Goodbye Sandwich-Making, Hello Policy-Making…Sort Of

YES! Today is the day, friends!  The day I get to talk to you about something that is NOT California’s recent education laws (which I still support) or the conservative war on Planned Parenthood (which still bothers the crap out of me).  For while those things matter, and I will talk about them some other day, TODAY I get to talk to you about something even more personal: WOMEN IN INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS.

Before I say any more on this topic, I would like to note that this post is dedicated to Meaghan W. and Steph C. of American University, Julia T. of Georgetown University, and Alena S. of the College of William and Mary: the world of international affairs is/will be lucky to have you–as am I.

In addition, I would like to give a shout-out to Danielle Burch, who submitted to me 3 correct answers to the question “how am I practicing gender in my profile picture?”  Danielle is the author of the blog The Teenage Feminist (, you should check it out as soon as you’re done here!)

Alright, so what was I talking about?  Oh, right, women in international affairs.  No, not the trashy kind of international affairs–I mean the political kind.  The kind I’m in.  (Yeah, I know my profile says I’m a sociology major–and I am!  It’s just that I’m also an international development student.  You’ll see pretty soon how those things fit together, I promise.)  Unfortunately, there aren’t really enough women in international affairs, as it turns out.  In an article published in Foreign Policy Magazine (which I should really read more) Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations explained that there are statistics to back up the anecdotal claims that Washington DC’s halls of power just aren’t echoing with that clang that only comes from stilettos against tile.  Zenko surveyed 10 well-reputed thinktanks in DC and discovered that the highest percentage of women in policy positions at any of them was only 28%.   Zenko claims that the gender gap is mirrored in academia, the Pentagon, and USAID (the US Agency for International Development).

Zenko gives three reasons for why this may be: 1) Women tend to gravitate towards “soft power” issues like development, rather than “hard power” issues like national security, which are the ones that get the most attention and the most weight, 2) Women, who bear a greater burden of responsibility in the home in today’s society, often struggle to balance the demands of the career, especially since top think tank/government jobs aren’t exactly 9 to 5, and 3) Too many powerful men tend to hire more men, and this massive gender skew makes women uncomfortable, so that they feel like the “token woman” in a situation.

Washington Post blogger Allen McDuffee recaps all of this, but then takes a step further and asks whether or not the problem is just getting women into the field.  Apparently not.  According to McDuffee’s piece, more women are currently entering the foreign service than men–they just aren’t staying there.  

Don’t worry, I’m not just ranting about numbers–there are actual costs.  And those costs were explained beautifully by Heather Hurlburt, director of the National Security Network, in an article published by NPR.

What Hurlburt explains is that A) Since the majority of Americans now enrolled in/graduating from college are women, and since women constitute a rising portion of the population receiving graduate degrees, we are flat out losing out on talent by keeping women out of the national security/international relations sphere–and, as she points out, things aren’t looking so hot for minorities, Muslims, and gays who are trying to make it in this field.  And B) Women, BECAUSE of how they are taught to be women, form relationships and behave in social situations differently than men do, and their patterns may actually be advantageous to them in IR.  For example, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright pointed out that she formed relationships with other women in power, creating a sort of network of contacts.

On top of that, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has demonstrated what international feminist scholars (especially peace feminists, in case any of you are interested in different schools of international feminist thought) have been claiming for years, and which countless studies have told us: women in power focus more on women’s and children’s issues–Secretary of State Clinton, for example, notes that because of her gender, she’s more likely to talk about war crimes against women and the power of women in the fight against poverty; indeed, empowering women has become a key goal of the United Nations and many development groups, and for good reason (and this is going to be a lot of this blog so I won’t go on about it now).

But the real issue is, of course, causation: WHY are we losing women?  WHY aren’t they present in our think tanks and in seats of power?  What is going on here?!  What Hurlburt explains is that women are told repeatedly that women like soft power issues–and eventually, they take the hint and realize that they’ll have more supportive work environments and bosses who actually value their opinions if they switch to soft power issues (which does not explain the disparity at USAID).  And on top of that, we don’t see women promoted to positions of power nearly as often, which sends the message that they best choose a path where they can actually advance their careers.

I’ll take a second to echo what Hurlburt says when she points out that strong, high-profile women leaders DO attract loyal female followers–examples include Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flourney.  But on the whole, there are a LOT less women in IR than one might hope, and if it’s going to change, it needs to be the women entering the field now who are willing to stick by their guts and fight for the one thing that America has always stood for: the power to use our voices.



~ by Randi Saunders on July 19, 2011.

2 Responses to “Goodbye Sandwich-Making, Hello Policy-Making…Sort Of”

  1. […] participate in this conversation because someone at Vital Voices noticed a previous post of mine, “Goodbye Sandwich-Making, Hello Policy-Making…Sort Of”, and thought I might be interested since we were discussing the articles that I wrote about in that […]

  2. […] And on top of that, the idea that women are just as likely to pursue careers in things like business or politics is often a misrepresentation of what is going on.  Women’s career goals often change as they realize that there are biases in the world of business and politics, that people will not give their ideas as much weight and that they are less likely to be promoted.  (See my writing on this in “Goodbye Sandwich-making, Hello Policy-Making…Sort of”). […]

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