Foreigners to Foreign Policy: It’s Not a Woman’s World

Foreign Affairs & Security
Saturday, November 12, 2011
Elizabeth Elfman

When journalist Micah Zenko attended a conference on U.S. foreign policy, he was surprised by the lack of women in the room. And being the journalist he is, he decided to research the facts on females in foreign policy. The results? So striking that he turned them into the essay City of Men, which was then published in Foreign Policy.

So what are these facts? Women make up only 21% of the policy-related positions in America, and only 29% of leadership positions (directors, presidents, or fellows) in the field. When we sat down with Zenko, he put it simply: “Women make up 51% of the population, but represent less than a quarter of foreign policy positions.”

Historically, when they enter foreign policy at all, the experts we spoke with observed that women have tended to go into the “soft” power regions of policy—areas that focus on using economic and cultural influence over military strategy. A lack of familiarity with military terminology and hard power procedures, and a tradition of a highly male-dominated military body have served as a barrier to potential females looking to gain expertise in foreign policy.

Nora Bensahel, Senior Fellow at Center for a New American Security (CNAS) has seen this separation in the field first-hand. Security is one of the “hard” fields, where there tend to be far fewer women. But this isn’t good. Bensahel writes, “Today’s security challenges are enormously complicated. You want to access the talent of 50% of your population to make good strong decisions. It’s not because they have a better perspective, but that you can’t exclude 50% of the population in confronting incredibly difficult questions.”

Pat Kushlis spent 27 years in public diplomacy, including several years as a foreign service officer. Long hours, arduous tasks, and a slow promotional process all contribute to career burn-out for women. And beyond that, she says, “there’s the festering resentment from the the old-boys-club-mentality—namely, men who believe they are being discriminated against in favor of ‘less qualified’ women (whether true or not). As hiring and promotion opportunities shrink due to federal budget cuts, then gender backlash will likely intensify. It certainly did during the 1990s.”

That’s not to say there aren’t any successful women in foreign policy. Some women have navigated these obstacles by turning them around in their favor—Laurie Garrett, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), among them. Garrett started her career as a science journalist. She says, “I was often treated as if I were of an inferior intellect. I used it to my advantage by letting these guys say really dumb things…and then hitting them with the zinger questions that I could write in pieces.”

Garrett didn’t let the inequalities deter her from pursuing her goals, but she still found the gender discrimination frustrating. “Even when I won a Pulitzer Prize and was finalist for national book award, at my newspaper there was no consideration of moving me up in to management,” she says. “By the time I got to CFR, I was engaged in foreign policy issues and running the global health program, and I had spent most of my adult life fighting for respect despite my gender.”

For role models in a better-balanced system, both Zenko and Kushlis suggest looking to Scandinavia for guidance. There, the numbers of female leaders in parliament, senior positions, cabinet positions, and corporations is much more closely aligned with population ratios. Kushlis points to Finland as a good example—a place where “there is emphasis on equality from the beginning.” Women and men stay home to care for their babies with generous leave from their jobs, both genders learn cooking, wordworking, and dewing in schools, and they compete as equals for university slots. She also notes that in Finland there are 10 men and 9 women serving in cabinet positions. And Sweden, similarly, has a balance of 12 men and 11 women.

Kushlis has studied the problem of gender inequality in State Department. She writes, “What appeared to me was that progress in gender equality at the Foreign Service’s senior levels most resembled that of treading water. For any real change to happen, there needs to be a major shift in mindset at State as well as basic modifications in or better yet scrapping the outdated Foreign Service Act of 1980. Nevertheless, nothing will improve without substantial pressure and sustained action by dedicated women in the foreign policy field willing to help others as well as themselves.”

Though experts are wary of the obstacles to change, most that we spoke with agreed that a glimmer of hope is on the horizon for female foreign policy aficionados. Bensahel says, “In male-dominated fields in general, its important to seek out people who mentor women well. I’ve been very impressed with the existence of informal networks for women in security. More senior women are great about looking out for young talented women, and helping them in their careers so they can make the best choices.” Bensahel’s mentor is Michel Flournoy, undersecretary of defense, who has made a consistent effort to increase female representation in the field.

For Laurie Garett, the circumstances in the field have changed since she began her career. She says that “a younger generation, women now in their 20s or 30s, should operate on the assumption that gender bias is off the wall, and is not to be accepted. That we’ve now had three female secretaries of state and one very serious female contender for president of the U.S. should say something. It’s time to throw this silly stuff out the window.” For 12 women in foreign policy to follow on Twitter, see Elizabeth's article here.