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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.

But other measures reinforce the perception of quiescence amongst the international relations sisterhood, even here at Bligh St. Want to come to a Wednesday Lowy Lunch? Chances are it will be a middle-aged bloke talking to you (I\'m talking later this month, by the way). Visiting The Interpreter? Chances are you will be reading something written by a bloke. Op-ed, anyone? Probably submitted by a Lowy bloke. [fold]

So why is it that, even at the Lowy Institute, well regarded women are studying and writing about international relations issues yet few of them appear as public commentators? In the case of the Lowy Institute, the answer is probably statistical – women on the staff write and comment as much as men, but there are more men, hence more male voices. 

But does this hold true in the broader international relations community?Are there fewer women commentators because there are fewer women in the international relations field? Is it because women are discriminated against when the media seeks comment on international relations issues? Or is there another explanation? 

Someone opined that the reason is that women prefer direct communication – they much more comfortable in talking one-on-one, and much less motivated to have a profile by commenting publicly. 

This rang true with my experience over two years ago, when there was a similar comment made about the lack of female commentators. I made a point of writing a series of blogs highlighting stories about women in Arab politics and received a number of e-mails from women who thanked me for doing this – no blog posts, just direct e-mails. So maybe there is something to this notion of women preferring intimate modes of communication rather than metaphorically shouting from the media rooftops, as we men are wont to do.

So, two years after I last did it, I am going to write another series of posts about women in international relations. I would like to again concentrate on Middle Eastern issues, but the disturbing lack of any ruthless, bloodthirsty female autocrats trying to hold onto power in the region makes it a somewhat difficult task. Sure, there are examples such as the female Libyan television presenter Hala Misrati, who made an impassioned and fully armed defence of the Qhadhafi regime on live television. But for the most part, stories about the Arab Spring have been male affairs. 

Still, in my white, middle-aged male kind of way I will attempt to fulfil this undertaking. I would welcome public comments from women who are unafraid to be published on the blog as to why women appear to be the forgotten sex when it comes to international relations commentary.

Photo by Flickr user CharlesFred.


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.

Micah Zenko addressed this in a piece for Foreign Policy back in July, putting forth some possible explanations for the overwhelming dominance of men in foreign policy, drawn in part from interviews with women in the field, and sparked a very lively discussion on other blogs and on Twitter. Zenko spoke of unconscious cronyism among men, compounded by discomfort experienced by women in an overwhelmingly male setting. He spoke of the demands of the foreign policy schedule being harder to bear for women, who still bear the bulk of the weight when it comes to caring for the family. He also spoke of the ‘hard power’ vs ‘soft power’ dichotomy, which I think has some bearing in a few ways. Some women told Zenko that they felt women are more drawn to the ‘soft power’ side of international relations, but that ‘hard power’ issues – the traditional domain of men – dominate international affairs. I found this problematic in a few ways: 1) Plenty of women I know are very interested in ‘hard power’ topics, but can have trouble being taken seriously on them; and 2) both should matter anyway. As I put it to someone on Twitter during a discussion on Zenko’s piece, “As long as it’s ‘guns for men, humanitarianism for ladies – by the way, guns are the only thing that matters,’ we have an issue. Meaning that it’s both the gender roles of who does what, as well as the priorities being so one-sided that are at issue. Women should have a voice on hard power, men on soft power, and both should matter.”


I also think there are more subtle, but potentially more damaging, sorts of gender discrimination at play in this field as in many others. By way of example, there are a lot of common expressions that associate one gender or the other with certain traits – fight/run/throw ‘like a girl,’ man up, sack up, take it like a man. These expressions seem harmless on their own, but they can do harm. We use them so often and so easily that we don’t even think about them. About two weeks ago, Republican presidential candidate and Texas Governor Rick Perry made a comment that provoked a flurry of commentary. People were saying that Governor Perry had accused President Obama of being ‘unmanly’ or effeminate, to give a couple of examples. However, this is what Governor Perry actually said: “One of the reasons that I’m running for president is I want to make sure that every young man and woman who puts on the uniform of the United States respects highly the president of the United States.” All that it is clear Perry was implying with this statement (and not that this is not an important reference worthy of discussion for its civil-military implications, but that’s not the issue here) is that Obama does not have the respect of our military. I was struck that so many others took that and (presumably unconsciously) added gender to the mix, and for a few reasons. First of all, Perry never said he is manlier than Obama, or that Obama is effeminate, but a lot of people came up with like interpretations that he did. More disturbingly, so what if he did? Being a man should not be a prerequisite for military respect and being a woman should not disqualify one from such.

