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 and Foreign Policy II

by Micah Zenko
August 8, 2011

VIEW OF THE STATE DEPARTMENT IN WASHINGTON.

The United States has ordered the expulsion of Russian diplomat Stanislav Borisovich Gusev after he was caught monitoring a listening device that was found in a high-level conference room at the State Department (pictured here), December 8. Gusev was caught in a vehicle outside the building and was initially detained by the FBI but was then turned over to the Russian embassy after confirmation of his diplomatic immunity (Kevin Lamarque/Courtesy Reuters).

Three weeks ago, I wrote a piece for Foreign Policy on the proportional underrepresentation of women in a range of foreign policy and national security institutions, namely the academy, think tanks, the Pentagon, State Department, and USAID. The piece, which Foreign Policy entitled “City of Men,” received a great deal more attention than my usual research on Libya and orbital space debris. The attention prompted me to write a follow-up blog post and to be interviewed by WTOP radio in Washington, D.C.

In addition, there have been a number of excellent pieces that critiqued or added greater nuance to my assessment as to why this imbalance persists in 2011, including pieces by Heather Hurlburt, Executive Director of the National Security Network, Patricia H. Kushlis, former Foreign Service Officer, Juliette Kayyem, a former colleague and lecturer at the Kennedy School of Government, as well as a tweetchat by Vital Voices Global Partnership.

Furthermore, I received several dozen thoughtful e-mails and around a hundred tweet responses that expanded and clarified my understanding of the issue. Based on these communications and other conversations over the past three weeks, there are seven additional points worth mentioning.

First, responses I received from both sexes were overwhelmingly supportive of the fact that the piece drew attention to a problem that they all were aware of. One colleague sent a simple e-mail—subject line “Your FP piece”—that carried a one-word message: “Overdue.”

Second, women are tired of hearing about the same handful (literally) of women in senior positions in the White House, Pentagon, or State Department. If you follow U.S. foreign policymaking closely, I would bet you can name them all right now.  That there are so few women at this level of seniority—and that their names are recycled as exemplars—only emphasizes the underrepresentation.

Third, many women are also fed up with being pointed toward highly accomplished women in very senior positions as role models to emulate. The more useful career advice they seek is how to navigate the pathway from college or graduate school to advanced positions, while simultaneously managing the competing demands of raising children without nearby extended family or professional domestic help.

Fourth, several women disagreed strongly that women avoid researching or working on “hard power” approaches to U.S. foreign policy. On a related note, several also told me that the problem is less about hard power and more about the predominant Washington-centric focus. As one colleague noted, “Women are more likely to see the other side´s point of view,” and “Women see less of a zero-sum game.”

Fifth, many men and women wrote to convey that the problem of women’s underrepresentation in their own think tank, government agency, or armed service was either much worse or much better than the data in my piece found.  For example, I was told about a “win” within an intelligence community agency for getting access to a lactation room, rather than the previously assigned broom closet.

Sixth, it was pointed out that the adjectives and personal details that the mainstream media uses to describe women in foreign policy and national security positions are trivial, demeaning, or just flat-out sexist. As one person said: “I’ve never read anything about [National Security Adviser] Tom Donilon’s hair style.” Recall also this December 2000 feature of Condoleezza Rice by Elaine Sciolino in the New York Times no less, which, for some reason, revealed that the then-Stanford University Provost’s “dress size is between a 6 and an 8.”

Seventh, several men wrote to convey some version of the notion that “it doesn’t matter who sits in these position as long as they are the best person for the job.” The problem with this understandable gut reaction is that it is impossible to quantify the “foreign policy process” or determine who was “the best” person at conducting it. Even as a historical matter this is highly arguable.  Was Madeleine Albright a better or worse Secretary of State than Alexander Haig or Warren Christopher? Researching foreign policy, or managing the development and implementation of policy, is not something that can be so easily quantified and assessed.

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