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An Anthropologist’s Study of Washington Think Tanks and Gender Imbalance

If there is anything I learned from studying this community over the past year, it is that there is a tremendous pool of talented and diverse women who can readily succeed in this foreign policy community if given the right opportunities, platforms, and support.

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Negar Razavi is a doctoral candidate in anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania, where she focuses on issues of state power, national security, experts, human rights, and gender, and a global fellow at PS21. She tweets at @razaraz.

Snapshot I:

“Are there any young ladies who want to ask a question?” the moderator of the all-male panel asks proudly. He then looks eagerly at the thirty or so women (including me) who make up the majority of attendees at this particular think tank event. Most of us squirm in our seats uncomfortably and a few of us exchange side glances at one another. None of us raises our hands.

“I was told I need to call on some young ladies today,” he says a bit more forcefully this time. After a few moments of tense silence, an older woman in the back raises her hand and asks a question. The moderator seems satisfied. He doesn’t call on another woman again for the rest of the event.

Snapshot II:

A middle-aged man approaches a young woman standing outside the room where a policy event is set to take place. She is checking her smartphone. “Can you tell me where the restrooms are, miss?” the gentleman asks. “I don’t know. I don’t work here,” she replies politely and goes back to her phone.

He stands for a moment confused. “Can I bring my coffee into the room?” he asks. She politely reminds him that as she does not work there, she is not any more aware of the policies of this particular institution.

“Well,” he says a bit more indignantly, “are you an intern here?” as if preparing himself to chastise her lack of professionalism. She smiles and says “No. I’m one of the speakers.” And with that, she walks into the room and takes her seat on stage.

These two “ethnographic snapshots” were collected during a year of researching foreign policy think tanks in Washington. The first reflects my own observations during a think tank event, while the second was relayed to me by the young woman in the story.

As an anthropologist, I have been trained to study complex social and cultural phenomena through the intricacies and contradictions of people. Thus, by studying the foreign policy think tank community in Washington DC in this way, I have had the unique privilege of closely observing the experiences and perspectives of those who work in this field.

Over the course of hundreds of interviews and conversations with my “interlocutors”, I was struck by how often they raised the issue of gender — and specifically gender imbalances — in their field.

Indeed, I heard countless stories like the two I described above recounting similar moments of awkward tension, micro-aggressions, missed opportunities, unintentional slights, and more overt forms of discrimination, which collectively make it more difficult for women — particularly younger women, LGBTQ women, and women of color — to navigate and succeed in the world of foreign policy research.

Sadly, the numbers seem to reinforce these observations. As Micah Zenko and Amelia Mae Wolf observed in their recent Foreign Policy piece, women make up only “24 percent of people working in policy-related positions [at think tanks] and 33 percent of total leadership.”

As another measure of this imbalance, all-male panels remain the overwhelming industry norm. In their now widely-circulated Washington Post op-ed, Tamara Wittes and Marc Lynch rightfully ask: “How is it possible […] that not a single woman could be found to speak at 65 percent of these influential and high-profile D.C. events?”

Even when women do “make it” in this field, they face a unique set of challenges ranging from online sexual harassment to issues of tokenization that further disempower women in practice, as we saw with the first story I offered. Similarly, as a number of women told me, there are a variety of quieter, less intentional forms of sexism (combined with ageism, homophobia, racism, etc.) that undermine these women’s authority, as the second story of the young woman expert clearly illustrates.

The good news is that there is a small but growing number of voices from inside and outside the foreign policy community calling foul on these problems.

Movements such as Foreign Policy Interrupted and the Women’s Media Center are providing important media training for women and helping to get them more media access in order to increase their influence on policy debates. Groups such as GenderAvenger are also contributing to positive change by calling out all-male panels in this and other industries. As part of my own contribution to this issue, I recently moderated an event on “how to make it in DC as a woman” for the Project on the Study of 21st Century (PS21).

While these initiatives are important, more can be done.

Think tanks play a highly visible and privileged role in foreign policy debates in this country, and, as such, they need to recognize that by promoting women experts they are not cynically checking “a diversity box” but rather enriching this country’s policy debates through the inclusion of more voices and perspectives. Women from diverse backgrounds and positions bring with them different sets of assumptions, skills, and experiences that can help policymakers think differently about the world’s most complex and intractable issues. Further, women are taking on a more active role in shaping these issues worldwide.

If there is anything I learned from studying this community over the past year, it is that there is a tremendous pool of talented and diverse women who can readily succeed in this foreign policy community if given the right opportunities, platforms, and support.

This article originally appeared on GenderAvenger on October 26, 2015.

PS21 is a nonideological, nonpartisan, nongovernmental organization. All views expressed are the author’s own.

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