Unfortunately, I think the reason so many people made this leap of interpretation is that it was all too short a leap to make. It is common to impugn a man’s strength by comparing him to a woman or otherwise implying he has feminine qualities; it is common to associate toughness, strength and other such qualities with men; and there is undeniably a macho culture around a lot of the military, as well as the national security/defense field at large. To me, though, when a man says he wants the members of our military to respect the President, and a broad swath of people see it as a statement about gender, we have a problem. This indicates a culture where women are underrated, or even totally discounted, in large and important areas of life. It’s not hard to imagine that these attitudes contribute to the shortage of women in major positions of security and foreign policy. While women have made great strides, and there are a number of women making inroads every day, these things add up. As long as we accept the casual associations of toughness and strength and firmness and respect and defense and security with men, the similar associations of softness and sensitivity and weakness with women, and countless other thoughtlessly diminishing turns of phrase or attitudes – assigning some attributes to men, others to women, and placing the most value on the ‘male’ attributes – then the inequality will remain, because even casual associations, when made repeatedly enough, become habit.

Moving beyond the potential reasons why women are not more involved in international relations, I want to address the many women who are involved, quite a few of whom comment publicly on a regular basis, or would gladly do so given more opportunity. I myself have a M.A. in International Relations, am seeking employment in the security and/or foreign policy fields, and am very involved in discussions of these issues where I can be, on Twitter and blogs. Much more notable than me, though, I would direct you to established female voices like Princeton University’s Anne-Marie Slaughter, former director of policy planning for the U.S. State Department, who currently writes for the Atlantic; counterterrorism expert Leah Farrall; Journalist Naheed Mustafa; the women who are helping to set policy at think tanks like Research Director Kristin Lord at the Center For a New American Security (the female representation of which was defended by Andrew Exum here); or young, vocal women such as Natalie Sambhi of Security Scholar; Diana Wueger, who writes for the Atlantic, UN Dispatch, and her own blog Gunpowder & Lead; the unconventional Courtney Messerschmidt of Great Satan’s Girlfriend; Lauren Jenkins of UN Dispatch and International Development Without Pity; Elmira Bayrasli of Forbes; entrepreneur and blogger Kalsoom Lakhani; Morehouse’s Laura Seay; and countless others currently seeking a voice through their work, through Twitter, or through a number of other avenues. All of these women, and many others, are writing, talking, tweeting, blogging, debating, working in the field, taking every opportunity they can get to be heard. We are here. We are in the public realm. We want to be heard. It’s just not clear that you are listening.

I intended to post this as a response to your blog post, but have sent it as an email as the Lowy Interpreter does not accept comments. Please feel free to publish this email in whole or in part.


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!


No inequality in the sector, no no, and no imbalance in the voice represented by the media. It\'s not the recent of involvement of people with two X chromosomes in a world traditionally dominated by those with one that\'s keeping the discussion on the blokey side. Women are just shy and retiring types who, in Mr Shanahan\'s own words, prefer \'intimate modes of communication\'. Well that\'s excellent. I shall put down my copy of Pape\'s The Strategic Logic of Suicide Bombing and start working on my needlepoint depicting the storming of Normandy then.

I\'m sorry, is the Lowy Institute blog being posted from the 1890s this week? Or is it that Mr Shanahan only regards a blog post as a legitimate form of commentary? I don\'t even really understand how he drew the conclusion that a few emails meant that chicks don\'t like to argue in public. I\'m not going to write a blog post on this (although if you like I\'ll link to it on my Tumblr ooh how 21st century and confrontational of me! That must mean I really mean it!).

If Lowy (or Mr Shanahan) are so worried about the paucity of female voices in their publications and public events, why don\'t they put out a call for women contributors and speakers? Hey, the next time you want a few snarky hundred words on the Southern Thailand insurgency or Southeast Asian terrorism, give me a call, I\'ve got a degree in it. Why don\'t you hire more women if you want more. Don\'t say, oh, \'we wring our hands about in at lunch\'. Go hire some.

