Over the past dozen years, I've worked at three think tanks, at four universities, and in two government positions, during which time I've asked many female colleagues and friends with different levels of seniority in the U.S. foreign-policy community for their views. From these discussions, I gathered three reasons that could explain this gender gap.
First, my female colleagues suggested that women are less interested in researching and writing about "hard power," defined as the use of military power or economic coercion to alter the behavior of state or nonstate actors. While competing approaches -- such as "soft power" or "smart power" -- receive media attention, within academia, think tanks, and certainly national politics, hard-power approaches retain a predominant role. This limits women's potential jobs in the foreign-policy apparatus.
Second, due to a preponderance of men in senior positions at think tanks, they engage in an unconscious cronyism in hiring other men as research fellows or selecting them as participants at workshops. The disproportionate gender balance is compounded by women who describe being at times uncomfortable in almost exclusively male settings or where they perceive they are the "token female" hired or invited.
Third, a successful think-tank fellow requires constant travel to attend workshops, give presentations, and conduct research -- sacrifices that women, who often bear the greater burden for raising a family, may be less able to make "Think-tank work is much like any other demanding job: It's not 9 to 5. There are breakfast and dinner meetings, speaking engagements on weekends, and extensive travel abroad for research for books and articles," my Council on Foreign Relations colleague and the senior fellow and director for Asia studies, Elizabeth Economy, told me. "Trying not only to keep the trains running on time at home but also to make it to the top of your field is a real challenge."
None of these hurdles for why women are underrepresented are determinative -- and certainly all three can be overcome. Indeed, the women I've spoken with were not deterred from pursuing careers in foreign policy or national security; almost all found female role models to emulate or learn from, as well as mentors among more senior women (and men). Indeed, as show by the troika of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice, and National Security Council senior official Samantha Power in Barack Obama's administration, the presence of women in some foreign-policy leadership roles has become the norm.
"My granddaughter asked a while ago what the big deal was that Grandma Maddie was secretary of state," former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright recalled recently. "Her entire lifetime it's been women."
These success stories aside, however, women still remain proportionally underrepresented in the realms of foreign-policy research, academic scholarship, and practice. This imbalance, which deprives the foreign-policy community of much-needed expertise, is detrimental to the U.S. role in world affairs. At the next conference or luncheon, Washington's think-tank mavens should look around the room and realize who's not present -- and take immediate steps to remedy this problem.