Leaning From Behind
The troubling lack of women in the world of foreign-policy making and media.
In February, National Security Advisor Susan Rice appeared on ABC’s The View, as part of the publicity campaign for the Obama administration’s second and final national security strategy. One of the hosts, Stacy London, told Rice she has “great skin, I have to say. Just great skin.” This may sound familiar as it mirrors a similar observation of Condoleezza Rice, then-national security advisor, in December 2000. A New York Times profile read: “The reason her dress size is between a 6 and an 8, she said, is because of ‘muscle mass.’” Rice was later asked about her dress size during a 2005 USA Today interview: “I’ve got to ask you this. I’ve got to put this on the record. And that is you are a size 6 in designer clothes. Yes?”
I can’t imagine anyone ever asked Tom Donilon or Sandy Berger about their beauty secrets or waistline. These sorts of gender-exclusive comments and questions on size, hairstyle, and fashion reinforce perceptions of women in the foreign policy and national security worlds. They are insulting in their own right, but also prolong conscious and unconscious biases against women and their access and empowerment in these fields. From the most senior officials down to congressional interns, women remain underrepresented in Washington and are far too often confronted by sexist environments. Enhancing the role of women and other underrepresented minority groups requires decision-makers and gatekeepers in Washington — from government agencies, to think tanks, to media outlets — to ensure far greater women’s participation in policy debates, development, and implementation and to actively combat the enduring sexism and biases that women face.
Women, by the numbers
Women comprise half of the U.S. population, but make up far less than half of the leaders in relevant government agencies. For diplomacy and development, this includes 30 percent of State Department senior officials and 35 percent of USAID mission directors. Within the military, women make up 17 percent of active duty officers — unchanged for at least four years — 20 percent of those whom the Pentagon considers senior officials, and four of 37 four-star generals and admirals, though this number is skewed by the Air Force alone, which accounts for three out of the four.
Walking around Capitol Hill, you’ll see a large presence of women, but they are not endowed with the same authorities and responsibilities as men. Women in fact outnumber men as staff assistants at 55 percent. But it’s a different story as you rise the ranks. Among chiefs of staff, the top-ranking senior staff position, women only account for 33 percent in the House and 27 percent in the Senate. In elected positions, women represent 19 percent of House members and 20 percent of senators. Of the 10 important oversight committees for foreign policy and national security — Senate and House armed services, foreign relations, homeland security, intelligence, and appropriations committees — not one is chaired by a woman.
By default, women are often linked to “soft power” matters or considered “experts” only in gender issues. This can be beneficial for garnering attention to these relatively underexplored topics. However, when it is for the wrong reasons — simply because of gender — their expertise in other subject areas is often ignored or questioned, and reflects inherent biases in the foreign-policy world. In 2011, Anne-Marie Slaughter remarked on the double standard applied to Hillary Clinton, Susan Rice, and Samantha Power when they strayed from their female “expertise” during the intervention in Libya: “We were dismissed for months as soft liberals concerned about ‘peripheral’ development issues like women and girls, and now we’re Amazonian Valkyrie warmongers. Please.” More recently, after it was publicized that the Clinton Foundation accepted money from Saudi Arabia, Sen. Rand Paul remarked, “I would expect Hillary Clinton if she believes in women’s rights, she should be calling for a boycott of Saudi Arabia.” Shockingly, most women do not have gender issues at the top of their agenda, and many are even realists.
Benchmarks for women in senior government roles matter greatly, but the strongest influence on the public’s mindset is the media and the faces Americans see on the news or names they read in newspapers. Elmira Bayrasli, co-founder of Foreign Policy Interrupted and author of From the Other Side of the World: Extraordinary Entrepreneurs, Unlikely Places, noted that although some critics argue that think tanks make no impact on policymaking, those “thinkers” are often the ones seen on talk shows, criticizing policymakers and feeding public opinion. (Full disclosure: Both authors and Foreign Policy staff have supported or attended FPI events and initiatives.)
Data gathered from publicly available sources — on what we subjectively considered the top U.S. think tanks working on foreign-policy issues four years ago — reveals that women now comprise 24 percent of people working in policy-related positions and 33 percent of total leadership staff. The prevalence of women in these nine think tanks has increased by less than 1 percent annually in the past four years.
