Foreign Policy’s Woman Problem

G20 Summit 2016

When President Trump reinstated the Reagan-era “global gag rule” on abortion, he showed the world more than just his stance on foreign aid or women’s reproductive rights. The photo of the President signing an executive order about women—while surrounded by eight men—was also a stark visual reminder that when it comes to decisions of international import, women are still largely absent.

But Oval Office photo ops aren’t the only places where women are missing from international affairs. In the President’s cabinet—the least diverse in 36 years—men hold a majority of positions, including all those concerned with national security and foreign affairs. Though some countries seem to be getting things right, like Sweden with its feminist foreign policy, or Canada with its gender-balanced cabinet under Trudeau, women around the world continue to be sidelined in matters of foreign affairs. After all, they account for just 23% of total parliamentarians and make up only 20 heads of state or government worldwide.

Even when women make it to the decision-making table, they face a slew of other challenges, such as getting interrupted, ignored, or shot down more frequently—and fervidly—than men. And those who dare speak up often don’t get the credit they deserve. Though the number of women pursuing graduate degrees in political science and International Relations (IR) is on the rise, female scholars are cited less than their male counterparts in IR scholarship. In traditional media, women author less than 15% of articles on international politics. And these trends are even more pronounced among women of color.

The underrepresentation of women in international affairs—whether in government, academia, or the media—is a complex problem that requires complex solutions designed to tackle the social, cultural, and systemic factors that contribute to it. But one way in which we can move towards greater parity is by amplifying women’s voices in foreign policy debates: recognizing, acknowledging, and giving credit to women for their input. It’s what female staffers in the Obama administration did to make sure their voices were heard with remarkable results.

Organizations like Foreign Policy Interrupted are making important strides with workshops and fellowships designed to elevate the work of mid- and senior-level female foreign policy experts. But we also need to start sooner. Problems like lack of exposure and opportunity begin long before women reach the middle of their careers. Without platforms, support networks, and mentorship, women—especially in the early stages of their careers—will find it difficult to be heard.

Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright once said, “It took me quite a long time to develop a voice, and now that I have it, I am not going to be silent.” But women who are still developing their voices cannot do so in silence.

Foreign Policy Rising is creating space for women to cultivate their voices out loud. By providing a platform for women to showcase their ideas and engage in lively debate, we’re encouraging new and diverse voices to partake today’s conversations on international affairs.

And not just for diversity’s sake: Research confirms that groups made up of people with different backgrounds are more productive, more creative, and better at solving problems than homogenous groups. Including a rich array of perspectives in foreign policy will help us shed light on the hidden corners of traditional subject matter and lead us toward innovative solutions to global challenges.

We invite you to join us in expanding the pool of international thought and raising the volume of women’s voices in the global sphere. Doing so will not only enrich our debates; it will also improve decision-making on the international stage.


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