Micah Zenko

Politics, Power, and Preventive Action

Zenko covers the U.S. national security debate and offers insight on developments in international security and conflict prevention.

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Women in Foreign Policy

by Micah Zenko
July 15, 2011

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gestures as she speaks at the international conference "Women Enhancing Democracy: Best Practices" in Vilnius June 30, 2011. REUTERS/Ints Kalnins

At a recent conference on U.S. foreign policy, I was struck by how few women were in the room. The discrepancy came sharply into focus when all of us in attendance posed for a group photograph—of thirty-nine participants, only six were women. Struck by the inequality, I looked into whether the data substantiated my anecdotal impression of women’s underrepresentation in U.S. foreign policy and national security-related fields.

The results of what emerged are presented in an essay I wrote for ForeignPolicy.com, “City of Men.” The evidence shows that women are proportionally underrepresented within the academy, military officer corps, civilian foreign policy positions, and at foreign policy-related think tanks. Although the 2010 Census found that women make up 51% of the U.S. population, they hold less than a third of senior positions at most foreign policy-related institutions.

While there are assuredly other groups and voices underrepresented in the DC-centric foreign policy and national security world, the lack of women at many stops in my career has always been particularly notable. Beyond what is in the ForeignPolicy.com piece, two additional thoughts.

First, several women working at think tanks or related institutions have been in touch to tell me of the inadequate maternity leave that they are offered. The Family and Medical Leave Act provides most federal employees “with up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave per year,” including “for the birth and care of the newborn child.” Several think tanks provide much less.

Second, from my own personal experiences and hearing from colleagues abroad, the underrepresentation of women at non-U.S. think tanks is as bad or worse. I have been fortunate to give talks at think tanks and universities from Madrid, to Moscow, to Beijing, and it is most often to a table full of men, though women overwhelmingly do the administrative work that makes the event actually happen.

Without doing large surveys of women, and examining the policies and practices of relevant institutions, it is impossible to know exactly why so many women are missing from key foreign policy positions. I do not think that people are born to be State Department officials or foreign policy wonks. They are made through educational opportunities, socialization, interest, ambition, and for other reasons. I would appreciate hearing your thoughts on why women are underrepresented in the foreign policy world, and if and why it matters.

Post a Comment 3 Comments

  • Posted by Dale Cooper

    I noticed Andrew Exum at CNAS responded to your FP article (http://www.cnas.org/blogs/abumuqawama/2011/07/women-and-cnas.html)

    I thought it’d be great if you gathered more responses from other thinktank staff that you come across and post them on your blog or on FP to keep the conversation going. I wrote this on FP but wanted to add it here.

    I think a lot of answers to this question are found in Cordelia Fine’s book, “Delusions of Gender: How our minds, society and neurosexism create difference”, which I think would argue against any explanation that men are simply hardwired towards the work at thinktanks, but rather it’s societal factors that shape the gender imbalance.

  • Posted by Javed Mir

    3Ms. Hillary Clinton’s analytical approach concerning the underrepresention of women in the state’s foreign affairs is very interesting and needs further analysis. In most of the societies because of social, cultural and to some extent due to religious constraints, women do not get enough opportunities to develop their capabilities.

    Specifically in the Asian societies they have remained confined within the four walls of their homes. Even in USA right to vote to women was given somewhere in 1958.

    The situation is now changing gradually. Like in Pakistan, the women have been given a reasonable representation in the assemblies. Their presence is also now substantial in other social sectors like teaching, banking, medical and foreign affairs. So much so the women are now holding senior positions in the armed forces.

    As regards foreign service positions, women generally lack tough attitudes to handle the complicated international problems. Because of over protection extending over the centuries, they seem to have lost the required mental sturdiness needed for independent decision making.

    In order to cope with the changing social and political requirements, female population worldwide need to develop their capabilities and assert themselves not only in the foreign affairs but also in other areas of the State management.

  • Posted by Robin Ketro

    A next key question seems to be what can be done to address this problem, and what if any approaches have been tried? Comparable problems exist in many areas of the private sector, but recently some new approaches have been piloted and are quickly being adopted–for example the “returnship” program at Goldman Sachs http://www2.goldmansachs.com/our-firm/our-people/diversity/programs-and-initiatives/returnship-program/returnship.html is being copied, and whenever the economy does pick up this trend will probably grow. Will this sector get on board or continue to loose out on top talent that the private sector has done the analysis and sees value in?

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