Only Women Can Stop the Apocalypse
Men make nuclear weapons more dangerous. So why do they still dominate the field?
Nearly three decades after the end of the Cold War, nuclear conflict remains the single greatest immediate threat to global security. The United States, Russia, China, France, the United Kingdom, India, Israel, Pakistan, and North Korea are currently nuclear-armed states, and Iran, Libya, and Syria have pursued nuclear activities at various times. The nine nuclear-weapons states possess roughly 15,000 nuclear warheads; even a single nuclear warhead deployed on a major city could take hundreds of thousands of lives in seconds. This week, the AP reports on a deep chill in U.S.-Russian relations that is raising concerns of a potential armed conflict.
Yet despite the paramount importance of solid and stable nuclear policy to U.S. and global safety, one clear avenue for improvement has been roundly neglected: Getting more women in the field. Research shows that, absent women’s full participation in nuclear issues, the potential for risk-taking behavior is higher, negotiated agreements are less likely to hold, and innovative ideas are left unheard.
A study by the Royal Society showed that men in simulated wargames scenarios are more likely to demonstrate overconfidence than women, pointing to the benefits of ensuring women are fully represented in high-level policy roles. The same study showed that overconfidence in high-stakes conflict scenarios is more likely to lead to a decision to attack a perceived enemy. Research from the peacekeeping field also tells us that bilateral nuclear deals as well as global commitments like the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons would be stronger with women’s participation: When civil society groups, including women’s organizations, participate in peace negotiations, agreements are 64 percent less likely to fail.
Yet women represent only about a quarter of delegates in international nonproliferation talks; research shows a 30 percent threshold that changes group dynamics enough to lead to better outcomes. And at the 2015 Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference, 33 countries sent delegations with no female delegates or advisors, including Iran, Iraq, Egypt, Libya, and Syria—states that are nuclear-armed or have pursued nuclear activities.
When the New America think tank interviewed 23 high-level U.S. female policymakers about their experiences in the nuclear field, they rejected the idea that women are more dovish and men more hawkish but reported that when women are present in policy discussions, collaboration was valued over competitiveness and innovation was more welcome. Research from the private sector supports New America’s findings: Gender diversity, when supported by gender-supportive norms and regulations within an industry, leads to better productivity and better exchange of diverse viewpoints.
Women have, in fact, played a role in nuclear security and policymaking dating back to the 1950s, when they were 20 percent of the CIA’s professional staff, according to New America. And some women are well known for their contributions, such as former Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, who was awarded the National Security Medal by former President Barack Obama for her leading work to reach an agreement that would limit Iran’s nuclear activities.
Nevertheless, women continue to hold relatively few leadership positions in U.S. policymaking in the nuclear field, as shown in a graphic that was researched and developed by New America. Between 1970 and 2019, only 11 of the 68 people who held leadership positions in the Department of State were women, with just five of 36 at the Department of Energy and five of 63 at the Department of Defense. Two of the 21 national security advisors in that period were women.
Women Holding Leadership Positions in U.S. Nuclear Policy (1970s-2019)
These disparities may stem in part from the fact that men have always dominated media narratives about the nuclear field, thus discouraging female participation and leadership. In a Fuller Project survey of 20 recent articles that include the word “nuclear” in the New York Times, only 8 percent of all the people mentioned as sources or subjects were women. In an article for Inkstick that went viral among the nuclear security community, Matt Korda wrote that the lack of diversity in the field also pushes out younger professionals: “Nuclear policy organizations are typically too white, too male-dominated, too elitist, and too reliant on stale thinking; class and socioeconomic distinctions are rarely acknowledged.”
Indisputably, women in nuclear policy face tremendous barriers, including lack of recognition. “There’s no shortage of women [in nuclear policy] … it’s fighting for the airspace to get included when there’s an interview to be done,” said Nancy Parrish, the executive director of Women’s Action for New Directions, an anti-nuclear activist organization that leverages women’s political power to advocate for peace.
Parrish leads the organization’s efforts on the U.S. No First Use campaign—with motions in 14 states to commit that the United States will not be the first to use nuclear weapons in the case of any international conflict—and its advocacy for other ways to curtail the Authorization for Use of Military Force passed after 9/11. The authorization gives the U.S. president power to use military force and even deploy nuclear weapons in the context of 9/11-related conflicts, without congressional approval.
Women have played a noted leading role in global peace movements, including protests against the use of nuclear weapons—for example, Dagmar Wilson, who mobilized half a million American women against nuclear testing in 1961 after radioactive isotopes were found in milk. Women have good reasons to mobilize: Bodies with uteruses and breasts are more susceptible to harmful radiation that affects survivors of nuclear attacks, according to the United Nations. And international security threats are often used as a political means to suppress human rights, including women’s rights.
Thanks to the Gender Champions in Nuclear Policy initiative, signed on to by over a dozen leading institutions working on nuclear security, conveners in the nuclear space have taken pledges against “manels,” the too-frequent panels of all men talking about policy in Washington. At the Carnegie International Nuclear Policy Conference last month, just over 50 percent of expert speakers were women. This matters, according to women in the field, because opportunity stems from visibility. A growing number of male experts make their participation in panels contingent on gender diversity.
Think tanks also need to examine their practices with an eye toward more recruitment and promotion of female leadership. A scorecard published by Women in International Security in 2018 found that 73 percent of experts in Washington think tanks are male, 78 percent of think tank governing board members are male, and only one of the 22 surveyed institutions has significant gender-related programming. Some women report that gender bias is particularly strong in think tanks, as compared to government institutions such as the Pentagon, because workplace effectiveness is more subjective. Systemic gender bias in university science departments is well documented, and it demands gender bias training and a review of hiring processes and criteria to ensure objectivity.
Journalists need to examine their practices when reporting on nuclear security, too. Gender bias is rife in journalism. When male political journalists in D.C. reply to fellow journalists on Twitter, 91.5 percent of the time they interact with fellow male journalists, according to a study by the University of Illinois. Journalists under the pressure of a tight deadline are more likely to turn to a known expert source, and that source is more often a man. Some news outlets now track how many of their sources are women—that simple action creates an incentive for journalists to get to more diverse sources.
All of these changes are justified as a matter of social justice—but also much more. Nuclear security is the field with the highest stakes of all. The world can’t afford to push innovation and talent out.