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Women and the foreign policy commentariat

30 Aug 2011 15:37

The lack of female commentators in international relations has been raised this past week at the Lowy Institute. Between reading the papers, examining one's bellybutton lint, baiting civilian strategists and working out where to have lunch, conversation sometimes turns towards such issues. 

This time it began with a comment to our strategic communications manager regarding the paucity of female 'talent' for public lectures about international relations. Plenty of white, middle-aged males, but not many women who appear willing to write or talk about such issues in public fora. 

Here at the Lowy Institute, I think we do better than most. Want to know about China? Ask Linda Jakobsen. The South Pacific? Jenny Hayward-Jones. Nuclear issues? Martine Letts. Diplomatic under-representation? Alex Oliver. Foreign aid? Annmaree O'Keefe.


31 Aug 2011 09:39

Rodger Shanahan's piece on women in international relations commentary generated a number of comments on Twitter overnight, including from Anne-Marie Slaughter, who recommended this response from Caitlin FitzGerald.

It seems Caitlin suffered from the email problems I referred to earlier, so she could not reach me with her comment and decided to publish it on her own blog instead. Ordinarily, I would simpy link to such a piece, but given Caitlin intended it for The Interpreter, I'm going to reproduce the whole thing. More reader feedback to come.

I was troubled to read in your piece 'Women and the commentariat' the assertion that women are unwilling to write or talk publicly about international relations. From my perspective, there is no shortage of smart, educated, engaged women who would love to be a part of this ‘commentariat’ on issues of international relations, national security, defense, and a range of related issues. The problem is more one of opportunity.


31 Aug 2011 15:20

Jennifer Bennett writes:

It's hard to explain how I felt when I read Rodger Shanahan's blog post, 'Women and the Commentariat', on Tuesday, but I suppose we will stick with a mixture of exasperation and amusement, with a dash of 'No really good sir, have you been living under a rock?'.

Mr Shanahan has two central points: that there aren't enough women writing about matters of security (he posits a few ideas but appears to conclude it's because we poor delicate dears don't like commenting in public) and that there aren't enough women involved in the Arab Spring to write about.

What an unbelievable load of garbage. Let's start with point one: Where are all the lady security commentators? he asks. Could it be that there are fewer women in the field? Is it because female voices are discriminated against when the media goes to someone for a comment?

Both of these things seem reasonable to me — a female with a masters degree in international security who works in the media — but it seems that Mr Shanahan ditches these in favour of another suggestion: we just don't like speaking up in public! It seems he wrote a blog post on a similar topic last year and because no other women responded to his post with their own, this means we don't like public discussion!


1 Sep 2011 08:30

Susannah Patton writes:

All of the contributors to the Interpreter debate about 'women in international relations' in 2009 had one thing in common: they tried to point to something inherent in international relations that deters female participation. But the question of ‘women and the foreign policy commentariat' is slightly different. Rodger Shanahan's suggestion that women prefer alternative modes of communication is surely at least part of the reason for the gender imbalance in commentary.

Attending public lectures, I've noticed that no matter the topic (space exploration, foreign policy, economic policy), the first question, and then the second, and then the third, will probably be asked by a man. So it's not just in blogging where women are less represented than men. I wonder if this doesn't go to the 'male hubris, female humility' phenomenon, where women tend to underestimate their intelligence — or accordingly, the value of their contribution.


1 Sep 2011 09:43

Yesterday's reader riposte from Jennifer Bennett was hostile and unduly personal in its attack on Rodger Shanahan, and it was a borderline decision to even publish it. But I figured it was better to air the email and rebut it rather than be accused of censorship. In any case, some of Bennett's arguments are so laughable that they reflect poorly on her while doing Rodger no harm at all.

The dreary, heavy-handed sarcasm about 'poor delicate dears' and 'delicate shimmering flower of Australian womanhood' is presumably meant to suggest that Rodger's piece is sexist. The debate over whether women might, as Rodger suggests, prefer 'more intimate modes of communication' is a legitimate one. To imply that it is sexist to even raise this possibility and cautiously endorse it, as Rodger did, is absurd. (BTW, some of Rodger's cautious language on this point was edited out at my request.)


1 Sep 2011 11:38

Linda Quayle writes:

Up to now, respondents have argued that there are plenty of (actual and potential) women IR commentators, but they are being overlooked. That’s true, and it’s a really good point. But there's something much more systemic happening.

Why are there so few women in the world's Parliaments? Why are there so few female CEOs? Why does my engineer husband have so few female colleagues? Why are there so few female motor-racing drivers? (A recent snapshot from the UK highlights some of these issues) 

Look around: We're just not anywhere we should be in the numbers we should be, even in states where discrimination has been outlawed for years.

