In conversation with Maureen O’Brien

UN Peacekeeping
11 min readAug 2, 2023

Major General Maureen O’Brien talks to Gitika Bhardwaj for International Women’s Day about working her way up through the army in Ireland, to becoming a leader at the UN, as part of a series exploring women in international affairs.

Maureen O’Brien, born in Galway in Ireland, you joined the Irish army in 1981, shortly after women were allowed to join for the first time. You then became the first woman in the Irish army in numerous positions, including the first woman to be promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel in 2011, colonel in 2016, brigadier general in 2019 and major general in 2021. What have been the challenges and opportunities for you as a woman, working your way up through the army, from soldier to leader?

There were huge challenges for me in the beginning because it’s extremely competitive. The leadership were still trying to figure out what they were going to do with us [women]. So the opportunities and the challenges were kind of the same thing for me at the time.

The UN Deputy Military Advisor, Major-General Maureen O’Brien (right) addresses partners during an official event. UN Photo

I was commissioned into an infantry battalion and, of course, there were not many militaries at that time where women were in infantry battalions. But it wasn’t by design. It was just a place to put us. But, a few years later, all jobs were open to men and women so it was all sorted out so to speak.

However, as one of the first women, I had to keep on pushing the boundaries. I remember when I was in the fourth battalion, I wasn’t listed to take a recruit platoon, and I complained about it. I believed it was about a lack of understanding by the leadership at the time of what I had been trained to do. Eventually they gave me a recruit platoon after I kept on pushing them by asking why and why not.

Then, again, although there had been some women serving overseas, I had been stopped for some reason. So, when I had the opportunity to meet our chief of defence, I asked him. I had no fear whatsoever because I thought to myself: ‘What is the point of being in the defence forces if I can’t do what I want to do?’ So, I had a conversation with him, but he understood where I was coming from, and he changed things.

It took a while to get everything going but that was the start of women, like me, going overseas. It was about challenging these types of barriers against women. You have to remember, if there had been no women in these positions before, because I was one of the first, these men had never had an opportunity to work with women. When they see you, they tend to believe it, and that’s one of my mottos: ‘If you can’t see it then you can’t be it.’

The Irish army reportedly recruited just 44 women in 2021 despite a report recommending a target of at least 35 per cent. The UK, who opened all roles in the armed forces to women as recently as in 2018, has a target to have women account for 30 per cent of all recruitments by 2030. Why is it important to have more women working in the armed forces?

In the UK armed forces, opportunities weren’t open to all women until, as you said, 2018. Ireland can’t use that as an excuse. Yet we have less than about 6 per cent of our armed forces as women.

But, as with the UK, Ireland is not unusual in this. There are few armed forces around the world that have more than that and I think, at some stage, we’re going to have to acknowledge that a job in the military is not as attractive to some women, and so, we have to understand why.

Women generally think more forward than men, such as about becoming mothers, for example, so they think about how that will affect them if they have to go overseas. In my case, going overseas is why I joined the military, so there was no issue for me.

But, if the armed forces are serious about recruiting more women, there has to be some incentives for women to join.

The difficulty is that some people in their eagerness to increase the number of women tend to stereotype women into particular jobs.

Even in the UN. We talk about how women peacekeepers help relate to women in the country and so women peacekeepers are often put into what we call engagement platoons to engage with local communities. But not every woman is that way inclined. I certainly didn’t join the army to be in an engagement platoon.

The UN Deputy Military Advisor, Major-General Maureen O’Brien inspecting UNDOF troops in the Golan. UN Photo/UNDOF

In fact, what has happened in some troop-contributing countries is that, because they don’t have women in their infantries, they’re putting women into engagement platoons to increase the number of women in their armed forces. But, engagement platoons are meant to be half women and half men, not 100 per cent women.

The sooner that these countries understand that women need to be part of infantry units, otherwise they can never be promoted to a senior position, such as the force commander like I was, the better it will be. The reason being that it will mean that, eventually, these women will have an opportunity to lead at the UN or become a chief of staff in their national armies. So it’s one thing about increasing the number of women in the armed forces but it’s another thing to look at the ranks they hold.

For a long time in the Irish armed forces, and I’m sure in other armed forces too, there has never been a woman appointed to a the role of general. So what future does this present for girls and women wishing to join the army? Though I’m not physically at home in Ireland they know I exist. If you can’t see it, you can’t be it, as I’ve mentioned.

I think it’s a right to be able to choose what job you want to do, and if some people are being stopped because of their gender, that’s a problem.

Women, as you have mentioned, continue to be underrepresented in the most senior roles across the armed forces. The Women in Defence Charter, which was established to improve the gender balance in the defence and security sector, supports the progression of women into senior roles, and has 50 signatories across the public and private spheres. What do you think are some of the solutions to getting more women joining the armed forces?

I think a lot of things can be done. I suppose a lot of the rules are made by men for men. For example, a lot of our military courses are for a year and it might be difficult for people — both men and women — who are planning to have a family to dedicate that length of time to completing it. There’s ways of adapting these courses that will be more conducive to people who can’t dedicate that much time in one go.

In the Irish defence forces, we’ve made a lot of what we call family-friendly appointments overseas, too. We have identified some roles in our missions which could be divided up so that we can go on six-month-deployments, divided between two individuals, where one goes for three months and the other goes for the following three months. It gives people opportunities to be deployed overseas and, in the Irish defence forces, deployment overseas is part of the requirement for promotion to senior roles. So it has provided opportunities for both women and men with families.

UNIFIL Irish peacekeeper private Kiev Grey monitors the area surrounding UN position in south Lebanon. UN Photo/UNIFIL

Similarly, some of the appointments in the UN are for a year, but the UN allows some of those appointments to be divided into six months, which the UN will pay for, so there’s a lot of things that can be done.

