When she was appointed to head the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Cyprus, Maj. Gen. Kristin Lund became the United Nation’s first female force commander. In a conversation with Women & Girls, she recounts how she shattered the glass ceiling.
In 2014, then-U.N. secretary-general Ban Ki-moon appointed Maj. Gen. Kristin Lund of Norway to command the U.N. Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus. This achievement made Lund the highest-ranking female peacekeeper in the world.
She spent two years in Cyprus, where she led more than 1,100 personnel in maintaining the cease-fire between Greek and Turk Cypriots that has been in effect since 1974. Last year, she ended her tour of duty and returned to Norway to teach at the Norwegian Defence University College.
No other women have yet been appointed as U.N. force commanders, neither during Lund’s tenure nor since her departure. But she says highly qualified women are coming through the pipeline, and she believes it’s only a matter of time until there’s a second female force commander.
Women & Girls spoke to Lund by phone about the challenges she has overcome during her career and her hopes for women in peacekeeping.
Women & Girls: What was your first posting as a peacekeeper?
Maj. Gen. Kristin Lund: It was in Lebanon in 1986, as a transport officer for the U.N. At the time, we saw the need for female peacekeepers in Lebanon – there were no women at the checkpoints, so the local women could smuggle weapons and ammunition under their dresses. Adding female soldiers helped us do the job better.
Women & Girls: How did you work your way up the ranks?
Lund: After Lebanon, I went back to Norway and served on a standby force for the U.N. I also went back to university for two years to study economics. When the Gulf War started, we were sent there, and in 1992, they sent us to the Balkans. The Balkans really taught me a lot – it was quite an experience to see how a country goes from peace to war.
I was sent there as a captain, but I was given a temporary promotion to major, and some people didn’t like that – plus, I was a woman. They tried to hamper my work, but they were unsuccessful. In the Balkans, like very often in my career, I felt that I had to work twice as hard as the men so that they noticed my work and saw that I could actually do the job.
Later, I went with NATO to Afghanistan. That was another interesting experience, because I had access to 100 percent of the population – both men and women – while my male colleagues only had access to 50 percent of the population. Some units didn’t have any women, so we had to lend them some of ours so that they could do house searches.
But beyond the usefulness of women in uniform, it’s also important for the mission to serve as an example and to reflect our values – that women and men are equal.
Women & Girls: When you started out, did you have any sense that you would be able to become a leader?
Lund: All the role models were men, so it took me about 15 years to become secure enough to pursue my own kind of leadership philosophy. A lot of the male leaders didn’t know how to lead men and women in the same unit – they thought that women needed special treatment. But that’s not what women want; they want to be treated equally. I learned from some of these mistakes, and I also looked for female role models outside of the military, in the civilian world.
Women & Girls: Do you think being a woman in this field has an impact on the way you lead?
Lund: I think it does, in the sense that women are often used to listening to others. I think I pay more attention to people than my male colleagues, who often hold others at arm’s length. For example, on my first day in Cyprus, I went around the headquarters and stopped in to see the chief logistics guy – a civilian. He nearly fell off his chair, because he said it was the first time in six years that a force commander had come into his office.
In Cyprus, I made sure to check where the country was on the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap report – and it’s pretty low, one of the lowest in the European Union. I also learned that women aged between 35 and 55 were those who voted in largest numbers against reunification. So when I gave talks and attended various other social engagements, I made sure to speak with this segment of the population as much as possible.
I also made sure that, by the time I left, all of our camps and outposts could accommodate peacekeepers of both genders, which was not the case when I arrived.
Women & Girls: Why do you think there are still so few female U.N. peacekeepers today – especially in the military ranks, where women represent only 3 percent?
Lund: First of all, there is no quick fix, because it takes time before you can rise into the higher ranks. A lot of nations opened up the military to women quite late, so it takes some time for them to start getting out into international missions.
There are great female leaders coming through the pipeline in Norway, and I’m trying to motivate them to keep going so that in a couple years, we have another Norwegian candidate for force commander. And whenever I talk to representatives from other nations, I mention the need for more female peacekeepers. I just nag, nag, nag, every time.
I try to get them to understand that it’s an operational necessity – that you are contributing more to U.N. missions if you bring in more women. But the problem is that the U.N. often has trouble getting countries to contribute enough troops, so it has to take what it can get.