Why Are Women So Poorly Represented in Foreign Policy?

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Six women discuss the gender imbalance in U.S. foreign policy and national security work.

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Obama meets with the national security team on Iraq in the Situation Room of the White House in Washington / Reuters

Having worked at a number of institutions over the past fifteen years, I have long been struck by the proportional underrepresentation of women in U.S. foreign policy and national security positions. In an attempt to understand the scope and extent of this gender gap, I wrote a piece that examined the best available data for the government, military, academy, and think tanks. With few exceptions, I found that women make up less than 30 percent of senior positions across these institutions.

Since then, I have received an outpouring of feedback and have been fortunate to speak with a number of people on this issue, which nearly everyone recognizes as a persistent problem but is reluctant to address directly.

The Obama administration has strongly embraced and promoted women's rights and issues in other countries as part of the U.S. National Action Plan on Women, Peace, and Security. In a speech in December 2011, Secretary Clinton argued for the inclusion and mobilization of women abroad as critical to U.S. national interests, because "they raise issues like human rights, citizen security, justice, employment, health care" and "speak on behalf of other marginalized groups and across cultural and sectarian divides." It is reasonable to assume that, for these very same reasons, increased participation of women at home would only strengthen the foreign policy community and enhance the U.S. role in global affairs.

To commemorate International Women's Day, and in the hopes of provoking a broader conversation by bringing attention to this neglected issue, I asked several women of different backgrounds and varying levels of experience to address this question:

Women are significantly underrepresented in foreign policy and national security positions in government, academia, and think tanks. Why do you think this is the case?

Isobel Coleman, Senior Fellow and Director of the Civil Society, Markets, and Democracy Initiative; Director of the Women and Foreign Policy Program at the Council on Foreign Relations

There is no single answer to this tough question.  It partly stems from the reality that women typically still have more family responsibilities than men. Pressured by raising children and caring for aging parents, fewer women stay in the pipeline to make it to senior positions. It's also partly due to the staying power of the "old boy network." In the foreign policy world, who you know can trump what you know. Getting invited to speak on this panel, or attend that meeting, or serve on that committee - these decisions reflect one's network as much as anything, and they are self-reinforcing. I also think it has to do with what men and women deem important and find interesting. When I host meetings on global development at the Council on Foreign Relations, the list of speakers and invitees skews towards women--women seem to be running the big NGOs and filling many of the senior jobs in global development. Why? Perhaps that's where their interests lie, or perhaps the "harder" security fields are simply less welcoming to women. I suspect a bit of the latter, which is a loss all around.

Lisa Curtis is a Senior Research Fellow at the Heritage Foundation

While women may still be underrepresented in national security and foreign policy positions, they have made tremendous strides since I started my career nearly twenty years ago. At that time, there were few female role models in top national security positions and only a limited number of women around the table discussing critical foreign policy issues.

The continuing progress in creating opportunities for women in leadership positions in national security has occurred under democratic and republican administrations alike. The appointment of the first female U.S. Secretary of State (Madeleine K. Albright) in 1997 was a particularly inspiring moment for women of my generation. President Ronald Reagan had helped set the stage for women in foreign policy fifteen years earlier when he appointed Ambassador Jeane J. Kirkpatrick as the U.S. Representative to the United Nations. In the last seven years alone, women have held the posts of Secretary of State (twice), Secretary of Homeland Security, and USAID Administrator, as well as numerous other senior-level positions at State, Defense, and the NSC, testifying to the continuing achievements women are making.

The key to continuing this upward trend is mentoring and training. Younger women need to learn how other experienced women have navigated their own professional advancement and managed to balance career goals with family commitments.

With an increasingly globalized and complex world demanding creative and varied solutions, there will be more and more opportunities and indeed--requirements--for women to sit at the foreign policy decision-making table.

Tressa Gipe Guenov, Professional Staff Member/Designee to Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence

As in broader society, the national security field tends to place unrealistic pressures on working mothers and women in top leadership positions. Masculine leadership traits are still the de facto standard of excellence. Women are expected to achieve perfection in the undefined space of "work-life balance." Some men and, yes, even some women are complicit in perpetuating these attitudes, usually unintentionally, but it can have real-world, negative effects on opportunities for women. Women helping women is a key remedy to this problem. Whether it is women encouraging others to lead a meeting or apply for a top job, mentorship and advocacy amongst women is powerful and necessary. There still isn't enough of it to go around in Washington, unfortunately.

It sounds mundane, but I also think a significant problem remains the lack of administrative infrastructure to enable women to pursue high-level careers while building a family, if they so choose. Senior managers are slowly getting used to this idea and are adjusting leave policies, expanding part-time options and widening the aperture of what a successful national security career path can look like (think Michele Flournoy or Wendy Sherman). I have personally benefitted from these changes, for which I am grateful, but progress is still tenuous and uneven across the national security establishment and must not be taken for granted.

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Micah Zenko is a Fellow in the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations, and author of Between Threats and War: U.S. Discrete Military Operations in the Post-Cold War World. He writes regularly at Politics, Power, and Preventative Action.

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