There has been a lot of discussion just recently about why there are so few vocal women in international policy’s academic circles. It was started by Rodger Shanahan of the Lowy Institute in blog post titled “Women and the Commentariat.”
The idea he puts forth, that women are more disposed to one-on-one communication and therefore are actively eschewing public commentary, smacks of gender essentialism and is, I don’t think, accurate. However, I welcome the fact that he wants to open up the debate on this, which was the overall point of his post.
We tend have a range of ways in which we discriminate based on gender, and while those discriminations may seem a thing of the past to those who don’t experience them, they’re very real and active forces of exclusion. We gender our notions of expertise, meaning there are sectors (often deemed private) that are feminized, and those in which the masculine voice is preferred (international politics falls in the latter category). The barriers to women taking up visible and vocal roles in international policy are not necessarily on paper or formal, explicit exclusion. Rather, they are embedded social and cultural constructions around the appropriate arenas for certain genders. This is true of lots of academic and policy circles. Women are less likely to be accepted as credible, and less likely to be encouraged to pursue a career in these arenas (most especially in international security and defense policy). It’s part of a broad cultural separation of genders when it comes to professions and expertise and a gendering of types of knowledge. It may appear that since women could technically be taking part in more established forums for commentary, that the reason they are not is one of active choice, but this ignores our widespread cultural assumptions and constructions about a feminized voice of expertise.
Along these lines: there are more women out here talking about this than you think. They aren’t always doing it in the context of association with think tanks or universities or agencies, but many times they are quite vocal. I regularly comment on international policy, but often in the context of this blog or my own journalism. Many of the people who have replied to Shanahan’s statements, like Natalie Sambhi and Caitlin Fitz Gerald, are incredibly active voices in discussions of international relations. I’ve come to know a number of women with very vocal, well-formed opinions about everything from counterterrorism to development policy. I don’t see in these women, and I don’t see in myself, an obviously gendered desire for more one-on-one versions of policy discussion. I would personally much rather have my opinion published than have an intimate conversation about it. Shanahan, however, defines public comment as public speaking (something his colleagues took issue with in their response). That rigidly defines active voices on policy as voices that are associated with institutions and accepted enough to be given the opportunity to lecture and speak on their opinions. This very definition of commentariat is exclusive of the existing female voices on the topic.
This is in many ways an issue of how women are voicing their commentary, and it’s often through less “formal” means of communication. Shanahan seems to say that this is women’s active choice, and something to do with the way women in general prefer to conduct themselves. Again, this perpetuates a stereotype, and lacks depth perception about the culture of establishment and expertise in academic circles that excludes women from talking about certain “masculinized” topics.