I’ve been in the army nearly 42 years, and it’s simple things that can be done to help women, like the uniform fitting us. There has been a lack of understanding that women need to have a uniform that fits in order to have pride in the uniform the same way as men have. It’s about: ‘Do I feel included by that statement and by that action and by that plan?’. If it’s not inclusive then there’s something wrong.

One of the things that I’ve done at the UN is pay particular attention to ensuring that everything that we plan in the UN Office of Military Affairs is gender-mainstreamed, for example, saying: ‘What are the implications of this plan on everybody?’ Men, women, boys and girls. When people start putting their feet in a woman’s boots they might see that there are some ways that they are creating barriers that are unnecessary.

You have served around the world, from Lebanon, the Western Sahara, East Timor, Bosnia, Syria and Chad, where you were the first woman to serve as deputy commanding officer of an infantry battalion. What have you found have been the highlights, and lowlights, for you serving on the international stage?

That’s a great question. One of the highlights of my time in the Irish army was as a battalion commander of the 27th battalion, which is in Dundalk, close to the border with Northern Ireland, which was a great experience for me.

I’ve also been privileged in that I’ve served in seven UN missions too. When I was in the Western Sahara, it was the first time I was not working alongside Irish troops, but I hit the ground running. In fact, I think being there helped lots of other nationalities understand that women can do this kind of work, too. So that, for me, where I worked on my own with 10 people from different nationalities, showed me that I can do this. In fact, I still have friends from that deployment, 22 years ago.

Then, I suppose, joining the United Nations Mission in the Central African Republic and Chad, within an Irish battalion as the deputy battalion commander, was a great source of pride for me, particularly since the unit that I was joining was from my home city, Galway, and the parade was held in our main square, so all of my family were there, which was a wonderful day for me.

The UN Deputy Military Advisor, Major-General Maureen O’Brien on a field visit to MINURSO, Western Sahara, in 2022. UN Photo/MINURSO

There are currently eight women serving as heads and deputy heads of UN peacekeeping missions and three as force commanders and deputy force commanders. With conflict having a disproportionate effect on women and girls, how does having women leading in conflict settings helpful to women and girls on the ground and how far does this help with gendered perspectives, from both women and men, in war and conflict settings?

It is extremely important to have women visible on the ground. From driving around Syria, where I could see that my presence as a woman had an impact to the local women and girls, to being a woman at the UN headquarters, I believe being a visible woman in the military, is important.

Women are more than 50 per cent of the global population. You can’t go into a particular country and not understand the significance of your actions on more than half of the population. In fact, because women are more likely to have been the victims of violence, rather than the perpetrators, it is important to understand the dynamics that there are surrounding being a woman in a conflict setting.

Indeed, some of our refugee camps are predominantly filled by, and led by, women because the men have often been either taken against their will — or by their will — into conflict.

We talk a lot in the army about ensuring a leader has key leader engagement. I’m more inclined to call it key influencer engagement. The reason I say that is that, if you go to a country and you meet the local community leaders, they’ll predominantly be men, so you’re not going to get every perspective. But, if you are talking about the influencers in the local community, it will include a lot of women. The focus has to shift from what we currently believe are leaders towards influencers.

But I am hopeful that both men and women as leaders would be gender-responsive in terms of understanding that everything you do has an impact on people — men and women — differently.

Together, men and women bring diversity and, therefore, when you’re making plans, you get a different perspective. There are many ways to do something, and if you listen to the men and women that are under your command, you get the best from all of them.

The UN Deputy Military Advisor, Major-General Maureen O’Brien discusses contingency plans ahead of the rainy season in South Sudan. UN Photo/UNMISS

Sometimes I think we expect too much of women leaders. They have to be great leaders but they also have to be great leaders for women in particular too. It’s a burden that women leaders have. I’m happy to have that burden but I’m not just a woman leader. I’m a leader. The example I set as a role model is not just for women. It’s for men as well. So I think it’s important to have both men and women as leaders because we are representative of the local communities that we serve and, if it is all just men, we’re not getting the advantage of the characters and capabilities women bring. So, the bottom line is, the more diverse, the better.

You made history when you became the first woman to be appointed UN deputy military adviser in 2021. On the 22nd anniversary of UN Resolution 1325, which aims to encourage gender equality in militaries around the world, how far has the world come, and how far does it have to go, in achieving its goal?

I do think that, sometimes, UN Resolution 1325 fails to recognize the positive side about including more women in peacekeeping. If you look at the gender action plans for a lot of countries, it still relates women to victimhood, and I think that not enough emphasis is put on why the inclusion of women is important in terms of the benefits of what they bring.

If people were serious about it, and they set deadlines, they’d have to come up with unique ways of enticing women into the armed forces and then ensuring they get promoted to senior roles. But, it has to be said, most militaries are competitive so I can see why there will be obstacles for women as well.

Having said that, it’s gender-mainstreamed into everything we do at the UN. Indeed, we have our Action for Peacekeeping agenda, the A4P+, so it’s very much in everyone’s consciousness. But whether enough action is being taken is another day’s work. I think the important thing is that, when we do make plans, and certainly we do at the UN Office of Military Affairs, we consider the implications for men, women, boys and girls.

The skills that you gain in the military are incomparable to anything else. There’s challenges and opportunities whether it is with the UN, NATO or the EU. Even if you choose not to stay within the armed forces, you have a huge number of transferable skills, that will add strings to your bow. Time spent training in the military is never time wasted.

This article was initially published on the Chatham House website. If you would like to find out more about Maureen O’Brien as a woman in peacekeeping, listen to the Seeking Peace series, from UN Peacekeeping.

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