I recently saw a tweet that suggested the field of military history has a diversity problem. Namely, that the field is dominated by white men. The tweet generated a lot of discussion and argument. The owner locked the account after receiving hate mail, so I’m not going to link to it.
Some people don’t see a problem. They say that nobody is stopping women or people of colour from joining the field or going to events. It’s just that white men are more likely to be interested in military history. However, there were also women and people of colour sharing stories of how they had been ignored, or held to a higher standard than the men to get the same level of recognition.
It’s a difficult truth that women and people of colour are underrepresented in military history. But it is a truth, and ignoring it doesn’t help anyone. I firmly believe that diversity in any field improves that field. A greater diversity of backgrounds brings a wider understanding and allows for insights that would not otherwise happen.
I therefore believe that we should encourage anyone with an interest in military history to attend events, take part in discussions, and generally contribute in whatever way they wish. Not because it’s politically correct or because I want to signal my virtue. Because it will improve our understanding of historical events.
What’s to be done?
There aren’t any simple or quick solutions. I personally think the main thing that needs to happen is an attitude change. If we as a community don’t value diversity or want it, change will be difficult and temporary. Those of us that see the value of diversity therefore need to communicate that value.
As part of the attitude change, we need to listen. If someone says they don’t feel welcome, don’t tell them that they are. Ask why they feel that way and address the issues they identify.
Some years ago I heard a woman talk about ways to make IT conferences, another male-dominated area, more welcoming to women. She suggested that having female speakers would help. Conference organisers often claim to get the best speakers possible. But in reality that usually means that they get the best speakers they know. Few organisers look outside their own bubble for speakers.
Being willing to look further afield makes it more likely that you’ll find different voices. The speakers at an event are very visible, so having diverse voices on stage will make more people feel welcome at your event. This isn’t necessarily easy. Organising an event is a lot of work, often undertaken by unpaid volunteers.
This is why our attitudes are important. If we honestly believe that diversity is valuable, we’ll be more willing to put in the extra effort. If we see it as an extra that would be nice to have but isn’t really important, we’ll find excuses not to put in the extra effort.