If you suggest there are none, I shall scream. At the end of June, I completed my Masters of International Security at the University of Sydney. My research supervisor was Dr Sarah Phillips — if you can\'t contact her right now it\'s because she\'s in Yemen. Yes. That Yemen. The one where things go \'boom\' a lot. \'She is currently looking at political and security developments in Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and the Horn of Africa, and the relationship between tribes and militant jihadi networks in fragile states\'. That\'s directly from her bio on the USYD website.

Who else is there at USYD? Oh, well there\'s Professor Leanne Piggott, who I guess you may have heard of at some point. I believe she knows a bit about the Middle East. Monika Barthwal-Datta is good on food security. Elsina Wainright does statebuilding and fragile states. That\'s four women at one institution off the top of my head. I find it unlikely that they are the only ones in the country. Claims that there are no women writing about security are lazy and insulting to those who are and there is absolutely no excuse for making them.

Onto Mr Shanahan\'s second point, which was a little vague, so I thought I\'d just quote the offending paragraph in full and go from there:

I am going to write another series of posts about women in international relations. I would like to again concentrate on Middle Eastern issues, but the disturbing lack of any ruthless, bloodthirsty female autocrats trying to hold onto power in the region makes it a somewhat difficult task. Sure, there are examples such as the female Libyan television presenter Hala Misrati, who made an impassioned and fully armed defence of the Qhadhafi regime on live television. But for the most part, stories about the Arab Spring have been male affairs.

This, surely is some sort of absurd joke. Mr Shanahan presumably recognises that the autocrats themselves are only a small part of the Arab Spring story; it is the revolutionaries themselves who are generating most of the stories. If only there were some high profile women involved in some of these countries...oh, like Asma al-Assad, the wife of the Syrian dictator? The one who has fled to London, and was earlier this year the subject of a gushing profile in Vogue? You mean like that?

Or maybe he meant women on the ground who have been involved in the various uprisings? I guess there aren\'t any. Everyone knows women in the Middle East — particularly Muslim women — are even more shy and retiring than their Western counterparts, and I mean they\'ve got those head scarves and everything so they\'re seriously oppressed. Yes? I can\'t think of anyone whose work you could link to or discuss or oops is that Mona Eltahawy I see on the horizon?

Oh no is this a Guardian article about how women have emerged as \'key players\' in the Arab Spring (complete with oppressed ladies in niqabs)? Here\'s a Nation article that says they\'ve been at the forefront of protests! Le Monde: \'Arab Spring: The Female Factor\'

Do you know how I found those articles? I googled \'Women Arab Spring\'. I am in no way, shape or form a Middle East expert, yet I — unlike Mr Shanahan, whose bio suggests he is — was able to find these things in about five seconds. Mainly because I had already read a few articles along the same lines. I knew they were out there because I had been paying attention.

And so Mr Shanahan ends:

Still, in my white, middle-aged male kind of way I will attempt to fulfil this undertaking. I would welcome public comments from women who are unafraid to be published on the blog as to why women appear to be the forgotten sex when it comes to international relations commentary.

Look at that, I fulfilled it for him with my amazing powers of Google! It is very kind of Mr Shanahan to provide me — a delicate shimmering flower of Australian womanhood who prefers more intimate discussions — with an opportunity to be published on his blog. \'Forgotten sex\' is right though. Forgotten by him.


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.

There are many, many outstanding women contributing to foreign policy commentary – as others have ably shown. But from my observations and experience (studying political science and now as a graduate working in foreign policy), my female peers and I tend to self-edit more than our male peers. It would be sloppy to infer from this that we\'re less interested or engaged in the subjects discussed.


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.)

Jennifer makes much in her email of doing basic research, but she evidently failed to take the few minutes required to look up Rodger\'s history on The Interpreter. We staged a debate in 2009 on women in international relations, and although there was broad agreement that the female perspective was under-appreciated, the only Interpreter writer — male or female — to actually do something about it was Rodger Shanahan, who produced a three-part series on women in Arab politics.

Rodger has also tried to deflate media alarmism about Muslim headscarves and female terrorists, and he\'s about to do another series on women in the Middle East.

Jennifer also says: \'Claims that there are no women writing about security are lazy and insulting to those who are and there is absolutely no excuse for making them.\' True, no excuse, a sentiment Rodger presumably shares, since he made no such claim. \'Lazy\' and \'insulting\' are two words that come to mind to describe such misreading.

