05 March 2013
Empathizing with someone else’s experience is difficult if someone does not know the feeling of being the only woman in the room, or has had to decline a high-powered government job for the sake of the family, or has never received an invitation to the golf course. All of those and more are searing, not only to the person who experiences it, but also to the system that loses the benefit of including someone that is isolated instead. But because there are almost an infinite number of dimensions—gender, race, class, orientation, cultural background, and more—looking through a single dimension, like gender, can ignore or discount other factors which can be just as detrimental. Views on gender often derive from their own subjective experience, and while each experience is powerful and meaningful, it also cannot be confused with objectivity.
As it should, the issue of gender in the American foreign affairs community has gained traction in the past year. But any corrective efforts provide an opportunity not only to solve gender imbalances but also an opportunity to correct imbalances throughout the system. For example, the fact that family responsibilities draw women away from their jobs extends to males as well, especially those who work in Congress. The pay is too little and the hours are too long for most people to balance work on the Hill with a family; the first step for most staffers who want to start a family is to get a job off the Hill, frequently in the lobbying world where the hours are more manageable and the pay is better. Similar pressures exist in any profession and by most accounts these pressures are more acutely felt by women but not exclusively—the disadvantage is relative, not absolute.
There are other disadvantages that should be discussed: How much of an advantage is gained by students or young people who have the money to travel or work abroad compared to those who do not have the resources to take advantage of those opportunities? It should go without saying that international experience is invaluable in foreign policy careers but these opportunities are not available to everyone, which creates a penalty for those without the money. Is a lack of educational diversity in foreign policy careers a product of a meritocracy or the product of unconscious networks? What about the lack of racial or ethnic diversity?
The system that has produced these inequalities did not always do so consciously. Nominally, the system offers equal opportunity but the advantages gained and lost are the result of implicit or unconscious mores that gave men the advantage. The fact that male-dominated networks or social circles unconsciously eased access for men or discouraged women from participating does not make them inherently sexist (though they definitely have that result), but it does mean that networks that allow access to power have inherent biases that advantage some over others. Obviously, in this case the difficult part is getting the status quo to admit that there is a problem, especially when it creates problems for everyone rather than a single group exclusively; it gives those in the status quo the chance to exempt themselves from the problem if they have never encountered it explicitly.
The problem with leveling the playing field is that, even if it is the right thing to do, it cannot happen seamlessly. The benefits that have been enjoyed are too entrenched and too intuitive by this point to make replacing the system a painless transition. Those who have benefited from the status quo will never believe that it needs the degree of change compared to someone who has been stymied by it. Often, the latter will even believe in changing the system only up to the point that they can benefit themselves. The Foreign Service is a good example of a government branch that meaningfully diversified, but it would be difficult to replicate throughout government without instituting a similar entry exam process that can bypass the possibly biased networks.
Individually, men who resist change or cling to sexist attitudes (explicit or implicit) must be corrected and shamed if necessary. Collectively, there are many men who genuinely support more women in foreign policy and, on the other side, too many men who believe that the system is fine as it is—not to mention those who suffer from some of the same disadvantages that women suffer from, such as work-life balances or those who experience other unique prejudices. Raising gender issues must be encouraged, but it would be more useful, and probably more popular, if gender issues were raised in the context of everyone who is disadvantaged by the status quo. Not only would this help avoid making people feel targeted who do not deserve to be, but improving work-life balances and opening networks would be one of the most popular structural improvements in the American foreign policy community. Policymaking would also benefit if the best people could finally be recruited and retained.
This might not be easy since everyone rallies against the issue that had affected them personally. There is nothing wrong with that, but structural issues like these are broader than any single individual or group. Empathy is difficult, and Washington is not a town that always values it, but it is necessary if the conversation about gender can lead to better opportunities for everyone.
Paul Nadeau is a political and international relations consultant based in Washington, DC. Previously, he was the editor-in-chief of The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs.