Women on Top

A week ago, Micah Zenko asked me to contribute to a blog post that would address the question “Women are significantly underrepresented in foreign policy and national security positions in government, academia, and think tanks. Why do you think this is the case?”

Turns out, that’s not an easy question to answer – the scope is broad, and the problem isn’t confined to this field. Women are underrepresented at the top in a lot of fields – economics, journalism, medicine, business, etc – which suggests there’s a cultural component to this. And indeed, a friend of mine is working on a psych PhD on why women aren’t seen as effective leaders. I’ve been after her to write about this for G&L, but it boils down to  the traits that Americans associate with being an effective leader are, broadly speaking, not the traits that we associate with women. If we don’t see women as effective leaders, why would we promote them to leadership roles?

But I think the problem for women starts much earlier, long before biases about women’s leadership potential kick in. I think the problem starts when women first enter the workforce (actually, it probably starts earlier than that, but I can’t solve the education system):

There’s a gap in the types of tasks women and men are assigned early in their careers. Intentionally or not, women tend to given more administrative or support work rather than policy or research work; path dependence takes over from there. I recall a prominent scholar regularly asking his female research assistant (RA) to pick up his dry cleaning and take his car to the shop—things he didn’t ask of male RAs.

So women writ large aren’t doing the right work to gain the knowledge, experiences, and networks necessary to move up. How to fix that? Employers, pay attention to what assignments you give your staff, both female and male. Your male interns need to learn to greet guests at events just as your female interns needs to learn to take meeting notes. Sure, the work needs to get done, but make sure you’re assigning work fairly. It should not be up to your female staff to decline assignments that aren’t appropriate.

Also at issue is mentorship and sponsorship:

Young women have trouble finding men willing to act in that capacity because there are few mechanisms to develop the rapport that underlies a good, productive mentoring relationship.  Conversely, men may be concerned about how a mentoring relationship will be perceived and shy away as a result. But mentors are vital for opening doors and offering suggestions and feedback about career choices—efforts that are particularly valuable in the foreign policy world.

I’ve been incredibly lucky to find some fantastic men to act as mentors, among them my co-bloggers Daveed, Jon, and Sky. They help me navigate the terror of writing publicly, they offer suggestions for managing my career and educational choices, and they tell me when I’m being too hard on myself or when I’m not trying hard enough. Their honest feedback and support has been invaluable.  Which is not to say we don’t also need female mentors – I don’t know where I’d be without Eve Sandberg, Stephanie Carvin, Erin Simpson, or Laura Seay – but in a field where the old boys’ network is still real, we need men too.

But where do young women find male mentors? That’s a problem I’m not sure how to solve, and I’d love to hear suggestions for how to overcome it, because I think this is a huge, huge deal. I found mine organically, through a year’s worth of inconsequential chatter and afternoons spent at happy hours that built into the rapport necessary for honest feedback. But I also initiated a lot of that contact, asking for help and insisting they pay attention to me, which is not something women generally feel comfortable doing, and which has the potential to aggravate wives and girlfriends (Amy, Bethany, and Julia – thank you for being awesome). So… let’s hear it. How do we bridge this gap?

All this is not to deny that women may also have some difficulty moving from the middle to the top of the national security and foreign policy world. There are real challenges to managing that transition as well, as Jolynn Shoemaker, Director of Women in International Security, highlights:

Work-Life Concerns: Inflexible schedules, unrelenting travel, and constant pressure to be in the office are common features of these jobs.  Many women are looking for opportunities to contribute meaningfully but also have more control over their personal lives.  They perceive that the foreign policy field is unaccommodating to flexible arrangements or detours from the traditional advancement track, and they feel pushed out.

Career Burn-Out:  Mid-level women point out that the 24-7 schedules and constant pressures are leading to more women opting out of leadership opportunities.  Whether they have families or not, younger women are re-examining the established definitions of success, and in some cases, concluding that the personal sacrifices are too high.

Lack of Sponsorship:  Women recognize that they need “sponsors” –powerful advocates who will open doors for them – but that male colleagues are benefiting much more from this support.  Women also point to an underlying sense of competition, ineffectual mentoring approaches, generational divides, and different views on work-life balance as obstacles to building these relationships with senior-level women.

So yeah. I highly recommend you read the entire post, then spend 10 minutes thinking about what you can do to help your female staff or friends or Twitterbuddies to advance in their careers. Then go do it. Invite somebody to lunch, or ask them to help with a research project, or whatever. Or stay home with your kids and let your wife go to her office happy hour. This is partly a numbers game, and the more women with the experience, knowledge , and networks necessary to get to the top, the better off we’ll all be.


Apropos of nothing except that this is a pink-but-not-sickly-sweet drink, here’s my new favorite cocktail (courtesy of Drinksnob). Happy International Women’s Day, everybody!

Blood and Sand

1 oz Scotch (I used Tomatin 12 – no call to go too high-end here)

1 oz blood orange juice

3/4 oz cherry brandy (I used bourbon that had had cherries soaking in it for a few months, but Cherry Heering is fine)

3/4 oz sweet vermouth

Turn off Twitter. Shake everything over ice. Strain into glass. Be happy.

This entry was posted in Careerism, Cocktails, Gender and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.