Can We Talk? It’s Time for New Conversations on Gender Equality in Foreign Policy Circles

Recently, an analysis showed that in the current Trump Administration, 80 percent of high-level political nominations have been men. According to the coverage, the current administration is putting together “the most male-dominated federal government in nearly a quarter-century.” This is a significant step backwards for gender equality in Washington.

On the foreign policy front, it has always been a struggle for women to reach the top echelons in Washington. Despite progress in the last twenty years, the Washington, DC elite foreign policy field remains dominated by a sea of navy blue suits, and “known” experts who are usually men. This fact has frequently been discussed by women in these professional circles, but conversations about gender discrimination or subtle bias were generally conducted behind closed doors.

But the relative silence from women has been broken. “Manals” (all-male panels) and “mansplaining” have become feared labels and potential PR nightmares for think tanks, universities, and other organizations that convene top experts. At the same time, women have become much more candid about the personal and professional choices they face to “make it” in these fields, and they are more frequently calling out sexism in the esteemed institutions where they have worked. Perhaps the recent discourse in this country about women has been an epiphany for many: Misogyny is lurking, alive and well, throughout American society.

Increasingly, policymakers have begun to recognize the importance of promoting gender equality in U.S. policies and programs. Why does gender equality matter? According to a study by the World Economic Forum, global GDP would increase by $28 trillion if women were to play an identical role in the labor market as men — at current rates of progress, that will take 170 years. Research has also shown that gender inequality and violent experience on personal-level is linked to macroaggression at the national-level. In other words, it matters how states treat women.

Since 2011, the U.S. government has been implementing the U.S. National Action Plan on Women, Peace, and Security, and has developed other policy guidance on gender equality in bilateral and multilateral initiatives. However, the efforts are still nascent, and it is a challenge to fully integrate gender equality approaches into high-level policy planning. There is even greater reluctance to look inward and assess gender dynamics within our own U.S. policy community.

When gender issues are raised, there is a tendency to focus on numbers: numbers of women in senior positions, numbers of women on panels, numbers of women on boards, numbers of women on expert commissions. And these numbers are important to track progress or regression. Yet, we also need to recognize that the lack of women in visible and powerful roles is a symptom of a bigger problem: ingrained biases that continue to impede and obstruct gender equality.

The fact is that institutional cultures within the foreign policy field do not equally value women’s experiences, needs, or contributions. Until we start viewing gender as a multifaceted and complex social issue that needs to be discussed, we will continue to make marginal progress. We need to start to address embedded ways of thinking in our foreign policy and our foreign policy institutions. Here are four conversations we need to have on gender equality in the foreign policy community, starting today.

First of all, individual perceptions and behaviors matter. We need to start unpacking gender norms and assumptions, and understand how they affect our perceptions about policy, the workplace, and our roles in these contexts. We need opportunities for both women and men to discuss how underlying gender dynamics affect views about foreign policy objectives and opportunities to have an equal voice in decision-making.

Second, men are part of the solution. A recent study that included more than 50 interviews with men in peace and security fields showed the importance of engaging men as gender equality partners and advocates. Men who vocally, visibly, and consistently support gender equality can help shift male-dominated cultures and improve support for gender equality initiatives in the foreign policy space.

Third, gender equality is not just an outward endeavor. In the foreign policy arena, discussions about gender equality should not be limited to conflict and development programs “in the field.” We need to have many of the same conversations right here at home. The United States cannot have credibility in promoting gender equality abroad without a more honest assessment of our own struggles and failures to achieve inclusivity and participation.

Lastly, gender equality requires a 360 frame. Foreign policy leaders and practitioners should understand and apply a gender lens at every stage of policymaking and internal organizational management. This requires more than counting the number of female foreign policy experts in top positions. We need to build the competencies of both women and men in gender analysis, and apply these skills rigorously in our processes — from human resources to policy planning.

Although it may feel that we cannot make any movement on gender equality within the current political climate, we are at a strategic juncture for reflection, conversation, and institutional change. Women have begun to speak out more forcibly, even within the confines of an extremely traditional and elite foreign policy establishment. Now, while there is a growing worry that the United States is slipping backwards on these issues, is a time to uncover the underlying factors that make it so difficult to realize gender equality — both here and abroad. This may lead the foreign policy community into some uncomfortable conversations about our leadership and decision-making. But it can also open the space for more understanding, diverse thought, and perhaps also, needed policy change to finally achieve a more equal and peaceful world.

Jolynn Shoemaker is a consultant on gender equality in international peace and security. She is a Fellow at Truman National Security Project and a contributing author for the Ms. Magazine Blog where she writes on feminist foreign policy and women, peace, and security issues. Views expressed are her own.

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