[Editor’s note: This is the third post from the series on Women in Think Tanks, edited by Meghan Froehner. This post was written by Ruth Levine, Director of the Global Development and Population Program at The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.]
Think tanks should recruit and retain talented women as policy researchers and in other roles for many principled reasons, from basic fairness to the value of diverse perspectives. They should also do it for the most self-interested of reasons: think tanks that provide opportunities for women researchers will have more influence within the policy community.
Women in Government
The policy community itself is a place where more and more women can be found. In addition to 13 women who are currently heads of state, as of January 2015, in 41 single or lower houses of national legislatures, more than 30 percent of the members are women. This includes 11 countries in Africa and 9 in Latin America. While this is far from anything like gender parity in political representation, it is significantly better than in the past, and all signs point to increasing political engagement by women around the world.
Gender and Communication
As more women are in decision making positions, policy researchers of the same gender have greater opportunities for influence. I believe women in think tanks can communicate with women who are elected representatives, political appointees and government officials more effectively than men can. In part, this is because of gender-specific ways of speaking and listening. In part, it is because professional women, who have faced similar challenges, can establish rapport and a relationship of trust more easily. It is also because in their research, women are more likely than men to take into consideration issues like the care economy and multi-generational impacts of policy, which have a particular salience to women, regardless of career trajectory. Does this mean that women researchers cannot communicate with or influence men in positions of political power, or that men will not be listened to by women leaders? Of course not. But gender is a powerful dimension of individuals’ identity, and a tremendous amount of a think tanks’ influence derives from personal connections and credibility. As national and subnational governments move closer to gender balance in both political and technical cadres, think tanks should at a minimum be keeping up with this trend – and ideally should be showing the way. Those that do will see their stature grow.
Strategies for Improving Women’s Representation in Think Tanks
Once think tank boards and directors understand the value of recruiting and women as scholars and in other senior positions, they have to take intentional actions, some of which can be borrowed from academic settings that are seeking ways to provide opportunities for talented women. These include, for example:
- Creating and making visible a nondiscrimination policy, committing to fair recruitment and pay equity.
- Identifying women who are promising junior researchers, such as research assistants, and investing in educational and other professional development opportunities.
- Recruiting women researchers who may be working in related fields, rather than in traditional economics or political science tracks.
- Recruiting women who have been engaged in political life or as practitioners – for example, from multilateral development banks – as “policy fellows” or in a similar position.
- Providing generous parental leave benefits.
- Stopping the promotion “clock” during periods of parental leave.
- Developing policies for flextime and telecommuting.
- Fostering an inclusive intellectual culture – for instance, by seeking gender balance in invitees to speak at public events.
I’m sure others have ideas about steps that think tanks can take to improve staff gender balance, and I hope they come to light in subsequent blog posts. The important starting point, though, is to understand that when institutions are able to speak with diverse voices, and can undertake research inspired by a variety of life experiences and interests, they are – in the end – going to make the biggest difference.
Next Monday: Claudia Williams, of the Washington Area Women’s Foundation, and Tiffany Boiman, of the Women’s Bureau of the U.S. Department of Labour, discuss their experiences in women-led organisations and the importance of organisational policies on family leave and work life balance.