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An eye-opening study of the boys club that still runs US foreign policy

Posted by Alan Wirzbicki  July 20, 2011 01:05 PM

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After taking on a column at the Globe, I found myself on the receiving end of a flurry of daily emails from national security and foreign policy think tanks about issues ranging from Brazil to the Afghan war. They are generally helpful, if only to get a handle on all the literature out there — but few take on a rock-star status.

That changed last week when a former colleague of mine at the Kennedy School of Government, Micah Zenko, wrote about the dearth of women in the foreign policy establishment in a blog post for Foreign Policy titled “City of Men” that’s created a huge stir. Examining the role of women in influential policy think tanks that focus on foreign affairs, here is what he found:

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)... 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]."
Zenko then goes on to analyze why there are still so few women, positing that older men tend to nurture younger men, the work/life balance with young kids and international travel can be difficult, and that women are often steered towards “soft(er) power” issues like human rights, leaving the hard power stuff to the boys. The flurry of discussions online and on Twitter is like nothing I have seen before. In one strong response, Heather Hurlburt, head of the National Security Network, takes Zenko’s analysis a step further, outlining how the nation suffers from the gender gap.

Whatever the reason for this discrepancy, Zenko has opened a needed dialogue. We had elevated a few high-profile women in our minds to believe that the gender barriers had been broken. But Hillary Clinton and Susan Rice do not make an establishment. (When I went to the meetings at the State Department, I was always struck with how many women there were. In hindsight, it may have only seemed that way compared to where I worked, the Department of Homeland Security, which also has a female-loaded leadership — Secretary Janet Napolitano and Deputy Secretary Jane Lutt — but is heavily male after that). And Zenko made it clear that the arenas where future Susan Rices are cultivated — think tanks and academia — are still weighted in favor of the boys. In addition, it is those think tanks and universities where media finds their “talking heads” and other commentators.

Any woman in the foreign policy realm knew this to be true. We had our rock stars — Hillary first among them — but the numbers Zenko compiled don’t lie. I can’t tell you how many people told me when I took my column that I should focus on human rights issues. It was a form of steering, and I didn’t even grasp it at the time. (For the record, it isn’t that I’m opposed to human rights issues — it’s just that its not exactly part of my professional interest.)

The lack of women at think tanks even means there are fewer around to study the lack of women in think tanks. Maybe that’s why it took a guy to tell us.

File photo: Only two women are present in the iconic photo of President Obama and his top foreign policy advisers receiving an update during the raid that killed Osama bin Laden May 1.

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ABOUT THE ANGLE Online commentary and news analysis from the Boston Globe. The Angle is produced by Rob Anderson and Alan Wirzbicki. You can follow Rob on Twitter at @rcand.

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