The Feminine Realpolitik
Breaking down the walls of Micah Zenko's "City of Men."
The think-tank world — the double-X chromosome part of it, anyway — is buzzing with Micah Zenko’s July 14 piece in Foreign Policy examining statistics and anecdotes that prove, once again, the woeful underrepresentation of women in the U.S. national security policymaking establishment.
Zenko offers two causes — women’s "preference" for "soft" policy issues and women’s greater struggles with the balance between work and family. However, these factors are really manifestations of his third answer: Too many powerful men tend to create work environments that privilege men over women. This is an example of that ingrained, deeply human preference for the familiar that we softly refer to as … sexism.
Zenko does a great job of pulling together the evidence, but then asks a question he doesn’t answer: What are we losing as a result? This question is gentler, and it has two answers. First, we face a straightforward loss in the "war for talent." With American women now a majority of college graduates, receiving an ever-larger proportion of postgraduate degrees, and outperforming men academically, we’re missing brainpower if they don’t form a significant part of our national security infrastructure. Lest you think this is just female chauvinism, check out what the commander of the Army’s Special Warfare Center and School had to say about the first class of female special operations soldiers: "They are in Afghanistan right now and the reviews are off the charts. They’re doing great."
It should be mentioned, too, that the situation is not much better for blacks, Latinos, Asian/Pacific Islanders, and Muslims — to say nothing of gays and lesbians who are out of the closet. The doors of the establishment opened to the Irish, the Jews, the middle class and (some) women in the 1960s and 1970s, and then got stuck halfway.
Second, we bump up against the essentialist argument that women have been arguing among ourselves since the 1970s. How exactly does women’s participation matter? Anne-Marie Slaughter, who served until recently as director of the State Department’s Policy Planning staff, has written that our increasingly networked, horizontal world may privilege the brains and societal training that women — who are prepared to be relationship-builders and nurturers — receive.
Secretary of State Madeleine Albright acknowledged that she built a special circle of relationships with other women leaders who, she used to say, "knew we would return each other’s phone calls." Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hasn’t shied away from saying that her gender makes her more determined to speak out about war-time atrocities committed against women in Congo and more focused on how women’s equality and opportunity can lift up entire societies economically and politically.
It stands to reason that a national security establishment that speaks to women as well as men in the United States and around the world is a necessity, not an option.
As the female head of a nonprofit with "National Security" in its title, I see a flood of talented young women as interns, job-seekers, and colleagues. No one has told them they’re not supposed to like "hard security." They want to work on everything and climb the ladder as much as the men do. In fact, their confidence and assertiveness tends to unnerve my older male colleagues. The real question is, where do they go between the time they pour into the intern ranks at 22 and the time they are my peers and my mentors’ peers?
As Zenko notes, many more women find themselves in "soft power" policy areas. Does this happen because of something essentially feminine? No. About once every five years, starting in college, someone has told me that women "don’t like" hard security. Eventually, many women take the hint: If moving from defense to development buys you a more congenial workplace and bosses who seem to value you more, then it’s no wonder that the ranks of women in "hard security" dwindles along the way.
It’s worth noting the exceptions that prove the rule. High-profile women in national security tend to attract fantastic, and fantastically loyal, female staff. Where are the highest concentrations of women in national security right now? Around Clinton at the State Department and around Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michèle Flournoy at the Pentagon.
It’s easy to write, as Zenko does, that women suffer more from family balance pressures. He’s not wrong, but again, that’s not so much because women want to be doing more housework and less policy work: Household tasks are still not distributed evenly between the genders; neither are expectations. This doesn’t just affect women. An assistant secretary of defense I know has a stay-at-home husband; the comments they still get, in liberal Washington in the 21st century, are shocking.
Can women and men change this without out-and-out gender warfare? I’ll suggest three routes. One is to be willing to name it. Most of us Generation Xers and boomers are so conscious of how much better things have gotten in our lifetimes that we’re reluctant to complain. My mom couldn’t join the Foreign Service because women officers had to be single. When I was in college, my only female role model was U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Jeane Kirkpatrick. We’re also worried that complaining brands us as whiners or gender warriors. But perhaps, with Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann on our right flank and Clinton and Albright on our left, we ought to get over that.
Second, we must be honest that the core problem is that many men still turn first to other men — in hiring, but also in picking conference speakers, media spokespeople, and handing out assignments. If you don’t want to call it sexism, it is at least a bias toward comfort with what’s familiar. That habit is going to get us all in trouble in a globalizing, unfamiliar world, and it deserves to be challenged.
Last, one of the corollaries of the points above is that our best female national security professionals tend to be a little less visible than their male counterparts. It’s the job of everyone who pays lip service to the problem to change that. I can rattle off the names of two dozen kick-ass think-tank women in their 30s and 40s: Among them, they’ve taught hard power at Stanford University, National Defense University, and West Point; advised Rudy Giuliani, John McCain, Barack Obama, and both Clintons; faced down dictators; led development of the Pentagon’s green-energy policy; and founded think tanks before age 30.
They are liberals and conservatives, military and civilian, from old families and first-generation immigrants, from elite colleges and hardscrabble backgrounds. And that’s not counting the female war correspondents, who are made of steel, or the women veterans who’ve taught me invaluable lessons about courage, sacrifice, and grace under pressure. One of the best things about think-tank life is having these women as peers, mentors, rivals, and friends. If you’re in the business and can’t name a dozen women you’d put on TV, in charge of funding decisions, or at the negotiating table for the United States, I’d be happy to introduce you.