By Allison Tilt
During the past few months, there has been a notable focus on issues relating to women’s representation in visible roles. Female athletes as part of every participating county’s Olympic team, coupled with a deluge of voices of prominent women (Anne-Marie Slaughter, Sheryl Sandberg and Anne Kim) on the importance of women’s advancement has lit a fire under the issues of women’s equality and leadership, and prompted numerous commentaries. Women are indeed making headway in career advancement across various sectors (look no further than the pregnant Yahoo! CEO Melissa Mayer), and there is an increasing recognition of the importance of female participation in policymaking. Yet, there are many hindrances that continue to obstruct women from climbing to the top of the career ladder, resulting in a continuing “leaky pipeline” that the societal and organizational benefits of full participation of women at top levels.
The Importance of Female Participation
Women now make up a majority of the world’s population, and new research now suggests they may be more intelligent. Therefore, losing the female perspective in foreign policy (as well as other sectors) can be detrimental. The underrepresentation of woman leaders leaves national security and other policy institutions facing untapped brainpower, obstructing the adoption of new approaches, according to Heather Hurlburt.
Jolynn Shoemaker, Director of Women In International Security (WIIS), was quoted to this effect in Micah Zenko’s 2011 Foreign Policy article “City of Men”: "The lack of participation of women in influential policy roles ultimately limits the capabilities of these organizations to develop new ideas and innovative foreign-policy approaches.” Various issues resonate with and impact women and men differently, and therefore insights from both genders are required to make the most complete assessment of any issue.
Women create unique perspectives on the ground, as well as in policy-making. In a 2008 WIIS report entitled Women in United Nations Peace Operations, women “tend to be more careful in [regard to cultural awareness], and are often viewed as bridge builders both inside and outside the mission” in UN conflict areas. Furthermore, women have been viewed as key mediators during times of conflict. In war-ravaged Sierra Leone, women who had lost their own children took in enemy child soldiers to help them reintegrate into society. Elsewhere, women of the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires, Argentina were thought to help bring to light the government’s atrocities during the military dictatorship in the 1970s. The government saw them less as a threat than a nuisance, until their peaceful protests began to break down the resolve of the Argentine military forces.
The importance of the female perspective can be reworded a myriad of times. The WIIS report on UN Peacekeeping Operations described it as well as any other,
“This is why it is so important to include women in leadership positions. Clearly, there is no single strategy for securing and sustaining peace in conflict zones. By failing to include women in key roles in peacekeeping missions, the UN is missing the diversity of thought that can bring new approaches and solutions to the table.”
Therefore, research indicates that significant, sustainable progress on peace and security will depend in part on women’s active involvement and representation in leadership roles. With greater inclusion of women in all manners of policy planning, the increased diversity of thoughts and approaches can lead to greater success in tackling US and global security dilemmas.
The fundamental challenge to improving this diversity in policymaking is the leaky pipeline phenomenon, in which the female participation begins to drop at the midlevels and the gap between women and men in senior leadership positions continues to widen. So despite the tremendous strides of women in education, women remain dismally behind in workplace statistics. Only 3% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women, for example.
The causes of the leaky pipeline are complicated and include self-elimination of women from opportunities, negative work environments and experiences, as well as work-life choices. For example, as demonstrated by WIIS’s women in UN peacekeeping report, women make up a sizeable amount of entry-level positions with the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO), but fewer than 10% make it to senior positions. It appears that junior professionals are leaving before they even have the chance to excel. The trend has been observed in many other institutions as well.
During Sheryl Sandberg’s 2011 commencement at Barnard College, she said that women make little choices on a near-daily basis that allows them to opt out in pursuit of a family. She used this example:
“It’s the fifth year in a law firm when they say, ‘I’m not even sure I should go for partner, because I know I’m going to want kids eventually.’ These women don’t even have relationships, and already they’re finding balance, balance for responsibilities they don’t yet have. And from that moment, they start quietly leaning back.”
What Sandberg was hinting at is that women today are (un)consciously making a decision to opt out of partner, surgeon or CEO based on assumptions about future trade-offs between work and family. WIIS’s report on women in UN peace operations, found that women in senior positions were usually unmarried, divorced and/or childless, and this perception of senior level women was echoed by a WIIS report in 2010 on the U.S. Executive Branch.
A key observation of WIIS’s executive branch report found that “many women made choices at one or more points in their careers that valued family and children’s priorities over advancements,” at all career stages. The same report also found that women who had left government employment in order to raise children had a difficult time returning to service.
Family concerns are only one aspect of the “leaky pipeline.” In the case of the DPKO, many female managers rose through the ranks of the UN, earning their positions through fieldwork or other pertinent skill sets. Other female leaders reported being recruited to their UN position by someone already in the system, opposed to working through the ranks or using official employment programs. For women in the executive branch, participation in internships and junior professional programs created an environment of peers and mentors that aided in their navigation through the bureaucratic process and through promotions. Of those interviewed for the WIIS report, very few entered the government by applying for open vacancies. In addition to the difficulty of applying through job postings, these women felt they lacked the same support mechanisms than women who entered through other channels (p. 29).
A large reason women opt-out at a younger age could be linked to work atmosphere. As Heather Hurlburt wrote in her article, “Feminine Realpolitik” in Foreign Policy, “if moving from defense to development buys you a more congenial workplace and bosses who seem to value you more, then it’s no wonder that the ranks of women in ‘hard security’ dwindles along the way.” This concern was echoed in Anne-Marie Slaughter’s Atlantic piece, suggesting that America’s business and work culture can clash with family and personal needs. An NPR article from 2010 demonstrates that relaxing the traditional work schedule has advantages- software development company owner Katie Sleep boasts a 95% retention rate for her employees. Her method? She allows employees to work from a physical office and from home, depending on their daily schedules.
There are many challenges that women face in achieving top-level positions in public policy institutions. Women continue to feel forced to make decisions that men rarely face in order to advance their careers. Women coming up through the pipeline are doing everything that Ms. Kim suggested (cite); they are acknowledging the problem, organizing a network, and searching for solutions. However, more needs to be done, and it needs more attention and publicity. WIIS is working on analyzing, supporting and advocating for women’s leadership opportunities, trying to give the issue the spotlight it deserves, but more participation and activism is required at all levels. Men and women need to work together to confront the issue with more vivacity and strength, and increase recognition that a woman’s perspective, on all policy issues, is an imperative that is in everyone’s interest. Until that day, WIIS, its members, and partnering organizations will continue the slow but steady work of bringing more women to the forefront of policy wonks, experts and leaders.