Friday 20 Jul 2018 | 01:19 | SYDNEY
Friday 20 Jul 2018 | 01:19 | SYDNEY

Reader riposte: Women in international relations


Sam Roggeveen


This post is part of the Women in international relations debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

22 May 2009 13:17

This post is part of the Women in international relations debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

Amy King writes (my response follows):

Many thanks for encouraging the ongoing debate about gender imbalance with the international security blogosphere, and international relations generally.

I agree that 'positive discrimination' in the form of nicely-worded invitations to female contributors can appear patronising, and wholeheartedly agree that more women should take it upon themselves to contribute to the public debate. However, I take issue with the two explanations you have provided for the gender imbalance in international relations.

First, where is the evidence that 'relatively few women are interested in what Susan calls "hard" international relations issues, so they don't enter the field'? While any precise measure might be difficult to come by, a quick measure might be the number of young women entering international relations degrees, applying for positions with DFAT and Defence, or applying for jobs at the Lowy Institute. Do we see an imbalance here? In my own experience as an undergraduate student, think-tank staffer, and now graduate student, I have encountered equal numbers of women and men who are interested in 'hard' fields such as international trade, defence, national security, diplomacy and the like.

Second, you suggest that more women than men interrupt their careers to care for children. That is true, and decades of lobbying for equal pay, anti-sex discrimination laws, and affirmative action have not shifted this imbalance across many fields. But this does not explain the particularly high gender imbalance in international relations. Is there something particular to this field that acts as a greater barrier to women?

My own view is that women are no less interested in pursuing careers in international relations, whether they be academic or policy-related. However, young women see very few models of successful women in the field. Role models are important, if only because young students, graduates and workers tend to look to more senior members of their fields to understand how they got from A to B. For even the most motivated young woman, it is disheartening to discover that IR think tanks, universities and government departments are heavily staffed by men, while the majority of secretaries and support staff are female.

This pattern has become so normal that it is not questioned until a female blogger writes in to ask 'where are all the women'? Maybe affirmative action in international relations is an unnecessary step, but I call on men and women currently in the field to occasionally pause and ask whether the gender imbalance is an acceptable one.

That's a thoughtful contribution, Amy, and I'm especially pleased you introduced the need for evidence. As it happens, I did pursue this with a contact in the tertiary education sector yesterday, who tells me there are no Australian statistics available that break down enrolments in international relations courses by gender. However, I was told that the women vastly outnumber men in Arts degrees generally, which may mean that women are in the majority in IR as well.

Also on the question of evidence, I would be interested to know more about Amy's claim that there is a 'particularly high' gender imbalance in international relations. Compared to what?

Amy's closing comment about role models goes beyond what any statistical study can tell us. I frankly admit that I had never considered the question from that angle before.