Elmira Bayrasli and Lauren Bohn are co-founders of Foreign Policy Interrupted, an important and unprecedented new initiative that aims to increase the number of female voices in foreign policy. Working from the ground up through a cohesive fellowship program, including media training and meaningful mentoring at partnering media institutions, FPI helps women break both internal and external barriers to more and better representation in and on the media. I was fortunate to learn more about FPI recently.
“My motto…for young and medium-aged women is that we have to learn to interrupt because you don’t get called on just because people think you should be. You have to have some thoughts and interrupt.”
— Madeleine Albright
Micah: What is it in the community of foreign policy commentary and analysis that you think requires Foreign Policy Interrupted (FPI). What are the gaps, either institutional or cultural, that require a new approach or initiative?
Elmira: Lauren and I started building FPI about a year ago. We are both involved in foreign policy, yet when it comes to the big foreign policy matters, as we’ve seen in the past few years—whether it’s Afghanistan or the ongoing Syria conflict—there has been much more of an emphasis on men and how men are analyzing the situation. There are so many women on the ground looking at this situation. Anne Barnard from the New York Times, she’s on the ground, you’ve got Liz Sly and Deborah Amos. You’ve got a lot of women on the ground reporting and looking at what’s happening in Syria, yet their voices are being drowned out by male voices. We’re trying to even that imbalance by saying there are women out there— it’s just a matter of how can we get them on the op-ed page and get them on television talking about this on a level equal to that of men.
Lauren: I’m a journalist, so I’ve encountered the disparity from a couple of angles. I’ve been reporting on the ground in the Middle East for the past three years and it’s interesting because the press corps in the region is largely female. Just yesterday, ahead of Egypt’s voting on a new constitution, I compiled a list of female journalists on the ground to follow on Twitter. There are tons. Yet when it comes to the analysis side of things, we don’t see as many women being positioned or positioning themselves, as expert voices. When producing a piece, I always try to include the opinions of female analysts, and women who are doing great work on the issues, but they’re typically a bit more reticent to assert their opinions than men.
FPI is working on dismantling two kinds of barriers—external/institutional barriers and internal barriers. Not only are we holding editors and producers accountable in calling upon qualified women, but we’re trying to encourage women to get out there and to own their expertise. We’re a visibility platform for them, but more importantly, we’re a mentoring and fellowship program. We’re attacking the ratio from both angles: top-down and bottom-up.
Micah: What is the FPI mission statement and/or plan of action for the upcoming months, besides just getting the message out there about what you’re doing?
Lauren: We’re not just a Twitter account. We’re not just a newsletter. Both are part of our soft launch to get the word out. The core of FPI is our fellowship program. Once we procure enough funding, we’ll fly a handful of women to New York or Washington, DC, for a few days of media training and meaningful networking. We’ll then pair them with a mentor at a major news outlet through a non-resident editorial fellowship of sorts whereby they’ll be regularly writing and appearing on shows. We already have Foreign Affairs and CNN on board. We’ve been talking to several outlets and expect to lock down a handful of exciting partnerships in coming weeks.
Again, we’re trying to dismantle both internal and external barriers. We want to work with women who maybe haven’t had any media training, women who aren’t sure how to pitch an editor, women who don’t even know who the major editors and producers are. And from the top, we’re also helping editors and producers to identify and work with female experts. It’s a two-prong approach to a complex problem.
Micah: What’s your answer when a producer or editor tries to get you to explain why there is a disparity? One of the things you said that I found interesting is the internal and external. Talk a little bit more about what you are trying to do to get women on the ground, to get women foreign policy commentators to come forward.
Elmira: Producers and editors have busy jobs. In a 24/7 news cycle, they are under pressure to push out news immediately. When you’re under that kind of pressure, you’re going to fall back on what you know. In their rolodexes right now is a long list of male analysts and male foreign policy experts. Where we’re coming in as FPI is saying to them: “We’re going to help you vet these women who can come on at a moment’s notice and can talk about what’s happening in Egypt, talk about the latest negotiations on Iran, who can come on and give you a good analysis about what’s happening with U.S.-China relations.” Right now they’re under the gun to produce the news and get it out there.
In terms of the internal, there is no lack of women who are experts in foreign policy, who want to actually get out there. What we’ve found is that they’re hesitant to be pro-active; they feel that they don’t have enough experience; they want to make sure they are being perfect. What we’re doing is providing them with the steps so that they can meet the producers, the bookers, and the media outlets that need them, and who they actually want to be able to connect with.
Micah: How are you finding out who is new and has really smart, sharp, boutique expertise in a new issue area? How do you decide who to put on a list of experts?
Lauren: We want to be a high-octane, high-content visibility platform, but we really want to give each cycle of female foreign policy experts a lot of training, time, attention, and meaningful mentoring. So this isn’t just about—“Quick, we have to find ten really brilliant women in Nigeria to speak about Boko Haram because Fareed Zakaria needs them on the show in ten minutes.” We’re trying to step back and be equally thoughtful as we are prolific. We’re not trying to immediately, tomorrow, roll out a binder full of female foreign policy experts. That’s definitely on our to-do list, but we’re being very deliberate and thoughtful about it.
Micah: Talk to me a little about how you’re going to structure the fellowship program. Pending funding, how many people you would hope to bring in?
Lauren: Generally speaking, each fellowship cycle we’ll select a handful of women, and fly them to New York or Washington, DC, to take part in media training—that includes how to pitch an editor and on-air training, networking, and visits to editorial offices and think-tanks. Again, what we think is so crucial is this non-resident editorial fellowship, so that when they leave New York or Washington, DC, or maybe they’re already there, they’re going to be assigned an editor or producer at a major news publication. We’re in talks with both legacy media and new content platforms as well. This fellowship is really crucial because this isn’t just one big lady’s cocktail hour for networking. We’re trying to cultivate meaningful relationships. Cocktails can definitely be involved though.
