A four-step guide to navigating the pressures and prerogatives of the powers-that-be.
The recent emergence of the Twitter hashtag #WhereAreTheWomen is a helpful reminder that the U.S. foreign policy and national security communities remain characterized by similar-looking people repeating variations of a similar conventional wisdom. The distinct impression that one has is that there is a marked underrepresentation of not just women, but also minorities, non-Americans, younger analysts and scholars, and generally people who alter the status quo or provide alternative approaches. Many often describe the perpetrators of this situation pejoratively with the monolithic shorthand of: "the media," "the academy," "think tanks," or -- worst of all -- "D.C." While these descriptors are accurate, they are also misleading, because they diffuse any responsibility for the current state of these communities.
In reality, it is individuals, or very small groups of individuals, who decide each day who is heard, seen, or read. They are effectively the gatekeepers of the institutions and outlets for mainstream foreign-policy research and commentary. This includes managing editors of opinion pages for newspapers or web outlets, booking producers of television talk shows, book editors, think-tank fellows convening roundtables and workshops, directors of programs at foreign-policy institutions, program officers at grant-giving institutions, deans and professors in the academy, and so on. They have tremendous power and influence, as well as competing professional obligations and a finite time to complete them. When considering the causes of, and looking for solutions to, the problem of underrepresented voices in the foreign policy and national security fields keep these four factors about gatekeepers in mind:
1. Old people can be ageists too.
Gatekeepers tend to be older, because it tends to take time to achieve the mid-level management positions in which one becomes empowered to make the difficult choices. The downside of this is that they are less likely to be aware of new and original voices in academic journals, policy websites, or blogs. Or, they probably no longer have the time or inclination to do so. Moreover, their contemporaries with whom they socialize the most tend to be in the same age bracket, and are similarly less aware of smart up-and-comers.
2. Even bosses have bosses.
In the less frequent instance where gatekeepers are younger, generally found in media, the constraint of time and the need to push content acceptable to supervisors leads to a similar repetition of voices. Gatekeepers have bosses -- and probably a boss above that boss -- who scrutinizes and reviews their performance. Most have work plans mandating that they deliver a certain number of people, events, or products. For example, the program officer at a grant-giving institution has a president and board of directors to whom they must answer. The projects that they recommend for funding must produce the agreed-upon "deliverables" on time and on budget. Moreover, they ideally should be able to "demonstrate impact." That means an established or prominent researcher who has worked with the program officer repeatedly in the past, and can be relied upon to deliver a product on time, is often privileged accordingly. A gatekeeper's safest course of action is often the one that he or she believes that their boss or home institution would accept. This is a matter of quality control, not overt exclusion.
3. Timing is everything.
Like any of us, gatekeepers face pressures to deliver on deadline. But making a senior hire at a public policy school or think tank can drag on for years, in which case there is no excuse for not sifting through qualified but underrepresented scholars. In contrast, when an unexpected story breaks somewhere in the world, and a journalist needs a few quotes, or a booking producer needs someone knowledgeable and available to go on air in an hour, they will refer to their rolodexes. But most decisions fall somewhere in between, with plenty of opportunities to think and plan ahead. And yet, most of their rolodexes are full of safe and familiar names. Not only do gatekeepers generally not make an effort expand their rolodexes, but a networking gap exists between gatekeepers and new voices, creating a barrier to entry.
4. Hidden efforts don't necessarily produce results.
Gatekeepers can make an effort at promoting diversity, but fail miserably. For example, I routinely run roundtable meetings and workshops, and at some point in the question and answer session, someone inevitably makes a critical and loud observation about who was invited to present and attend: "Why wasn't person X invited?" or "It would have been useful if you had someone from organization Y." What I cannot say at that moment is that I might have extended invitations to the person and organization under question, and assuredly others, but they declined for various reasons. (It is impolite to start a meeting with "we're honored to have today's speaker, our fifth choice.") The point being that the absence of an observable outcome does not mean the absence of effort by gatekeepers. However, given that the underrepresentation of diverse voices is so widespread in the foreign policy field, gatekeepers do not appear to be trying very hard to promote diversity, or at least too few of them are.
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The positive news is that most foreign policy and national security gatekeepers are conscious of the relative homogenization of people and opinions in their fields. You meet mercifully few gatekeepers who believe that everything is fine with the current state of affairs. They are receptive and grateful when they ask, "Who's smart on X?" to be made aware of a new and well-qualified expert. But the extent to which they are willing to assume some risk -- and take the time -- to find and promote new people is often determined by whether their bosses signal that this should be a priority. Without institutional "top cover" that openly encourages or mandates this, it is arbitrarily up to gatekeepers themselves to make it a point to actively scan their field and then bring underrepresented and diverse voices into the debate. Of course, doing this entails some degree of risk for the gatekeepers' reputations, both inside and outside of their institution.
However, the benefits of exposing readers, listeners, and viewers to people and ideas that are unique and refreshing is perhaps the only thing that can keep the foreign policy and national security fields relevant and attractive for a dwindling number of followers, and, in some cases, results in greater quality and more successful findings for a field of research. It is true that gatekeepers no longer have a stranglehold over the people and ideas that enter these fields. Blogs, Twitter, and the growth of news "context" websites have provided many new venues for engagement. Yet, for the prominent outlets and institutions that still define the mainstream, gatekeepers remain -- collectively and often unconsciously -- unwilling to promote the multiplicity of people, approaches, and ideas that are required to transform and advance the foreign policy and national security fields. That's to our dismay, and loss.
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