Jennifer\'s email addresses two substantive questions: (1) how do we explain the under-representation of women in the foreign policy commentariat?; and (2) what is the role of women in the Arab Spring? But with her high dudgeon and cheap theatrics (presumably intended to play to her Twitter gallery), Jennifer has done more to shut down these important debates than open them up.

Photo by Flickr user dgies.


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. 


My impression is that women in the audience at conferences on international relations are likely to be younger or around retirement age, rather than in mid- or senior career levels. I think there\'s a correlation with those career levels, age and women\'s responsibilities for looking after children. It\'s pretty hard keeping up with the literature and developing well-thought-through opinions when one\'s attention is so divided. 

A lot of younger women are studying international security – classes here often have more women than men. But perhaps they tend to go on to jobs in government, which might be more flexible than academic careers. Working in government restricts your ability to make public comment. Others go on to work in civil society – and in conferences on aid effectiveness, you\'ll find as many vocal women as men.

But there must be some disincentives at work restricting the likelihood that women will work in international relations departments. A quick glance at my local university international relations school shows fewer than a quarter of the lecturers are women.

Tim Dunlop:

I am a big fan of the site and of Sam\'s, but I was disappointed in Sam\'s response to Jen Bennett. I think Sam underestimates terribly the anger and frustration that some women feel when reading pieces like that by Rodger Shanahan. I agree with Sam that some of Jen\'s criticism was misplaced, but I must admit I had a similar reaction to hers on reading his piece. There is something terribly condescending in the way he presented his concerns and it is the sort of condescension professional women have to deal with too often. 

His representation of women as frightened (\'I would welcome public comments from women who are unafraid to be published on the blog\'), and his positioning himself as their champion (\'Still, in my white, middle-aged male kind of way I will attempt to fulfil this undertaking\') is precisely the sort of casual sexism that men too often get away with unchallenged.  I can accept that his comments were probably well-meaning, but his good intentions in that regard do not excuse the unexamined sexism apparent in the way he positioned women commentators and himself in regard to them. 

The fact that Sam was more offended by the angry tone of Jen\'s response than by the polite condescension in Rodger\'s piece is unfortunate. Instead of reacting like a scold to Jen\'s response and making cheap cracks about her \'playing to her Twitter gallery\', it might be better to try and understand her anger. 

Let me just say again, I\'m a big fan of Sam\'s and of the site. What\'s more, I do not have a dog in this fight as I don\'t know -- beyond what they have written here -- either Jen or Rodger. But I do sympathise with Jen\'s anger and I think Rodger, despite obvious good intentions, badly misfired in the published piece.



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.

On the ripostes received to date, I commend those from Caitlin, Jocelyn, Linda and Susannah, who actually attempted to address the substantive issue. I admit to not knowing about the Foreign Policy piece to which Caitlin refers, but it touches on some of the issues I hoped to raise. No doubting the number of capable women in the IR field, but why is the field (along with possibly economics) dominated by men to a much greater extent than others such as health, education, science, and medicine?

Writing from the US, it is to be expected that there would be more women commentators, as the talent pool is bigger. But I would be interested as to whether men still dominate the broadsheets, television and IR faculties in the US to the extent they do in Australia. Susannah\'s point is also worthy of further exploration. Are men more prominent because they are more comfortable in expressing their opinion in public, regardless of how worthwhile it may be?

As to Jennifer\'s riposte, she failed to answer the question I posed in the original post and again above. I know there are well-regarded women in the university IR field. I have heard of Sarah Phillips and greatly admire her work. If Jennifer had used Google she might have noticed that Sarah and I co-wrote a Lowy paper on Yemen a little while back.

I say nothing about the capabilities of women in the IR field. I have been taught by them, worked with them, they are well represented in the Lowy Institute and I rate them on their abilities the same as everyone else. It\'s just that they seem to have a much lower public profile than men — an issue raised with me by other women and not dreamt up by me during some morning tea break. Either disagree with this supposition or explain it, but at least try to address it. 

As for me, I\'m going to talk about women and the Arab Spring.

Photo by Flickr user Robert.Nilsson.


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.


In the latest posting on the subject, Rodger Shanahan provides his two cents. He observes that women are proportionately under-represented as public speakers, and argues that this may be because females prefer private, personal communication to public comment. Shanahan suggests that his own experience (receiving private emails rather than public comment in response to a blog post) supports the theory. After receiving some angry emails accusing him of being sexist, he reaffirmed his belief in women\'s intelligence and competence and reposes the original question: why are women less visible in foreign policy?

