSCs believe they lie at the forefront of these efforts. Within the report, a small series of websites are analysed to determine what kind of frameworks and policies are advertised on the topic of gender diversity. Although positive strides have been made in terms of acknowledging the various forms discrimination can take (such as verbal, non-verbal, and physical), these too focus on furthering gender diversity by hiring and promoting more women. Another critical issue is that, while many websites make complaints mechanisms publicly available to encourage the reporting of any discrimination, there is rarely any information about confidentiality and the potential outcomes of a complaint. This, coupled with employees’ often limited knowledge of their rights, means that such mechanisms exist but are of limited use and have limited, tangible impact on holding companies accountable for gender discrimination.

Shortcomings and root causes

What becomes visible through this analysis is that, while numerous policies, guidelines and frameworks attempt to promote gender diversity in security, PSCs continue to face significant challenges. Although the PSI has seen a growth in the number of female employees, including at management level, there is less evidence that this has translated into improved working conditions. Gender discrimination remains an issue with women and gender minorities still experiencing sexual, physical, and verbal harassment, as well as social exclusion and stigmatisation. 

A first shortcoming that becomes evident in the report, is that having employees undergo training and introducing disciplinary measures is not always sufficient to transform mindsets and company cultures. Instead, male employees may well undergo training and avoid overtly breaking company policy and simultaneously engage in subtler forms of discrimination. What this report touches on is the fact that this is partly due to the insufficient attention has been given to considering how bringing in more gender minorities into a space that was constructed as fundamentally masculine, may threaten these individuals’ identity and sense of self-worth.

A second fundamental shortcoming, which is also confirmed by previous research conducted by ICoCA on working conditions, is that PSCs still tend to hire women based on their “inherent” qualities that make them “naturally” customer-oriented. In particular, women in the industry are often praised for their ability to “smile”, look good, and even blend in better to the background than their male colleagues. So, even though companies have actively sought to hire more women, this narrative confines them to their traditional female attributes and means that they are valued precisely because they are not considered serious security providers. This ultimately entrenches gendered stereotypes and static working cultures. This perhaps also helps explain why some observers within the industry commented on persistent female biases among their employees, as women themselves have come to believe they are less suited to certain tasks.

Both challenges to gender diversity can be seen as being rooted in two factors. The first lies with the still too-dichotomic understanding of gender diversity within the PSI. Indeed, the report highlights how employers continue to emphasise gender diversity as being about men and women having equal career opportunities. When approached through this lens, the obvious solution becomes to simply hire and promote more women. The result is a failure to consider and address the structural realities that inhibit gender diversity and how these are embedded in the very culture of companies. Ultimately, this translates into a superficial form of gender diversity, as women and gender minorities may enter the PSI, but then remain limited to certain roles and face persistent discrimination.

In addition to this, these shortcomings are rooted in the constraints imposed on companies by the market environment in which they operate. Here, this means that many company decisions are usually influenced, if not driven, by client preferences. In practice, this need to attract clients has led PSCs to compete with one another by presenting themselves as professional, low-cost alternatives to state security. This also often includes showcasing their masculine attributes, such as toughness, braveness and physical prowess, which clients perceive as (whether consciously or not) as being better security providers.

This need to cater to clients is particularly evident in marketing strategies of PSCs which at times contrast with the stated commitment by companies to gender diversity. Looking through PSC websites which, although they do also include pictures of women, there does still appear to be a tendency to depict them in softer roles, behind screens for example or even as the receivers of security. In sharp contrast to this, men still tend to be mainly shown conducting tougher security, holding weapons, and at times providing security to women.


The report builds on these reflections by presenting four main recommendations. While these are necessarily incomplete, they offer an initial pathway for further research into how private security companies could move beyond hiring and training mechanisms to tackle gender diversity:

a) Bringing men into the conversation 

Making more efforts to actively include masculine employees in the creation of a new inclusive work environment, instead of having them passively take in information through regulations and trainings, would mean that the new work culture would be created with them in mind too. This could potentially avoid feelings that gender diversity is only about men surrendering space for other identities and compromising on their identities, thereby hopefully making them active champions for such reforms.

b) Addressing female biases

Companies themselves have hinted at the fact that leaving female biases untouched risks undermining the process of gender diversity. Interviews reveal how female employees themselves may be reluctant to apply to certain positions within the PSI or challenge the discrimination they face, because they subconsciously adhere to the idea that they do not possess the most valuable attributes for security work. Untangling such biases is challenging, as it must be done in parallel to tackling masculine attitudes. Indeed, research hints at the fact that biases emerge precisely because gender minorities often “put up” with jokes and inappropriate behaviour to better fit in, leading them to subconsciously internalise these attitudes.

c) There is a need for stronger strategies to respond to counter-productive demands by clients

Despite all companies having policies outlining that they will not tolerate discrimination by clients, PSCs do admit that this is at times challenging. Clients have been known to occasionally request “bigger” men or they have been uncomfortable hiring pregnant women. More work should be done to streamline hiring and training procedures to help PSCs justify that all their employees are capable of delivering the same services.

d) PSCs should pay greater attention to their marketing strategies

Curiously, despite the fact that marketing is something that feeds directly into company culture, it has not figured predominantly in company thinking on gender diversity. Although PSCs have taken greater care to also showcase women, there is still a tendency to portray them as softer providers of security, and even as the receivers of security, which may subconsciously undermine other efforts at gender diversity. Taking greater care to craft marketing that aligns with gender diversity can help reinforce company policies and must therefore not be ignored.

This short glimpse into the report demonstrates how complex the relationship between private security companies and gender diversity is. Not only do national and international policies and frameworks fail to offer relevant and accessible guidance for the PSI, but companies themselves also have to consider how intertwined masculinity is with their very existence. Ultimately there is a need to appreciate that gender diversity does not rely solely on hiring more gender minorities; it requires a complete overhauling of company culture, an endeavour which will have to take place on many fronts. 

For a deeper dive into the nuances of gender diversity within the private security industry, it is recommended to view the full report. It offers comprehensive insights and data that shed light on current trends and challenges. Read the full report here: ARP Final Report – Ensuring Responsible Security Through Gender Diversity





The views and opinions presented in this article belong solely to the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the stance of the International Code of Conduct Association (ICoCA).