For this analysis, “policy-related” positions were classified as leadership roles (directors, presidents, and fellows) within departments focused on foreign policy, and “total leadership staff” included senior positions in non-policy roles such as human resources, development, and communications, which play an essential role in developing and implementing think tank programs.
Not surprisingly, those “thinkers” who appear on television are overwhelmingly male. In 2014, men made up 75 percent of all guests and 87 percent of solo interviews on the top five Sunday morning political talk shows — ABC’s This Week, CBS’s Face the Nation, Fox’s Fox News Sunday, NBC’s Meet the Press, and CNN’s State of the Union. The OpEd Project, a program working to bridge the gap between women and the media, found in 2011 that less than 25 percent of voices in four major newspapers are women — 22 percent in the New York Times, 19 percent in the Washington Post, 17 percent in the Wall Street Journal, and 24 percent in the Los Angeles Times.
A partial reason for the lack of female representation rests with media schedulers and editors. Only three of the top U.S. daily newspapers had female top editors in 2014, down from seven in 2004. Just as shocking, the percentage of journalists who are women increased less than 1 percent between 1998 and 2013 to 37 percent, and the wage gap between male and female journalists is almost $10,000. As Bayrasli explained to us last year, one of the reasons that she and fellow journalist Lauren Bohn were motivated to create FPI was that producers and editors have busy, high-pressure jobs that cause them to resort to what they know. “In their rolodexes right now is a long list of male analysts and male foreign policy experts.”
Why does it matter?
First, the foreign-policy and national security communities are missing out on a wealth of expertise that could provide alternative thinking and policy options. In 2012, Harvard Business School professor Amy C. Edmondson published a book on her concept of “teaming” — coordinating and collaborating without a static team structure to drive organizational learning and change. She notes that “the value of teaming is that different experts bring different knowledge and skills.” Unfortunately, in foreign-policy and national security debates — ranging from coalition meetings on military operations against the Islamic State, to congressional hearings on national security, to this year’s Aspen Security Forum — women are often excluded or underrepresented, as are minority groups. This severely limits the diversity of information and alternative thinking that goes into critical decision-making.
The inclusion of women is proven to have enormous benefits for national security and foreign policy. The International Peace Institute found that women’s participation in peace negotiations, whether holding seats at the negotiating table or as political leaders, benefits the longevity of a peace agreement, making it 20 percent more likely to last at least two years and 35 percent more likely to last 15. This is particularly relevant for the United States, which will have spent an estimated $4-6 trillion on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and is engaged in a $9.9 million per-day open-ended air war against the Islamic State. Other studies have found that a higher number of women in senior government positions is correlated with lower levels of corruption and economic competitiveness of a country.
Second, unconscious biases not only perpetuate negative perceptions of female leaders, but actually have damaging effects on their reputations. If you even passively follow politics, you know that from the moment Hillary Clinton entered the political sphere, the topic of her hair has been covered in countless articles and interviews, and even used against her by political opponents. After being named by ABC’s Barbara Walters as one of the 10 most fascinating people of 2012, Clinton was told by Walters: “People said to me, ‘You’re interviewing the secretary of state?’ I said, ‘Yes, what should I ask her?’ ‘Ask her about her hair.’” The media belabored on the topic so much that Clinton mentioned in her book Hard Choices that her favorite alternative title solicited from Washington Post readers was The Scrunchie Chronicles: 112 Countries and It’s Still All About My Hair.
For female politicians, this type of media commentary on appearance, even when it is considered a “compliment,” causes their supporters to lose confidence. From Victoria Woodhull’s presidential campaign in 1872 to Clinton’s in 2008, all nine female candidates consistently faced four times the amount of appearance-based coverage than males. For example, during a 2007 Democratic primary presidential debate, former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) remarked to 2.6 million viewers, “I admire what Sen. Clinton has done for America…. I’m not sure about that coat.”
