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Women and the commentariat

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This post is part of the Women and the foreign policy commentariat debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

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30 August 2011 15:37


This post is part of the Women and the foreign policy commentariat debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

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.

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.

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