Thursday 19 Jul 2018 | 19:39 | SYDNEY
Thursday 19 Jul 2018 | 19:39 | SYDNEY

Women in IR: Poor visibility, whose fault?

This post is part of the Women and the foreign policy commentariat debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

2 September 2011 10:42

This post is part of the Women and the foreign policy commentariat debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

Alex Della Rocchetta and Julissa Milligan work on foreign and defense policy issues at the American Enterprise Institute.

This July, a flurry of articles — DC: City of Men, Still a Man's World? Foggy Bottom's Bohemian Grove, and The Feminine Realpolitik — sparked a discussion as to why men still dominate the upper echelons of the US foreign policy community. An impassioned discussion ensued; academics, practitioners, and journalists dished out heated opinions on Twitter, the blogosphere, and in our own think tank community, all attempting to explain this not-so-novel phenomenon.

In the latest posting on the subject, Rodger Shanahan provides his two cents. He observes that women are proportionately under-represented as public speakers, and argues that this may be because females prefer private, personal communication to public comment. Shanahan suggests that his own experience (receiving private emails rather than public comment in response to a blog post) supports the theory. After receiving some angry emails accusing him of being sexist, he reaffirmed his belief in women's intelligence and competence and reposes the original question: why are women less visible in foreign policy?

We take issue with Rodger's original post for two reasons. First of all, his argument narrowly defines visibility so as to exclude written work, the main currency in the IR field. Secondly, by suggesting that women prefer private to public comment, he places the blame for women's proportionately fewer public speaking engagements squarely on their own shoulders. This type of reasoning may perpetuate the stereotypes he is seeking to address.

Within the academic and public policy sector, writing on an issue can be as influential, if not more, than speaking on it. In fact, written work is often more widely disseminated, reaching a broader audience and influencing the general public for a longer period of time.

It is puzzling that Shanahan does not consider writing as a form of public commentary. As researchers in the foreign-policy think-tank world, each time we author a piece, our work is pushed into the public realm for scrutiny. The people reading our pieces are PhDs, experts in the field, or journalists whose contextual background is deep and varied. Blogs and op-eds, cached online and searchable for years to come, are perpetually open to criticism and discussion and influence the thoughts of the policymakers and the general public.

In Washington's corridors of power, most speaking invitations in the think tank world are awarded to experts on the basis of the quality of their written work. 

Shanahan's use of anecdotal evidence is understandable but dangerous. He relies on his personal observations to substantiate the assumption that women are less inclined to speak publicly. For women in academic and international public policy, this idea could be incredibly damaging. Jobs in academia and in public policy require boldness and openness to public debate. And if women are 'less prone' to doing this, then they are poorer candidates for grad school, think tank and academic positions, or public policy jobs, which routinely require these skills.

However, numerous articles do point out, as Shanahan notes, that women are under-represented in speaking engagements, even with respect to their proportional representation in the field. If women are writing and publishing as much as men, but are sought after less for public speaking engagements, what gives? One factor, Patricia Kushlis suggest, is 'unconscious cronyism'. Heather Hurlburt expounds:

...we must be honest that the core problem is that many men still turn first to other men -- in hiring, but also in picking conference speakers, media spokespeople, and handing out assignments. If you don't want to call it sexism, it is at least a bias toward comfort with what's familiar.

The articles and responses generated by Micah Zenko's City of Men suggest that a wide variety of factors contribute women's poor representation in foreign policy overall. In two additional posts, Zenko summarizes these responses: unconscious favoritism towards other men, inadequate maternity leave, family pressures, a subtle pressure for women to study 'soft power' issues and women's general lack of interest in military/security studies (apparently, we are an exception to the rule, having both published on hard power issues recently) as core problems.

While Shanahan raises an important point on women's underrepresentation in foreign policy, to blame the lack of public female faces on women's preference towards private rather than public discussion reinforces the notion that women weren't cut out for foreign policy. Instead, public discussion should consider patterns which keep women out of the corridors of power. In the meantime, women may need to be even more proactive about seeking out public speaking engagements.

Photo by Flickr user US Army Korea.