Advancing Women, Peace, and Security Studies in the Academy

The increase in anti-women legal regimes from Afghanistan to Texas has dramatically underscored the urgency of countering the exclusion of women from political decision-making. This comes 21 years after the United Nations Security Council adopted resolution 1325 on women, peace, and security (WPS) to affirm and increase the role women play in conflict resolution, peace, and state security. During this time more than half the UN’s member states have enacted National Action Plans. Academia, however, has yet to embrace teaching WPS as an integrated and intersectional part of the core international relations curriculum, with negative consequences for the ability of practitioners to effectively consider and embed security considerations affecting half the population into policymaking decisions.

While universities offer focused courses on WPS and gender studies, the WPS topic and gendered perspectives are not commonly included in syllabi for core curricula. Since WPS elucidates the importance and impact of women in peace and security operations, it is crucial to incorporate WPS curriculum in cross-disciplinary international relations courses to truly educate students on the breadth of issues in which this understanding is essential for establishing and maintaining peace and security.

This article examines the importance of WPS inclusion in international relations academics using existing data and original interviews with global WPS leaders, and argues it is essential for the discipline and students who will become practitioners to have integrated cross-disciplinary exposure within the curriculum.


Rationale for Inclusion

Researchers have validated the notable effects of gender on the security of states and the formulation and execution of policy. In The Hillary Doctrine, Dr. Valerie Hudson and Patricia Leidl found “the international policy-making community is already well aware of the relationship between gender inequality and the health and prosperity of a nation.” In Women, Peace and Security: An Introduction, Dr. Joan Johnson-Freese observed “studies increasingly show multitudes of ways that women contribute to societies … in ways that affect security.”

According to human rights advocate and former UN Under Secretary General Deshamanya Radhika Coomaraswamy, integration of WPS into cross-disciplinary international relations curriculum is crucial: “We need a critical tradition, constructive critique, and a humanities perspective to complement security studies and the hierarchical nature of security agencies.” The UN aspect is important, according to political scientist Dr. Sandra Whitworth, as “academics can push models, language, and ideas that go beyond what can be said at the UN. Language has value for normalization; we see the phrase ‘WPS’ used now without trepidation.”

Including gendered perspectives and an intersectional examination of WPS in broader international relations topics will build the foundation for future scholars to employ and continually advance the framework. And integrating WPS throughout courses rather than placing it in isolation will ensure that students who do not take gender-specific electives will still be educated on the topic as they work and research in the field.


Existing State of WPS in Academia

Considering how faculty create and disseminate valuable knowledge through research, credentials, and teaching, universities have the greatest opportunity to improve WPS adoption through their selection of coursework. There is an ongoing depth of academic activity across WPS, but it often excludes formal classes. The foundational security discipline textbook, Security Studies: An Introduction, 3rd Edition by Dr. Paul Williams and Dr. Matt McDonald, includes chapters on both WPS (by Dr. Aisling Swaine) and feminisms (by Dr. Whitworth); Dr. Johnson-Freese published Women, Peace and Security: An Introduction to serve both academic and practitioner studies. As seen in Table 1, seven of the top 10 international relations schools in the US host formal institutes that advance WPS through studies, symposia, and journals.


Table 1: University Institutes for Women, Peace, and Security




Columbia University

Earth Institute’s Program on Women, Peace and Security

Georgetown University

Georgetown University’s Institute for Women, Peace & Security

Harvard University

Women and Public Policy Program of Harvard Kennedy School

Johns Hopkins University

Hopkins SAIS Women Lead

Princeton University

Liechtenstein Institute on Self Determination: Project on Gender in the Global Community

The George Washington University

The Gender Equality Initiative in International Affairs at the Elliott School of International Affairs

University of San Diego

Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice – Initiative on Women, Peace and Security


When it comes to teaching, however, “the challenge is WPS tends to be siloed even though it’s important to integrate gender into all courses,” according to Dr. Jeni Klugman, managing director at the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security (GIWPS). This silo prevents students from learning about the foundational role of women in peace and security and fails to teach a major UN security framework that is intertwined in academic and policy topics.

