Ask the Experts: Where Are the Women in Foreign Policy?

Published as part of a round-up of experts on March 8, 2012 at Micah Zenko’s blog at Council on Foreign Relations.

In the debate over the underrepresentation of women in foreign policy and national security, we’re focused on the wrong point in the career trajectory. Rather than bemoaning the lack of women at the top, we should be asking whether women at the start of their careers are being offered the assignments, experiences, and opportunities that lead to later success.

There’s a gap in the types of tasks women and men are assigned early in their careers. Intentionally or not, women tend to given more administrative or support work rather than policy or research work; path dependence takes over from there. I recall a prominent scholar regularly asking his female research assistant (RA) to pick up his dry cleaning and take his car to the shop—things he didn’t ask of male RAs.

There’s also a mentorship gap. Young women have trouble finding men willing to act in that capacity because there are few mechanisms to develop the rapport that underlies a good, productive mentoring relationship.  Conversely, men may be concerned about how a mentoring relationship will be perceived and shy away as a result. But mentors are vital for opening doors and offering suggestions and feedback about career choices—efforts that are particularly valuable in the foreign policy world.

The parity problem starts much earlier – and must be addressed much earlier. Without efforts to develop a deeper bench of women with the experiences, training, and knowledge necessary to excel in the field, we’ll always be asking the same questions.

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