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Do women matter to national security? The men who lead U.S. foreign policy don’t think so.

- February 2, 2017
Members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia stand during a ceremony at a camp in the Colombian mountains on Feb. 18. (Luis Acosta/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)

During the Obama administration, women moved ahead in the U.S. national security infrastructure. They held record numbers of senior national security jobs; in the military, they won the right to serve in combat positions. Researchers found that nations with higher rates of violence against women also had higher risks of conflict and instability and that when women were part of peacemaking, that peace was more durable. The United Nations’ Women, Peace and Security initiatives sought to put these insights into action globally.

Incoming Trump administration officials, on the other hand, have suggested that gender- and other development-focused programming detracts from a focus on U.S. security and have signaled hostility toward U.N. efforts, such as considering gender in security efforts.

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In the United States at least, Trump’s team is not unusual according to our new survey of nearly 500 U.S. foreign policy leaders. This establishment remains overwhelmingly male and thinks quite differently about the importance of gender in national security efforts. Further, national security policymakers, particularly men, appear uninformed about the latest research that shows how women’s social status predicts stability and how ensuring that women are involved in building peace and democracy results in more stable and secure nations.

How we did our research

Under the aegis of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and the Texas National Security Network, we recently surveyed nearly 500 leaders working for U.S. institutions on foreign policy on a wide range of topics. We drew those leaders from the federal executive branch, Congress, think tanks, academia, media, business, labor unions, religious organizations and interest groups. With the collaboration of the think tank New America, we included several gender-related questions — marking the first time foreign policy elites have been polled on the topic.

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Our sample was 80 percent male — because that’s who makes up the U.S. foreign-policy establishment. For instance, we identified the top foreign policy-related think tanks in the United States, as defined by the University of Pennsylvania’s Global Go to Think Tank Index. Because we wanted to know what the U.S. foreign-policy establishment thinks, we had careful — if broad — criteria for who we surveyed. We sought senior people, not research assistants or associates. Of the 116 think tank professionals who responded to our survey, 75 percent were men. That’s in line with the proportions of men and women in the more than 800 people who received the online survey.

Why should foreign-policy professionals consider gender differences in their work?

Political science makes a strong case. Across all our differences, most Americans share a desire to see less violence in the world — and less expenditure of U.S. lives and treasure to combat it. Newer studies suggest tantalizing links among such things as community status of young men, bride prices and the attainability of marriage, and conflict. The practice of paying a woman’s family before marriage, it turns out, marks not just her value in money but also the man’s. If the going rate for a bride is far beyond what poor men can attain, some will more readily take up violence, crime or extremism to gain access to resources and the social status that comes with marriage — and from Pakistan to North Africa, extremist groups use this to recruit.

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This data comes atop decades of studies showing that women’s empowerment — the ability to influence one’s own  fate and play a role in shaping one’s community — makes those communities healthier, better educated, and more prosperous.

But the U.S. foreign-policy establishment appears unaware of these researched insights — with large gaps between men and women

Our respondents had a very general awareness of what is by now a business-school truism — that diverse teams, with women and other historically underrepresented groups at the policymaking tables, result in better outcomes. Within that general lack of knowledge, we found a large gap in attitudes about women’s empowerment and the importance of gender concerns more broadly between men and women, and between Republicans and Democrats.

Overall, 13 percent of our respondents thought gender inequality internationally is a vital threat to U.S. national interests. But that differs dramatically by sex: 20 percent of women while fewer than 9 percent of men think so.

We also asked respondents if they considered women and girls’ full participation in their societies to be an important foreign-policy goal. Nearly 31 percent said it was very important. But, again, there were gaps: 28 percent of men thought so, compared with 45 percent of women.

Compare this with attitudes toward preventing the spread of nuclear weapons, which 80 percent of the sample said was a very important goal.

We also asked respondents questions about the relevance of gender for specific issues, as you can see in the figure below. We first asked people how often they consider the different effects of policies on men and women in their work. 17 percent said always. Here, too, there were gaps between men and women: 14 percent of men said always, compared with 26 percent of women.

We then asked whether policies should be checked in advance to see whether they would affect men and women differently. For instance, a peace process that assumes rebel fighters will be integrated into national armed forces but doesn’t consider whether and how those forces permit women to serve, leaves female fighters marginalized and impoverished — and potentially dangerous, as the activities of female militias in Sierra Leone in 2002 showed.

Foreign-policy professionals were most likely to think gender mattered in policy areas such as education and health that have often been seen as the realm of women. But if a policy had to do with the use of force — which many people still mentally code as masculine, whether in government, war or peace — respondents were less likely to believe they had to think about both women and men. In these areas, male and female foreign-policy thinkers answered quite differently.BUSBY Fig 1

Our results suggest that the field as a whole may be missing key cues on what causes conflict, how to secure peace and a host of related problems.

Joshua Busby is an associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas in Austin. Find him on Twitter @busbyj2.  

Heather Hurlburt runs the New Models of Policy Change project at New America, building on two decades of experience in advocacy and executive and legislative branch foreign policymaking. Find her on Twitter @natsecHeather.