Things are getting better. When I compare my opportunities with my mother's, we've made great strides. But they are not getting better anywhere near fast enough. And we all need to do some serious political thinking across the board on why that is. The classic response – 'there's nothing (legally) stopping them' – is just not delivering the goods.


1 Sep 2011 13:53

Please check out Security Scholar for their coverage of this debate, and see below for two reader responses, from Tim Dunlop and first, Jocelyn Woodley from the Centre for Strategic Studies at Victoria University of Wellington:

I'd like to thank Rodger Shanahan for re-introducing a perplexing topic and add my support to Susannah Patton's comments. Go to any seminar on international relations and you're likely to find most of the presenters and questioners will be male. The audience may show a more even male/female split, but it tends to be the male voices that you hear. 

There will be a range of reasons for that and it's a big ask to comment on the behaviour of an entire gender. But two possible reasons for the low profile of women in the international relations commentariat would be lack of time, or the constraint imposed by the type of jobs taken up by women with international relations degrees. 


1 Sep 2011 16:53

I was going to go on with my 'Women in the Arab Spring' posts but thought that, given I am being used as an online Kewpie doll, it may be apposite to say a word or two. 

Before people start looking at my name and imputing gender bias and condescension, I would like to point out that the comment I referred to in my initial post about a lack of female international relations talent in the media sphere came from a woman. And the comment about a possible female predilection for 'direct communication' came from an entirely different (and well-credentialed) woman. 

My question was a serious one. It is acknowledged that we have plenty of well-credentialed female IR academics and practitioners (albeit unevenly distributed in certain fields), but relatively few high profile female IR commentators. That was the basis of my question. Why is this the case? Statistical anomaly? Lack of women in newsworthy areas of IR? Media bias? An unwillingness of women to adopt a high public profile? I am open to suggestions and a healthy debate on the issue.


2 Sep 2011 10:42

Alex Della Rocchetta and Julissa Milligan work on foreign and defense policy issues at the American Enterprise Institute.

This July, a flurry of articles — DC: City of Men, Still a Man's World? Foggy Bottom's Bohemian Grove, and The Feminine Realpolitik — sparked a discussion as to why men still dominate the upper echelons of the US foreign policy community. An impassioned discussion ensued; academics, practitioners, and journalists dished out heated opinions on Twitter, the blogosphere, and in our own think tank community, all attempting to explain this not-so-novel phenomenon.


2 Sep 2011 15:29

This email from Olivia Kember deserves a response. My thoughts are below the fold:

I was very disappointed by your response to Jennifer Bennett. OK, her sarcasm was OTT, but you didn't rebut her arguments; you mainly attacked her style. And I think you repeated Rodger Shanahan's initial error — surely if you all agree 'the female perspective is under-appreciated' you go find some female views! If 'the only Interpreter writer to do something about it' was Rodger, perhaps your editorial team should do something more. After all, as one of Australia's leading foreign policy blogs you're extremely well-placed to encourage a greater diversity of opinion.

I'm sympathetic to Rodger's point that women may prefer 'more intimate modes of communication', if only because I agree with Susannah Patton's comments and I personally find dialogue more constructive than the solo microphone of an op-ed. But is it true? If so, would it help if the Interpreter's format were more conversational?


7 Sep 2011 15:19

Alison Broinowski writes:

It is interesting to see that, as The Interpreter's debate progresses, it is morphing from 'women in international relations' into 'women in strategic policy'. In Australia the two camps are divided by a glass curtain, with more young women in one nowadays, and more men of all ages, as always, in the other. Human rights, development, peace and culture one one side, wars and intelligence on the other. This also appears in the foreign affairs areas of government, universities, and think tanks. 

A similar apartheid used to apply in politics, the church, the media, medicine, law, science, and business too, and to some extent it still does. Men's clubs don't readily break ranks unless forced to by law or the economic bottom line. They always find reasons not to: such as 'the good women just don't come forward', or 'the hours we work don't suit women', or (if they're honest) 'women would change everything and we like it the way it is'.

Sam asks how to attract women to the blog. Here are some suggestions: 


15 Sep 2011 08:43

Nina Markovic, a PhD candidate in Political Science, Centre for European Studies, Australian National University writes:

A month before the Women in Political Science Caucus meeting at the Australian Political Science Association conference in Canberra, Roger Shanahan's piece on the Lowy Interpreter blog has triggered a fresh debate on the question of female commentators and their visibility in international relations. Women leaders from all walks of life have joined this conversation since then. The debate spans several blogs now (Lowy Interpreter, Security Scholar, Women in Political Science, and others), and commentary about it has also appeared on Twitter and Facebook.