Dr. Whitworth concurred that “pedagogically, we need to both introduce students to the topic [of WPS] and normalize it, and also have standalone graduate and undergraduate courses.” Yet this is not widely done. Although there are now three academic credentials for WPS – Graduate Certificate in Gender, Peace, and Security at Georgetown University, Global Gender Policy Certificate at The George Washington University, and MSc in Gender, Peace and Security at The London School of Economics and Political Science – Dr. Klugman noted that GIWPS “did not have a formal teaching role until our new certificate last year.”


Barriers to Adoption

Research by sociologist Krystina Millar has shown that gender studies courses “play an integral role in teaching students critical thinking skills … [These] courses are vital to moving towards a more equitable society.” However, there are institutional and human barriers to adoption. Millar found that professors tend to avoid conflict and seek to maintain credibility, and those integrating gender into non-special-topics classes may face pushback and more critical evaluations from students and peers. This risk avoidance in pre-tenured faculty then solidifies into normative behavior even after tenure is received. Professors are also skeptical they will receive sufficient support for teaching, particularly at Tier 1 universities that significantly prioritize research, according to WPS professor Dr. Robert Nagel.

Within university culture, academic freedom means professors choose what classes to offer and what to teach within them. As noted by social science professor Dr. Arianne Liazos, “faculty are in charge of designing their classes and nobody can ‘tell’ faculty what to do in them.” This tends to be what they were taught and what they understand, which – ironically given their role as knowledge generators – may be out of date both theoretically and pragmatically. “You get socialized by the older generation, so there’s a lag for you to learn, then learn something new, then pass it on to the next generation,” said associate research scholar Dr. Barbara Buckinx.

Specific to political science and security studies, demographics from the American Political Science Association show discipline faculty are 68% men and 75% white. That lack of diversity is impactful, according to Dr. Buckinx. “The problem is it can look insensitive even if it’s not,” for male faculty to teach WPS, she said, adding, “there’s a sense of you’re not supposed to specialize in WPS if you’re a man, and older white male professors may think someone will challenge why they’re teaching a class on gender.” Chuck Houston, a teaching assistant for WPS at Harvard, confirms “that people are often surprised that a man is on the staff of WPS. They all think it’s great, it’s just that they weren’t expecting it.” As part of advancing the teaching of WPS, it’s important to challenge existing structural paradigms in academia that place the burden of resolving historical inequities solely on underrepresented groups, such as women and non-white scholars, by conscientiously distributing responsibility for change throughout faculty departments.

Most fundamentally regarding course inclusion, according to science education professor Dr. Tina Cheuk, “unless you have instructors who care about the intersectionalities and topics, it won’t get taught, [even though] when we bring women into the conversation and places of power, we are all better off.”


Opportunities for Advancement of WPS Studies

 It is in everyone’s interests to evolve, said Dr. Klugman, as “the demand [is] there to build a pipeline of young people in the field” of international relations. The future of WPS studies will be driven by a concerted cohort of faculty, students, and practitioners who recognize that academia has a proactive role to play in actualizing the philosophical, theoretical, and instructional implications of “The Hillary Doctrine”: “The subjugation of women is therefore a threat to the common security of our world and to the national security of our country.”

The disparate impacts of COVID-19 on women of all socioeconomic strata has reinforced the importance of consciously factoring gender considerations into policymaking – which can only be effectively done when practitioners have a solid understanding of the dynamics associated with women, peace, and security.

To that end, faculty can integrate WPS using materials from the Consortium on Gender, Security and Human Rights, Women and Public Policy Program, GIWPS and IR scholars. As Dr. Cheuk observed, “curriculum design is political – who you read is testament to your values. When you teach about gender and diversity, students see difference as a benefit and asset instead of a threat to identity.” The 2020s therefore present an overdue and opportune time for faculty to proactively include WPS across international relations courses as a foundational part of teaching the next generation.


Jonathan Alloy and Nancy Smalley are graduate students in International Relations at Harvard University. Photo by Mikael Kristenson on Unsplash.

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