Third, men simply do not receive the same comments and are less frequently second-guessed, which Bayrasli says also damages public perceptions of women. Of course, Donald Trump and his hair are an exception, but he also is responsible for innumerable brazen sexist comments. Carly Fiorina, former Hewlett-Packard CEO and now presidential candidate, was a recent target. During a campaign rally, Trump said of Fiorina, “I can’t say anything to her because she’s a woman.” He later suggested that her “looks” could determine whether she should be president: “Look at that face! Would anyone vote for that? Can you imagine that, the face of our next president?!” With Clinton back in the presidential run, opposing Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders recently acknowledged that men do not face equivalent gender-based attacks. On Aug. 9, he commented on CBS’s Face the Nation, “I can’t think of many personalities who have been attacked for more reasons than Hillary Clinton. And, by the way, let me be frank — and I’m running against her: Some of it is sexist. I don’t know that a man would be treated the same way that Hillary is.”
Fourth, these biases are not just restrained to political officials and think tank experts, but perpetuate more broadly in American culture. After the first female fighter pilot from the United Arab Emirates, Mariam al-Mansouri, conducted airstrikes against the Islamic State in Syria on Sept. 22 — a milestone for women in the UAE that should have been lauded — a discussion on Fox News did not get beyond sexist jokes. Greg Gutfeld responded, “The problem is, she just bombed it. She couldn’t park it,” and Eric Bolling commented brashly, “Would that be considered boobs on the ground or no?”
Importantly, these biases, whether conscious or not, lie not just with men. This was evident when Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) stated on CNN’s State of the Union last month, “Hillary is someone who has said, you know, I don’t drive myself. How long has it been, when you talk about the modern world, can she multitask? Does she buy her groceries? Does she cook her meals? Does she get herself from point A to point B like moms and modern American women do? And of course the answer to that is no. She doesn’t.” Of course, a similar observation would never be made about a male presidential candidate. Combatting biases will require women to be just as conscious and proactive as men.
What can we do about it?
It is impossible to enhance and elevate the role of women around the world, if women are not fully represented and supported in the foreign-policy making process in Washington. So how do you combat biases equally present in the government, policy think tanks, and media that affect the perception of women in national security and foreign policy?
As the frequent public voices of expertise, senior administrators at think tanks can make it a priority to increase the percentage of female experts to 50 percent, which Bayrasli suggests is feasible at a rate of 5 percent per year (though, we wouldn’t object to higher). One positive movement in this direction has been the creation of, albeit small to date, “women and foreign policy” programs at several think tanks, plus the sustained convening power of groups like Women in International Security and Women’s Foreign Policy Group. Male “thinkers” in particular are empowered to influence change by refusing to speak on all-male panels, such as the FP Group’s editor and CEO, David Rothkopf, has done, or responding to media or speaking requests with suggestions for alternative female experts. (For binders of such female experts, see: FPI’s Interruptor Series, the Institute for Inclusive Security’s list of women peace experts, and SheSource, a project of the Women’s Media Center.)
Finally, one of the vital proponents must be the media. This includes producers and schedulers who choose experts to feature on television shows, editors who solicit authors for op-eds, and show hosts and commentators who are charged with directing the conversation — all of which influences how Americans perceive women in foreign policy. Countering unconscious biases requires shaming media commentators and networks, political officials, and business leaders for making sexist remarks or failing to reprimand them. For example, after the comment mentioned above regarding Clinton, CNN’s Donna Brazile had an opportunity to actively ignore Rep. Blackburn’s misguided lament of whether Clinton was a “mom” and a “modern American woman.” Instead, Brazile dwelled on it: “I mean does she change her granddaughter’s diaper? Absolutely. Does she comb her hair, get up in the morning, and do all the other things?”
Comments on women’s appearances and stereotypes of women’s expected domestic roles do nothing more than perpetuate and cement unconscious biases and, often inadvertently, damage female leaders’ reputations. If you are part of the Washington-centered foreign-policy and national security-making process and you witness such negative gender-specific comments, denounce them. And for media gatekeepers and commentators, avoid such topics entirely or refocus the conversation to what matters — foreign-policy expertise and ideas.
JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
Micah Zenko is the co-author of Clear and Present Safety: The World Has Never Been Better and Why That Matters to Americans.