The reelection of President Barack Obama brings with it lots of hope for the future of equality, most notably regarding same-sex marriage. But hurdles still remain for gender equality, and I’m not even talking about Congress legislating our uteri or letting VAWA expire. I’m talking about the section of politics most important to me: foreign policy. President Obama’s first term foreign policy team included a powerhouse trio of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (aka my idol), Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice, and National Security Council senior official Samantha Power. In total, women accounted for about 43% of his first-term appointments, in keeping with other recent Democratic administrations. His second administration, however, will not be so equal.
Thus far, Obama has nominated John Kerry as Secretary of State and Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense. While both men are, in my opinion anyway, very intelligent and capable of doing their jobs admirably, Obama avoided choosing any women. Susan Rice was pushed abandoned due to her role in the State Department’s handling of the Benghazi attack in September. Perhaps that was the right choice; had Obama continued with her nomination, critics would have never shut up and she would have been unable to do her job. Michele Flournoy seemed like a great choice for Secretary of Defense (she would have been the first female SecDef, too). She generally takes a liberal realist view, meaning that she is not afraid to fight when necessary, but prefers other means to solve problems. She has extensive experience as Under Secretary of Defense for policy. And—most importantly to me—she is a strong advocate for women in security, particularly women in the military. Yet both of these accomplished women were disregarded.
Recent data shows that women hold only 30% of senior foreign policy-related jobs, in the government or not. Possible reasons for this mirror reasons for lack of female representation in pretty much every field. Work-life concerns, stemming from the fact that women are still not only expected to have families and children, but to be the primary caretakers of those children, top the list (as per usual). Another major concern, especially in politics, is lack of sponsorship. Mentors and accomplished older friends can make or break a career in Washington, and in general men are less willing to mentor younger women. Maybe some want to create their own Mini-Me, maybe some are afraid the relationship will be understood “the wrong way.” Whatever the reason, women are unable to make those key networks early in their careers that will push them through the ranks quickly. Finally, one concern that bothers me in particular, is that women tend to be less interested in issues of hard power, meaning military or economic power. Women are more drawn towards development, diplomacy, and other types of soft power. Soft power is absolutely vital to a successful foreign policy. But (whether or not it should be) it is not the primary type of power in which the United States deals today.
This third concern affects me in particular because I am one of those (apparently rare) women who does enjoy studying hard power, in my case military power. I am very interested in the fields of nuclear nonproliferation, arms control/transfer, and how the United States wields its considerable military weight. The School of Foreign Service at Georgetown actually does a pretty good job, institutionally, of promoting women in international security. SFS Dean Carol Lancaster launched the Institute for Women, Peace, and Security in 2011, and it has created a space for women studying international affairs to network and learn from each other—key for creating those mentor relationships I mentioned earlier. I am also currently taking a class with the first female Secretary of State, Madeleine K. Albright. While the class itself does not focus on issues of gender and international security, sitting in lecture and listening to her anecdotes, then remembering she was the first woman in U.S. history to have such experiences, is amazing to me.
However, not all of my experiences have been so positive. I took a class on the role of the military in exercising national power; out of 24 students, only 5 were women, and we were absolutely seen as less knowledgeable. Not, to his credit, by the professor, but by the male students in the class—they could not fathom that a woman would know as much about submarine warfare as they did. Which was only as much as they read from textbooks or the internet, as not one student in the class was a member of the military. In a language class, two female friends and I got half-jokingly labeled “radical feminists” for desiring stable, successful careers before starting families. I have often been met with surprise when I tell people my research interests: arms deals, nuclear weapons, and terrorism. People, mostly men, are shocked when a woman wants to study hard power rather than soft.
I’m hoping that outgoing SecDef Leon Panetta’s announcement lifting combat exclusionary bans will herald a new era of—or at least new conversation about—the role of women not just in combat, but in national security in general. Women represent 51% of the US population, 56.4% of students at public universities, and 59.3% of students at private universities. But they fill only 30% of top foreign policy positions, even fewer in the specific field of national security. As Rosa Brooks pointed out, endless data has shown a correlation between higher female representation and better results. Whether that has to do with some ‘different’ factor women bring or just that a gender-diverse panel is less susceptible to the dangers of groupthink is still unknown and frankly, not that important. What is important is that this country (and the world) needs equal representation of women at all levels of government, perhaps nowhere more so than in foreign policy. While I wouldn’t mind being the first female Secretary of Defense, I shouldn’t be. There are so many, so many amazingly qualified women, with more entering the workforce each year. Hopefully President Obama remembers that as he continues filling the National Security Council for his second term.