We take issue with Rodger\'s original post for two reasons. First of all, his argument narrowly defines visibility so as to exclude written work, the main currency in the IR field. Secondly, by suggesting that women prefer private to public comment, he places the blame for women\'s proportionately fewer public speaking engagements squarely on their own shoulders. This type of reasoning may perpetuate the stereotypes he is seeking to address. [fold]

Within the academic and public policy sector, writing on an issue can be as influential, if not more, than speaking on it. In fact, written work is often more widely disseminated, reaching a broader audience and influencing the general public for a longer period of time.

It is puzzling that Shanahan does not consider writing as a form of public commentary. As researchers in the foreign-policy think-tank world, each time we author a piece, our work is pushed into the public realm for scrutiny. The people reading our pieces are PhDs, experts in the field, or journalists whose contextual background is deep and varied. Blogs and op-eds, cached online and searchable for years to come, are perpetually open to criticism and discussion and influence the thoughts of the policymakers and the general public.

In Washington\'s corridors of power, most speaking invitations in the think tank world are awarded to experts on the basis of the quality of their written work. 

Shanahan\'s use of anecdotal evidence is understandable but dangerous. He relies on his personal observations to substantiate the assumption that women are less inclined to speak publicly. For women in academic and international public policy, this idea could be incredibly damaging. Jobs in academia and in public policy require boldness and openness to public debate. And if women are \'less prone\' to doing this, then they are poorer candidates for grad school, think tank and academic positions, or public policy jobs, which routinely require these skills.

However, numerous articles do point out, as Shanahan notes, that women are under-represented in speaking engagements, even with respect to their proportional representation in the field. If women are writing and publishing as much as men, but are sought after less for public speaking engagements, what gives? One factor, Patricia Kushlis suggest, is \'unconscious cronyism\'. Heather Hurlburt expounds:

...we must be honest that the core problem is that many men still turn first to other men -- in hiring, but also in picking conference speakers, media spokespeople, and handing out assignments. If you don\'t want to call it sexism, it is at least a bias toward comfort with what\'s familiar.

The articles and responses generated by Micah Zenko\'s City of Men suggest that a wide variety of factors contribute women\'s poor representation in foreign policy overall. In two additional posts, Zenko summarizes these responses: unconscious favoritism towards other men, inadequate maternity leave, family pressures, a subtle pressure for women to study \'soft power\' issues and women\'s general lack of interest in military/security studies (apparently, we are an exception to the rule, having both published on hard power issues recently) as core problems.

While Shanahan raises an important point on women\'s underrepresentation in foreign policy, to blame the lack of public female faces on women\'s preference towards private rather than public discussion reinforces the notion that women weren\'t cut out for foreign policy. Instead, public discussion should consider patterns which keep women out of the corridors of power. In the meantime, women may need to be even more proactive about seeking out public speaking engagements.

Photo by Flickr user US Army Korea.


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?


Is it false? Are other explanations more pertinent? Readers have suggested a lack of time by mid-career women; lower priority given to \'women\'s\' security issues; male cronyism. Are there any ways in which the Lowy can address these? This is of course assuming that you think it\'s worth the effort to bring in more female opinions.

Anyway, thanks to a number of respondents you\'ve now been presented with an exhaustive list of female commentators on security issues. I\'d be interested in learning what you\'re going to do with it.

There are three issues here, which I will take in turn: (1) style and substance in blog debates; (2) comments policy; and (3) the level of female participation on The Interpreter.

Style and substance

Olivia is right. I did not rebut all the arguments in Jennifer Bennett\'s email, partly because I knew Rodger would prepare his own reply, and partly because, as I said in the piece, I thought Jennifer raised two important points. But I don\'t apologise for focusing on style, and I think Olivia draws too sharp a distinction between style and substance. In written debates, the two are intimately linked.

Note today\'s contribution from Rocchetta and Milligan, which strikes a firm but never strident tone. Some might mistake this for meekness or an unwillingness to risk confrontation, but what it\'s really about is a recognition that tone plays a large part in determining whether you actually convince anyone of your point of view.

