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Private Security Companies Repeat the Same Gendered Mistakes

More women are working in private security than ever before, but that fact might not be as promising as it seems.

Words: Anne Lauder
Pictures: Jorge Salvador

Gender diversity has become increasingly important for private security companies as pressure to integrate women into security has grown. In conversations with managers and practitioners in private security companies around the world there is a general optimism about the future of women’s place in the field and enthusiasm about the benefits of gender diversity in the workplace. However, some arguments advocating for female inclusion rely on the same stereotypes that have historically prevented female participation in security work. Analogous to the ways in which female leaders are assumed to be more peaceful by the nature of their gender identity, for example, those in private security companies perceive gender diversity as a guarantor of good behavior in the industry. This limitation stymies the transformative potential of greater diversity.

The Security Industry Association, for example, describes women as a benefit to the field for their ability to relate through “empathy, communication, and appreciation for other points of view.” Under this framework, private security providers will likely repeat the same gender-discriminatory behavior that female inclusion intends to prevent. In other words, by relying on essentialism, private security is falling into the same patterns as other armed forces.


As part of research on working conditions with the International Code of Conduct Association (ICoCA), I conducted about 40 interviews with practitioners, managers, and academics, revealing the ways in which gender manifests itself in the private security workplace.

The conflation of essentialism with equality can present a significant obstacle to making private military and security companies more inclusive, inhibiting ongoing efforts to address gendered risks and challenges.

Men in the field that I spoke to described female personnel using language that evoked images of nurturing caretakers. They were perceived to be better attuned to clients’ needs due to their cordial personalities and ability to make clients “smile.” Women were also believed to be capable of driving better behavior in the workplace because of their “calming influence” in male-dominated spaces, conflict resolution skills, and natural predisposition toward peace. Meanwhile, female interviewees sometimes described women in the field as “keen to detail,” “less abrasive,” and capable of acting as the “friendly face” of private forces. Innate skills in crisis intervention were believed to make women stronger candidates for many tasks than their male counterparts.

While these narratives are complementary in that they focus on women’s additive value, they are also myopic, limiting the ways in which women can participate in the field. And these findings, though preliminary, are just as worrying as they are unsurprising. A dynamic documented in public forces, including in UN Peacekeeping Operations and African militaries, highlights how private security has become the latest site of gender instrumentalism and essentialism.

Even though UN peacekeeping forces are deployed not to perform combat functions but to assist in navigating the transition away from conflict, they also take on security functions and, like private security companies, mimic state military forces in organizational structure and some functionality. In UN Peacekeeping Operations, female personnel’s value is perceived to lie in their superior ability to defuse tensions and establish relationships with local women’s groups along with their friendly attitudes. For example, some research connects women’s additive value to female personnel’s ability to make victims of sexual violence feel more at ease. In South Africa’s military, while stereotypical feminine qualities are appreciated, they were also consistently ranked subordinately to masculine identities. Female soldiers, therefore, remain trapped in a framework of potential victimhood, believed to be in need of protection.

The deployment of essentialist narratives advocating for female integration indicates that the private security apple hasn’t fallen far from the public security tree. But as in other contexts, this framing carries deleterious consequences likely to undermine participatory opportunities for women in the field.


Narrow depictions of women subvert female agency and heterogeneity, restricting space for alternative identities in private security by generating specific expectations for the behavior of female personnel. Instrumentalism predicated on essentialized narratives in UN Peacekeeping Operations, for instance, burdens women who are already minority actors in this space.

What, then, might that mean for women who don’t perform these traits? If these stereotypes don’t deliver when women are hired, might private security companies be inclined to jump the gender-inclusive ship? While integrated into the private security industry, that integration is both strategic and, to an extent, siloed, restricting women to specific roles. In public forces, women face competing expectations of either participating as equals or bringing diversity to male-dominated spaces, either forcing them to adopt masculine attributes or trapping them in an essentialist storyline that can undermine them.

Female personnel is also often deployed to spaces and given tasks deemed safe or presenting minimal danger. Similarly, interviewees preferred to place women in safer areas relative to male personnel, a sentiment echoed by clients. Interviewees emphasized that clients may request to station women in “less harsh locations.” Given the principal-agent relationship shared between the two, the preferences of clientele may cyclically reproduce this tendency among private security providers.

By recasting patriarchal shadows, private security forces can skirt transformation by including female personnel without relinquishing the gender narratives that concurrently underscore racialization and subordinate women and LGBTQ+ individuals in the sector. This framework allows stereotypes to be reproduced and leveraged as a means of stratification and categorization. Furthermore, arguments for inclusion that are predicated on essentialism prevent a critical examination of persistent underlying gender dynamics and contribute to a workplace in which discrimination is more readily brushed under the proverbial rug.

The conflation of essentialism with equality can present a significant obstacle to making private military and security companies more inclusive, inhibiting ongoing efforts to address gendered risks and challenges. Some male interviewees didn’t believe that gender discrimination existed in the field, a somewhat dubious finding given research by the UN, and others, that indicates otherwise. Women as private military and security personnel too, and as civilians interacting with these companies, continue to experience high levels of mental and physical violence. Challenges faced by female personnel in private forces seem to have been effectively muted by creating conditions conducive to complacency.


Conversations with private security practitioners lend additional, albeit preliminary, credence to findings that the inclusion of women alone is not enough to root out underlying gender discrimination. As private security providers continue to perpetrate gendered abuse, there is reason to be wary of surface-level gender inclusion.

Without critical analysis, we may settle for the same harmful structures that gender diversification is intended to disrupt, increasing visibility without accountability. For example, managers and policymakers should account for clients’ roles in encouraging the adoption and reinforcement of stereotypical beliefs about women. Recognizing and addressing clients’ influence on the adoption and forms of gender diversity in private security may allow policymakers and advocates to regulate the industry more effectively and prevent gendered harm.

Emphatic embrace of female participation in private security should be encouraged. Integrating women into the workforce as a means to an end through essentialized narratives, though, might prevent gender equality in private security rather than achieve it.

This commentary was drafted as part of ongoing research on working conditions with the International Code of Conduct Association but reflects the opinion of the author only. 

Anne Lauder

Anne Lauder is an MA candidate in International Studies at the University of Denver, specializing in gender and security and research methods. Her research focuses on private military and security companies.

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