Elmira: We’re addressing the pain point because right now bookers and producers need the experts. I think that they do want the women on the air or in print, but they don’t know how to find them. What we’re doing is saying, “We’re going to help to identify who those women are, we’re going to help provide training to them so that when you call on them they can be ready to come out and be on your program immediately.” We’re just getting to that pain point rather than having a larger discussion and making this theoretical. It’s very practical and it’s very hands on.
Micah: I can’t think of anything comparable to that, to what you’re doing. It’s similar to other networks, but covers new territory and I think you will catalyze of a lot of interest pretty quickly.
Elmira: That’s what we’re hoping to do and just to get back to your point—there isn’t anything out there like this, which is why we thought we really wanted to put something together that’s goal-oriented. We want to have impact and results, and if we’re really good at what we’re going to do, FPI will be a moot point in ten years.
Lauren: Our idea is also scalable in the sense that there should be an “Interrupted,” unfortunately, for so many industries. This wonky ratio doesn’t just exist in foreign policy. Tech, for instance, is dealing with the same issue. Foreign policy and international affairs are our passions, so that’s the sector we’re attacking first. Perhaps we’ll scale this out to other peripheral segments in the future.
Also, another point that’s crucial: FPI isn’t a women’s-only club. This isn’t a girl’s clubhouse. We know that in amplifying female voices we have to work closely with men and we want to work closely with men. It is only in collaborating that we’re going to meaningfully change the ratio. We’ve already reached out to a set of prominent male editors and foreign policy experts who have signed up as mentors and collaborators. FPI is completely collaborative.
Micah: There are many underrepresented voices, including foreign voices, in the U.S. foreign policy debate. What do you say to people that say—well, what about other forms of underrepresentation?
Elmira: I’m speaking as someone who has an ethnic background that is underrepresented in the United States. We have to do things one step at a time. One of the reasons that we have our mission statement, our vision statement, and even our organization’s name, Foreign Policy Interrupted, without the specific words “women,” is that we’re looking at it in a holistic way. So many people need to be in the foreign policy discussion. We wanted to start with women because that is really where there are a lot of foreign policy experts, and where Lauren and I have a whole cadre of colleagues who are anxious and eager to get on television and the op-ed page. We can actually solve that problem very quickly. I think that there is a dearth of voices from different diverse backgrounds. In addressing the issue of women in foreign policy and their ability to get exposure, we’re tackling that issue as well. I think that issue needs a lot more attention, and is certainly something that will be on FPI’s radar.
Lauren: We would love to, once we have enough funding, expand and collaborate with initiatives like the Aspen New Voices Fellowship, which is a great initiative designed to bring new voices from the developing world into more conversations. It’s also important to note that we don’t want this to be an echo chamber. We want to find female foreign policy experts from across the country—or maybe they’re based in China right now or they’ve been on the ground as a development worker in sub-Saharan Africa, or working in defense and security in Central Asia. We’re not honing in on women in the beltway, and in New York City. We want to find the next Anne-Marie Slaughter (who is our founding board member, by the way!). In that sense, FPI is partially a talent agency.
Micah: Last question is—best-case scenario and long-term goal?
Elmira: The best-case scenario is, in a number of years, you start seeing more women in Sunday talk shows, for one. When you open up the New York Times or Washington Post op-ed page, you see an equal balance of both female and male voices. In the best case scenario it becomes instinctive for either the editors of papers or the producers on television stations to say: “I have a rolodex of ten, twenty, fifty women, who can talk about any number of hot button issues that are going on in the world.”
Micah: The only thing I worry about is that the appetite and bandwidth for foreign policy is sort of diminishing.
Lauren: Sure, but foreign policy isn’t “hot” because it’s almost always packaged and dressed up in grey suits. It’s inaccessible. It’s old school. We’re not trying to dumb anything down, and we’re certainly not trying to pink-wash anything, but we are trying to make foreign policy accessible. In just five days, seven-hundred people subscribed to our newsletter, and a lot of feedback we’ve received is along the lines of: “Wow, that was a smart and fun read.” Imagine that.
And like I mentioned, we’re not just teaming up with legacy outlets. We’re also in conversations with new and interesting content platforms that are doing innovative and interesting things. FPI is very much a part of that innovative spirit.
Elmira: People also think foreign policy isn’t “hot” because foreign policy has continued to be one-dimensional. We discuss foreign policy in the same way we did in the twentieth century. People are not interested in that—the world is a more complex and complicated place today. People are plugged in— they’re on Twitter, they’re on Facebook, they’re looking at emerging news platforms, not just the traditional legacy ones. What we need to do is to reflect the reality of the situation by amplifying the voices of the experts out there. This is again why FPI is relevant—we’re trying to enrich the discussion because when you have diverse voices, you’re going to have diverse ideas and diverse solutions to foreign policy matters. Those are not really out there right now. Once you start having a richer debate, you’re going to see people interested in foreign policy again.
Micah: Any concluding thoughts?
Lauren: We’re excited to be taking action. Over the past couple of years, especially after Anne-Marie Slaughter’s Atlantic Magazine piece “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All” and Sheryl Sandberg’s much-talked about Lean In, there’s just been so much conversation. That’s great, but we haven’t really moved beyond it. FPI is our way of saying, “Alright, enough talking. Let’s move. Let’s formulate something that is solution-oriented, that isn’t just about talking at a networking event or on a panel—a solution that isn’t just about networking, newsletters, and e-mails.” This is about impact. This is about solutions. And through our fellowship program, we’re breeding and cultivating them.