Comments policy

I take it that Olivia\'s reference to a more conversational format on The Interpreter alludes to the fact that, unlike most blogs, we don\'t have open comment threads. There are various \'negative\' reasons for this, but I actually think this debate showcases a strength of our approach, in which comments emailed to us are selected by our editorial team for publication on the site (a format, BTW, which I stole from Andrew Sullivan).

For the most part, the reader feedback we have received on this issue has been of outstanding quality, and I think it would have been a shame to see that material relegated to a comments-section ghetto. As it was, we featured those comments prominently as Reader Ripostes, and as a result I think the writer at centre of the debate, Rodger Shanahan, had much more incentive to respond to them. Had they been relegated to a comments thread, they would have been much easier to ignore.

Female participation on The Interpreter

My rough estimate is that only 5-10% of contributions to The Interpreter come from women. Olivia Kember asks what I am going to do about this. The obvious solution is to approach more qualified women and invite them to write.

The Interpreter is in the fortunate position of not having to solicit a great deal of content. Writers send stuff to us, and we work with them to make it publishable. There are slow periods where we go in search of material, and we are trying to find young writers in the Asia Pacific who can report on issues that get too little attention in Australia. But on the whole, we have enough quality supply of content to keep us busy. So, it\'s a supply-driven model, and overwhelmingly, the supply comes from men.

Yes, I\'m always looking for new contributors, but generally these come via tips and introductions from colleagues and contacts. I almost never \'cold call\' people to ask them to write for The Interpreter, partly because I don\'t have to, but also because it\'s not very productive. The best contributors are those who are motivated to write (we don\'t pay), and who know and like the site from having read it. So just sending a bunch of invites to female academics and commentators doesn\'t strike me as a promising strategy.

All that said, I\'m open to ideas as to how we can attract more female contributors to the site. But equally, potential women contributors reading this don\'t need to wait to be asked. Pitch me your ideas on .


7 Sep 2011 12:18

Jess Hodder writes:

Your debate on women and the foreign policy commentariat inspired me to write a post on the Security Scholar blog calling for gender issues to be addressed more seriously. In my opinion, female underrepresentation in influential fields such as foreign policy is far from the only problem caused by social attitudes towards women and their role in society.

In 2010, The Economist dedicated an issue to \'Gendercide: the worldwide war on baby girls\'. It graphically discussed the well-known problem of female infanticide and sex-selective abortion in China, often seen to be a direct consequence of the one-child policy, however it placed this phenomenon in the context of similar trends in north-west India, South Korea, parts of the former Soviet Union and in the Chinese diaspora, which it says are the result of traditional preferences for sons combining with the desire for smaller families and being facilitated by the greater availability of pre-natal screening. The skewed sex ratios that result have the potential to cause considerable political instability as the number of men unable to find wives in traditional family-centred societies inexorably rises.


Developed Western societies aren\'t just missing female babies, but male ones too. Western empowered women are now choosing to have fewer children and delay childbearing, often until past the peak of their fertility when their ability to fall pregnant declines rapidly. The demographic result is a national fertility rate of less than 2.1 (rate of replacement in developed countries). Low national fertility is being compensated for by immigration across most of the OECD, with Japan as the notable exception. Reliance on immigration is exacerbated by the other consequence of the decline in fertility rates, the aging of the population.

While population aging usually has more to do with declining mortality than declining fertility, although there are notable exceptions, countries where fertility rates dropped precipitously will experience similarly accelerated population aging. The most significant of these is China, whose population is aging so rapidly it is predicted to have a significant effect on long term growth potential and prospects for political stability. Chinese leaders will eventually need to stabilise the population, or at least slow the decline to a less damaging pace, however the situation in Taiwan, Japan, Hong Kong and Singapore (see rank order) makes clear that ending the one-child policy will probably not be enough.

Economically empowered Asian women are rejecting or delaying marriage because social values associated with family have failed to keep up with economic reality. Traditionally, wives were expected to devote themselves to the care of their husbands, children and elderly relatives, making it virtually impossible to continue to pursue a career. Until marriage and childbearing becomes a more attractive prospect, empowered women will continue to avoid them, in the East as in the West, with destructive long term economic and social consequences.

Social attitudes are difficult, not impossible to change. The successes of feminism in changing the law and raising awareness have slowly altered social attitudes in many countries, but more needs to be done, especially to promote gender equality in the home. Instituting compulsory home economics for all school students would probably have a positive impact on the division of household labour (thereby making marriage more attractive to women), and increasing choice and availability of quality affordable child care has been shown to be one of the best ways to support career minded women realise their plans to have children. For instance, a recent OECD report on government policies to support families emphasises childcare provision in a number of its recommendations.


