How to Bring Women into Foreign Affairs & Retain Them

The discussion around the need for women to be involved in foreign affairs and foreign policy has been around as long as the institutions themselves. It has become an even more urgent crucial lens to use when we look at the economic crises facing nations around the world because of the pandemic. It brings an important question into center view: With the impact the world has been undergoing, will nations be able to lift themselves back up and truly create change and opportunity for women?

A recent panel discussion, “Gender and Geopolitics: The Role of Women in Foreign Affairs” included Eugenia Podesta (Senior Director of Economic Empowerment and Entrepreneurship at Vital Voices Global Partnership), Rachel Vogelstein (Douglas Dillon Senior Fellow and Director of the Women and Foreign Policy Program at the Council on Foreign Relations), and Jenna Ben-Yehuda (President and CEO of the Truman National Security Project and the Truman Center for National Policy), and tackled the different elements of change needed to advance women’s involvement in both American foreign policy and global policy. It is not just important to create the frameworks and make the promises about including women in foreign policy; it is now critical that we demand implementation. 

We start off with Jenna Ben-Yehuda explaining why she takes issue with the common question: Why is gender equality important?

It puts the onus on women to defend equity. How could we possibly afford, in such a complex and interwoven world with so many simultaneous and complex issues, to exclude half of the world’s voices? It’s no longer defensible – it is imperative that women are at the table. There should be nothing about us without us. 

We see legal barriers to women’s economic participation – over 100 countries have such laws on the books. Structural barriers exist – girls are less likely to have access to education compared to boys, child marriage truncates girls’ ability to provide for themselves and their families, boys education being prioritized over girls is often a culturally entrenched belief. As greatly emphasized during the panel discussion, it is a necessity to recognize the current economic impact of COVID-19 and use what is staring us in the face as an opportunity to create new changes – both structural and otherwise – as we rebuild our economies. Though, this opportunity is not a given, despite the many conversations and the amount of organizing around these issues.  

What are some of the issues being brought to light about work environments and the care economy during Covid19 and the need for structural changes that would benefit women? How can we retain women in these industries?

Sometimes, like in the State Department, it’s not that a pipeline of talent doesn’t exist, but rather that the pipe leaks. Retention is an issue. There are barriers that need our attention, ones that if fixed would have drastic positive impacts for women in their work environment. For example, there needs to be child care services at work. We need to listen, first and foremost to the needs of our employees.. For example, if these flexible, telecommute strategies are working, then we need to keep them. Moving forward, organizations have to at least be able to discuss flexibility options, but not without caregiving to back it up. We need to be human centered in our solutions and changes. 

Women are working in vulnerable industries (hospitality, education, food service, retail) and women make less in every country in the world where there is data available, as compared to men. Women comprise only 39% of the labor force but account for 54% of job losses in the pandemic. The care economy runs on the work of unpaid women and these roles have increased with closures of schools and care facilities, and in the context of lockdowns. It is not a given that these issues will be dealt with, even though they are being discussed. 

Caregiving and education structures need to be treated like critical infrastructure. In our government structure, we have about 20 critical infrastructure categories. Hospitals and nuclear power plants are in there but schools are not. The need for budget strategies and other structural strategies become clear in this instance. Education and caregiving are the unsung critical infrastructures of our society and they are being underserviced.  

How can we center women of color in particular when it comes to getting people working in foreign affairs industries?

Transparency and accountability is key. You can’t just toss out a net, you have to really make an effort and do engaged outreach. Reach out to HBCUs. Employers can do a lot to change the perceptions as well: posting salary ranges, not requiring the disclosing of previous salaries – which can reinforce wage gaps. If you have a position and your application pool is not diverse, then you have to start over because you’ve done something wrong. The notion that you ‘just didn’t get anyone’ is lazy and doesn’t cut it. Employers can’t just say Black Lives Matter, they have to show how they are changing internal policies and making structural changes.

We need to think more about targeting and benchmarks. We need concrete data and structural benchmarks. Quotas are not typically viewed favorably in the US, though interestingly enough it is happy to export the use of quotas internationally and in their development work. 

We also know that in peacekeeping, a diverse workforce creates stronger outcomes. Rachel Vogelstein did research recently at CFR around peacekeeping operations. There were claims that they couldn’t ‘find qualified people’ to deploy. Yet, what they found in their research was that women were being trained, but they were not being deployed. And what does that say?

The foreign affairs field and its industries both appear to be, and are, exclusive. What are we doing to bridge the gaps and foster interest and education in these topics? There is a lack of understanding of the possibilities. It feels unreachable to people. We have to be clear about what the pathways are, and we have to be more intentional about creating more access and opportunities for others. 

Awakening is often the outcome of crisis. People have awoken to the challenges and that can set us up to make the changes we need to make moving forward. We need to make room for new structures and new innovations. Collaboration, cooperation, and flexibility should be at the center of our work moving forward.