The think-tank world -- the double-X chromosome part of it, anyway -- is buzzing with Micah Zenko's July 14 piece in Foreign Policy examining statistics and anecdotes that prove, once again, the woeful underrepresentation of women in the U.S. national security policymaking establishment.
Zenko offers two causes -- women's "preference" for "soft" policy issues and women's greater struggles with the balance between work and family. However, these factors are really manifestations of his third answer: Too many powerful men tend to create work environments that privilege men over women. This is an example of that ingrained, deeply human preference for the familiar that we softly refer to as … sexism.
Zenko does a great job of pulling together the evidence, but then asks a question he doesn't answer: What are we losing as a result? This question is gentler, and it has two answers. First, we face a straightforward loss in the "war for talent." With American women now a majority of college graduates, receiving an ever-larger proportion of postgraduate degrees, and outperforming men academically, we're missing brainpower if they don't form a significant part of our national security infrastructure. Lest you think this is just female chauvinism, check out what the commander of the Army's Special Warfare Center and School had to say about the first class of female special operations soldiers: "They are in Afghanistan right now and the reviews are off the charts. They're doing great."
It should be mentioned, too, that the situation is not much better for blacks, Latinos, Asian/Pacific Islanders, and Muslims -- to say nothing of gays and lesbians who are out of the closet. The doors of the establishment opened to the Irish, the Jews, the middle class and (some) women in the 1960s and 1970s, and then got stuck halfway.
Second, we bump up against the essentialist argument that women have been arguing among ourselves since the 1970s. How exactly does women's participation matter? Anne-Marie Slaughter, who served until recently as director of the State Department's Policy Planning staff, has written that our increasingly networked, horizontal world may privilege the brains and societal training that women -- who are prepared to be relationship-builders and nurturers -- receive.
Secretary of State Madeleine Albright acknowledged that she built a special circle of relationships with other women leaders who, she used to say, "knew we would return each other's phone calls." Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hasn't shied away from saying that her gender makes her more determined to speak out about war-time atrocities committed against women in Congo and more focused on how women's equality and opportunity can lift up entire societies economically and politically.
It stands to reason that a national security establishment that speaks to women as well as men in the United States and around the world is a necessity, not an option.
As the female head of a nonprofit with "National Security" in its title, I see a flood of talented young women as interns, job-seekers, and colleagues. No one has told them they're not supposed to like "hard security." They want to work on everything and climb the ladder as much as the men do. In fact, their confidence and assertiveness tends to unnerve my older male colleagues. The real question is, where do they go between the time they pour into the intern ranks at 22 and the time they are my peers and my mentors' peers?