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: 

  • Change your caption pic to something less gender-exclusive.
  • Make it transparently clear how one gets to become a blogger or a guest blogger, as distinct from a reader riposter.
  • Try to look less like an in-house conversation with each other.
  • If you invite women to speak out, don\'t form defensive ranks around the blokes when they do. They can look after themselves.
  • Be alert for words that sound like anti-female dog-whistle: shrill, strident, hysterical, hostile, humourless, high dudgeon, forgotten sex. There are plenty of non-loaded alternatives to use.
  • For a trial period at least, include as many items in each blog by women as men, even if you have to invite them.


On the more general question raised initially by Rodger Shanahan about the paucity of women as public commentators, may I share my experience? I have written or edited ten books on aspects of international relations, as well as many articles for journals and newspapers, but I find it next to impossible to place an op-ed in a mainstream newspaper now.

Late last year I proposed to the press a series of articles by several authors leading up to Australia\'s bid for a seat on the UN Security Council, a timely topic, and one that much of the media continue to neglect, but without success. It may be me, but if so the question remains: why don\'t we see articles by plenty of other women whose views on international relations would make a refreshing change from the predictable views of regular columnists?

I can remember a time when women were not allowed to read the radio news because broadcasters thought they didn\'t sound authoritative. Perhaps something similar lingers on in the international relations/strategic policy dichotomy, a bit like the argument over the role of women in the armed forces. Perhaps the preference in the media for reporting conflict, and their regard for aggression as news, automatically segregates anyone who takes a different approach to international relations. Or perhaps there\'s a black list of people who are not to be invited and of topics that are not to be touched.


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.

While Australia has its first female Governor-General and female Prime Minister, gender-specific stereotypes about women in political life continue to permeate public discourses and influence public perceptions. These are evident, for example, in the distasteful criticism of the PM\'s dress sense and hairstyle in The Australian and other newspapers, which would hardly be the case for a male PM.

Few women in strategic studies in Australia have achieved such prominence as Professor Corall Bell, one of Australia\'s finest strategists and visionary political scientists. Her recent interview on Asia\'s strategic future probably did not receive as much mention in the domestic political commentary on Asian affairs as the research work of her colleagues. The question which looms in the debate on women in political science and strategic studies is whether Australian female political scientists are better recognised in the international arena (both in terms of visibility of their work and personal exposure) than in Australia, and if so, why this might be the case.

Some notable examples of women leaders in political science in Australia include:


  • Professor Samina Yasmeen, internationally recognised  expert on diplomacy, counter-terrorism and Indo-Pakistani relations, who is also the founding Director of the Centre for Muslim States and Societies at the University of Western Australia.
  • Professor Jacqueline Lo, Director of the ANU Centre for European Studies, who is also a renowned expert on post-colonialism, cosmopolitanism and cross-cultural studies.
  • Professor Pascaline Winand from the Monash University, Director of Europe and EU Centre, who is a world-class political scientist and diplomatic historian.
  • Associate Professor Philomena Murray from the University of Melbourne, who is eminent political scientist, recipient of Personal Jean Monnet Chair in 2006, and a recognised strategist on Australia’s expanding relationship with the European Union.
  • Melissa Conley Tyler, National Executive Director of the Australian Institute for International Affairs, who is also a specialist on conflict resolution and negotiation.

These women are to be found within a pool of strong minority of women in political science who are world-class experts in their respective fields. Their research regularly appears in specialised publications, journals and international press. An under-representation of women in international relations commentary in Australia that many in this debate have been referring to, therefore, might be a consequence of a distorted image and perceptions held locally about women in international affairs and in modern society more generally. Perceptions always influence political reality.

One should stop genderising when talking about politics. Gender biases and prejudices certainly exist, although it is difficult to measure them. The obsession with marital status which some commentators have referred to in this debate (in an era of unlimited technological opportunities) represents a significant barrier to what we are trying to achieve.

Women are certainly more publicly visible as being engaged as active participants and actors of change in the field of international relations and in the not-for-profit sector than only half a century ago. When looking for all those experts who are commenting regularly on international issues in the media and blogosphere we need look no further than the talented group of Australia women who are making their mark on the international stage.