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February 13, 2018

Ending Gender Shunning

By Joseph Cirincione

Something is seriously wrong with U.S. national security. In this case, I am not talking about the policy itself but about how we develop and discuss policy. Despite the advances that women in national security have made in recent decades, men continue to dominate the national security field. That means that America’s foreign and defense policies are not benefitting from a diverse set of perspectives and views. It also means, as some studies have shown, that the male-dominated environments in which national security policies are developed are prone to groupthink and in some cases, blatant sexism and sexual harassment.

Let me provide a few personal examples. In the summer of 2016, I gave a speech to a meeting of business and military leaders supporting nuclear bases in their communities. There were 25 speakers: all men. Before I got to my policy comments I told them about Hillary Clinton’s pledge that if elected she would appoint a cabinet of 50 percent men and 50 percent women. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had already done so with his cabinet.

“This is a sea change. If these leaders can do it, we can too,” I confidently said. “We all have to do a better job of ensuring that we arrive at the best decisions possible by benefiting from the broadest range of views possible. That means gender balance.”

I got some mildly positive responses to my intervention. But I was not invited back to this year’s conference, which, I noticed, had only one woman among the 25 speakers. Well, I thought, these business leaders and nuclear hawks are just behind the times.

Despite the advances that women in national security have made in recent decades, men continue to dominate the national security field.

I was wrong. Not just about my assumption Clinton would win the election, but about the coming sea change. In October, I went to an important nuclear policy conference in Paris. Of the 52 participants from Russia, America, Europe, and Asia who gathered around a huge common table, only one was a woman. Again, I said in my brief remarks that we had to do better. Nuclear war affects everyone; our policy recommendations would be stronger if all perspectives were included in their formation. But I also thought, well, it’s the Russians and the old guard of the arms control movement. Of course they’re behind the times.

Again, I was wrong. In early November, I went to an impressive event hosted by a prominent organization in Washington. There were seven speakers on two panels, all knowledgeable, accomplished experts. Plus, two board members from this organization were recognized from the audience for extensive comments. All nine were men. This was at an event held by an organization that is staffed largely by women from the president on down.

The examples are everywhere. I spoke at a conference on India and Pakistan in late November. My panel was the only one with equal men and women. The majority of the conference speakers were men. I watched an important hearing at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the command and control of nuclear weapons: there was only one woman on the committee and all three witnesses were, you guessed it, men.

Conservative nuclear hawks, European arms controllers, American nuclear experts, South Asian scholars, Senate committees—all with male dominated events on national security. All completely unconscious (or in denial) about the gender imbalance. All thinking that they are not missing anything. All comfortable shunning an entire gender.

It is not like this is a new problem. I became aware of this when women rightfully complained about the male dominance of the anti-war movement in the late 1960s. We all nodded in agreement. But we assumed that awareness leads to structural change. Clearly, it does not.

Conservative nuclear hawks, European arms controllers, American nuclear experts, South Asian scholars, Senate committees—all with male dominated events on national security. All completely unconscious (or in denial) about the gender imbalance.

Worse, the dominance of men in discussions and policy structures could contribute to the harassment women experience in national security organizations. This is certainly true in other fields. Emily Martin, general counsel of the National Women’s Law Center, found  in her studies that in male-dominated industries women experience high levels of harassment. Additionally, Philip Cohen concludes  in his review of the literature that sexual harassment is common in male-dominated workplaces.

So, it was shocking (but it shouldn’t have been) when over 220 women in national security recently wrote  an open letter on sexual harassment and assault. “Assault is the progression of the same behaviors that permit us to be denigrated, interrupted, shut out, and shut up. These behaviors incubate a permissive environment where sexual harassment and assault take hold.”

Clearly, an all-male panel is not equivalent to sexual harassment, but it is part of the problem. In response to the wave of sexual harassment disclosures in Congress, Kristen Clarke, president of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Right Under Law, recently tweeted, “To change the culture on Capitol Hill, we must address the under-representation of women in Congress.” If you agree, then we should do the same for the meetings, panel discussions, staffing and grant making that we can impact far more easily than the massive electoral change needed to reform Congress.

But we have to do something very different from current practices and do more than have good intentions. It is time for us to consider adopting formal guidelines on gender balance for our organizations and foundations. It is not just a question of fairness, it is necessary to ensure better policy. 

It is time for us to consider adopting formal guidelines on gender balance for our organizations and foundations. 

The research is clear—more diverse teams make better decisions. In the business world, an emphasis on diversity and inclusivity translates into performance well above industry average. In peace building, it leads to longer lasting peace agreements and a reduced likelihood that the country will slip back into conflict. The comprehensive Scientific American article, “How Diversity Makes Us Smarter,” concludes, “Simply interacting with individuals who are different forces group members to prepare better, to anticipate alternative viewpoints and to expect that reaching consensus will take effort.”

Increasing diversity involves  improving the age, ethnic, racial, and experiential representation in our organizations. Increasing gender diversity is perhaps the easiest one to accomplish.

There are simple, intentional steps we could take. We should discuss whether we should pledge not to sit on “manels.” For men, that might mean offering up our spots if space is an issue. We could commit to calling out events and organizations that fail to make significant efforts to balance their presentations. More positively, we can praise those that do.

For example, the Carnegie Endowment International Nuclear Policy Conference in 2017 successfully and intentionally balanced  its panels and speakers nearly 50-50. Ploughshares Fund’s October conference on nuclear policy was similarly balanced in its expert panels. Several people praised  the recent Halifax Security Forum for its efforts. “Pleased and profoundly heartened by the focus on women’s inclusion,” tweeted Jacqueline O’Neil, “From the representation of women across panels, to the dedicated session on #wps [women, peace, and security], to the integration of gender perspective throughout.”

The research is clear—more diverse teams make better decisions.

Those of us in foundations should consider guidelines for our grantees. Should we ensure that we balance our grants among projects headed by men and those headed by women? Should we dedicate a portion of our grants to promoting women’s voices and roles in national security? Should we insist that our grants only be used for events that are gender balanced?

At Ploughshares Fund, we are discussing all these issues and more in a new Women’s Initiative. We are actively looking for partners and ideas. Gender discrimination is a pervasive problem that cannot be solved with good intentions alone, or by organizations acting alone.

It will take all of us. 

  • Joseph Cirincione

    Joseph Cirincione is the president of the Ploughshares Fund, a global security foundation.  His most recent books are Nuclear Nightmares: Securing the World before It Is Too L...