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US foreign policy's gender gap

US foreign policy needs greater diversity of skill and ideas, more women and a breakdown of economic barriers.

Last updated: 20 Mar 2014 01:32
Sarah Kendzior

Sarah Kendzior is a St Louis-based writer who studies politics and media.
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People talk about the glass ceiling for women, but it is really a glass box, writes Kendzior [AP]

The dearth of women in US foreign policy is a subject of continual interest, mostly because it never changes. According to a 2011 survey by policy analyst Micah Zenko, women make up less than 30 percent of senior positions in the government, military, academy, and think tanks.

As of 2008, 77 percent of international relations faculty and 74 percent of political scientists were men. In international relations literature, women are systematically cited less than men.

The majority of foreign policy bloggers and vast majority of op-ed writers - with estimates ranging from 80 to 90 percent - are men. When lists of intellectuals are made, women tend to appear in a second-round, outrage-borne draft. Female intellectuals gain prominence through tales of their exclusion. They are known for being forgotten.

People talk about the glass ceiling, but it is really a glass box. Everyone can see you struggling to move. There is an echo in the glass box as your voice fails to carry. You want to talk about it, but that runs the risk of making all people hear.

US foreign policy needs greater diversity of skill, ideas and experience. This means not only including more women, but working against the economic barriers that deter many talented young people - male and female - from entering the field.

Balancing career with motherhood

Before the summer of 2012, Anne-Marie Slaughter was best known as an international relations theorist and advisor to then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. She is now best known for detailing the difficulty of balancing her career with motherhood in her Atlantic cover story "Why Women Still Can't Have It All".

The essay describes Slaughter's decision to resign her State Department post for her job at Princeton, which allowed her more time with her children, and argues that the inability of women to rise to power has less to do with a lack of ambition than a lack of structural support. It is the most-shared article in the Atlantic's history.

Obviously the success of the article does not diminish Slaughter's achievements in international relations. But younger women in the field could likely not publish such a personal piece and remain respected. The most radical thing about Slaughter's article is that she wrote it at all.

Slaughter, the all-star, took one for the team (although who the team is, given Slaughter's elite circles, remains up for debate.)This was possible because her accomplishments already trumped her gender in terms of public reputation, if not in private reality. She was seen as a person, so she could afford to be seen as a woman.

Slaughter's article resonated with many younger women trying to succeed in competitive fields. But her own field, international relations, remains one of the most lopsided. Year after year, the imbalance is decried.

What accounts for women's exclusion? There are two problems.

The first is perception, which translates into respect. The second is money, which translates into opportunity. The first problem is a gender problem (and a race problem). But the second problem is shared by everyone - or almost everyone. It is the "almost" that is itself the problem.       

 A self-selecting community  

The foreign policy community is suffering from what national security fellow Faris Alikhan calls "credential creep". Credential creep, he writes, is the stockpiling of prestigious degrees and experiences to differentiate oneself from the increasingly esteemed competition. But these accolades come at a price too high for the average person to pay.

An MA can run a person tens of thousands into debt, and the expectation of unpaid labour - whether in internships, fellowships or publishing - limits participation. Cities of power like DC have become unaffordable for most people. As a result, Alikhan argues, the US foreign policy community is looking a lot like the Song dynasty.

"The next generation of foreign policy leaders is socialised in a hyper-competitive bubble, while voices from lower-income and minority groups are seldom heard since they can't afford to compete," he writes. "In essence, those who aspire to affect one of the most important aspects of our nation - our relationship to the rest of the world - are part of a self-selecting community of those whose families are wealthy enough for them to develop credentials and connections."

Money, not gender, is the biggest barrier to a career in international relations, or any prestigeindustry. It eliminates the bulk of the talent pool from the start. Building a career in policy often means not only living on little income, but paying your way around the world.

Money, not gender, is the biggest barrier to a career in international relations, or any prestige industry. It eliminates the bulk of the talent pool from the start. Building a career in policy often means not only living on little income, but paying your way around the world.

Nowadays, candidates for internships at the Economist must be able to fly to London merely to interview. Interning at the United Nations means relocating temporarily, unpaid, to expensive cities. Foreign policy was always an elite profession, but the cost of entry has skyrocketed.

There are ways around this. Writing, for example, is an inexpensive way to get out your ideas and build a reputation. But here a woman runs into the second problem: Perception.

List of indignities

Every woman working in an intellectual field has her list of indignities. Mine include being called a "mom blogger" by USA Today, despite having never written about my children; having questions about my research directed to the male scholars sitting next to me at conferences; and the constant assumption that I study "women from Central Asia". (I reply that I study people from Central Asia, and then awkwardly explain that women fall into this category.)

Hiding behind a computer screen seems an effective way to dodge gender bias. Sometimes the reader bypasses your byline and accidentally respects you, culminating in an email of praise. 

But other times you find what political scientist Charli Carpenter described, in the midst of a blogging controversy, as a "power dynamic to engage in actual, deliberate, blatant, sexist, sexualised, public disparagement of me and other female scholars and public intellectuals over the years as a way of dismissing our ideas when we dare to make a mistake or are simply politically unpopular".

On the internet, everyone knows you are a woman.

The online atmosphere Carpenter depicts has been commented upon by many female writers, but endured quietly by more. To discuss how you are negatively perceived forces people to see you though your detractor's eyes. To discuss sexism is to invite pity, to be reduced, even in support, to something less than what you are. When you work in the realm of ideas and trade in the currency of respect, this is a tough balance to pull off - and it goes hand in hand with the tough balance Slaughter describes of career and family.

Parents of both genders are discriminated against in any field that requires unpaid work, inflexible hours and frequent travel. But it is a simple truth that mothers bear these burdens more. They pay the highest financial toll, turning down opportunities as the cost of childcare soars and salaries stagnate. They also endure a greater stigma for discussing it.

In the glass box, a statement of fact sounds like a complaint. In a tough job market, a complaint can be a career killer. Discussing gender bias can be mistaken as a plea for tokenism. It seems safer to downplay structural problems - and the subjective subtleties of discrimination - for a more uplifting take.

Breaking down barriers

What results is an argument that women bring something special to foreign affairs that necessitates their inclusion - not as people, but as women. Arguing that women should be hired because, well, that seems fair, lacks the imperative force needed to undermine gender hierarchies and economic structures. Instead, the grounds for exclusion are marketed as virtue.

Countless think tanks have issued statements like this from The National Democracy Institute: "Democracy cannot truly deliver for all of its citizens if half of the population remains underrepresented in the political arena."

This argument has been refuted, both with countries (dictatorial Belarus, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan have the highest representation of women in parliament) and with people (Thatcher, Palin). But in the end, it does not matter whether you believe that being female makes you particularly diplomatic, or empathetic, or kind.

It matters whether you believe women are as capable of the job as men, whether you believe capable women deserve the job as much as capable men, and whether you act on this belief or let the ratio rest.

US foreign policy needs greater diversity of skill, ideas and experience. This means not only including more women, but working against the economic barriers that deter many talented young people - male and female - from entering the field.

If you need convincing that foreign policy needs new blood, look at the state of the world around you. The strongest argument against the status quo is the status quo itself.

Sarah Kendzior is a St Louis-based writer who studies politics and media.

1989

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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