Micah Zenko

City of Men

The numbers are in, and they show a staggering absence of women in Washington's foreign-policy community.


Anyone who has sat through a meeting in Foggy Bottom or attended a foreign-policy think-tank luncheon near Dupont Circle has been struck by one obvious fact: Washington is a city of men. But rarely are these anecdotal impressions supplemented with any actual data.

To get a sense of the scope of this problem, I looked at the gender breakdown at 10 prominent think tanks with a substantial foreign-policy focus. After crunching the numbers, which were culled from their publicly available rosters, I found that women constituted only 21 percent of the policy-related positions (154 of 723) and only 29 percent of the total leadership staff (250 of 874). The Center for Strategic and International Studies and Center for American Progress boasted the highest percentages of women in policy-related roles (28 percent), and the Stimson Center had the highest total percentage of women in all positions (50 percent).

A note on methodology: "Policy-related" positions are classified as leadership roles (directors, presidents, and fellows) within departments such as foreign policy and economic policy — the latter is included because many fellows contribute equally to domestic as well as international economic policy. "Total leadership staff" includes people in senior positions in non-policy roles such as human resources, development, and communications, which play an essential role in developing and implementing think tanks’ programs.

But the numbers aren’t just skewed against women in think tanks. This gender imbalance is consistent with percentages of women working in other foreign policy and national security-related professions. In the academy, data collected in 2006 found that, of the 13,000 political science professors in the United States, 26 percent were women — up from 19 percent in 1991. Only 23 percent of international relations professors are women, while among comparative politics specialists the figure was 29 percent.

Given this disparity, it should come as no surprise that women are also underrepresented in the halls of power. The Pentagon’s "Senior Defense Officials" website lists 129 positions, of which 21 (16 percent) are filled by women. John M. Robinson, the State Department’s chief diversity officer, recently wrote that "Twenty-two percent of senior leaders at the Department of State are women." Of the 171 chiefs of mission at U.S. embassies, 50 are women (29 percent). Data for top staffers at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) is less readily available, but a Women in International Security (WIIS) study found that, in 2007 "women only held 29% of the Senior Foreign Service positions [at USAID]."

Jolynn Shoemaker, director of WIIS, noted that there were real costs to this absence of women. "The lack of participation of women in influential policy roles ultimately limits the capabilities of these organizations to develop new ideas and innovative foreign-policy approaches," she said.

The figures for the U.S. military are, if anything, more dismal. The latest data (March 2010) regarding the composition of the active-duty officer corps revealed the following percentages of female officers: 17 percent in the Army, 16 percent in the Navy, 19 percent in the Air Force, 6 percent in the Marines, and 18 percent in the Coast Guard. For each service, the percentage of female officers is comparable to the percentage of enlisted women.

OK, it’s clear that the numbers aren’t good. But what might explain why less than three in 10 senior positions at think tanks, in the academy, in government, and in the military are filled by women?

Over the past dozen years, I’ve worked at three think tanks, at four universities, and in two government positions, during which time I’ve asked many female colleagues and friends with different levels of seniority in the U.S. foreign-policy community for their views. From these discussions, I gathered three reasons that could explain this gender gap.

First, my female colleagues suggested that women are less interested in researching and writing about "hard power," defined as the use of military power or economic coercion to alter the behavior of state or nonstate actors. While competing approaches — such as "soft power" or "smart power" — receive media attention, within academia, think tanks, and certainly national politics, hard-power approaches retain a predominant role. This limits women’s potential jobs in the foreign-policy apparatus.

Second, due to a preponderance of men in senior positions at think tanks, they engage in an unconscious cronyism in hiring other men as research fellows or selecting them as participants at workshops. The disproportionate gender balance is compounded by women who describe being at times uncomfortable in almost exclusively male settings or where they perceive they are the "token female" hired or invited.

Third, a successful think-tank fellow requires constant travel to attend workshops, give presentations, and conduct research — sacrifices that women, who often bear the greater burden for raising a family, may be less able to make "Think-tank work is much like any other demanding job: It’s not 9 to 5. There are breakfast and dinner meetings, speaking engagements on weekends, and extensive travel abroad for research for books and articles," my Council on Foreign Relations colleague and the senior fellow and director for Asia studies, Elizabeth Economy, told me. "Trying not only to keep the trains running on time at home but also to make it to the top of your field is a real challenge." 

None of these hurdles for why women are underrepresented are determinative — and certainly all three can be overcome. Indeed, the women I’ve spoken with were not deterred from pursuing careers in foreign policy or national security; almost all found female role models to emulate or learn from, as well as mentors among more senior women (and men). Indeed, as show by the troika of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice, and National Security Council senior official Samantha Power in Barack Obama’s administration, the presence of women in some foreign-policy leadership roles has become the norm.

"My granddaughter asked a while ago what the big deal was that Grandma Maddie was secretary of state," former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright recalled recently. "Her entire lifetime it’s been women."

These success stories aside, however, women still remain proportionally underrepresented in the realms of foreign-policy research, academic scholarship, and practice. This imbalance, which deprives the foreign-policy community of much-needed expertise, is detrimental to the U.S. role in world affairs. At the next conference or luncheon, Washington’s think-tank mavens should look around the room and realize who’s not present — and take immediate steps to remedy this problem.

Micah Zenko is the co-author of Clear and Present Safety: The World Has Never Been Better and Why That Matters to Americans.

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