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The underrepresentation of women in foreign policy is a huge problem

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Jane Greenway Carr is an ACLS Public Fellow and Contributing Editor at New America. She holds a PhD from NYU and is the founding editor of The Brooklyn Quarterly.

When it comes to the opinion-makers and experts we listen to on matters of foreign policy, it's neither new nor enough to ask: where are the women? We also have to ask where they aren't.

We need not go very far for an answer: The Washington Post recently compiled data from events hosted by six leading think tanks in Washington, DC. They found that not a single woman spoke at more than 150 events on the Middle East. Of the 232 total events included in the Post's data set, fewer than 25 percent of the speakers were women. According to the Op-Ed Project, women author only 10-20% of op-eds. Another way to look at the status quo: women over 65 (a group that currently includes a presumptive frontrunner in the 2016 presidential race) are less likely to be cited as an expert in the media as are boys between the ages of 13 and 18.

Elmira Bayrasli and fellow journalist Lauren Bohn, co-founders of Foreign Policy Interrupted (FPI) are asking: why? Bayrasli cited the Washington Post's numbers at a recent event to punctuate FPI's mission as an organization dedicated to "amplifying the voices" of women in foreign policy.

As a "visibility platform," newsletter, and information clearinghouse for new voices, FPI does not, co-founder Bohn said, see its mission as  "saying we need women in the conversation for diversity's sake." Instead, the eponymous interruption FPI seeks to make is on behalf of all groups who are underrepresented when it comes to talking about foreign policy. "When you have more voices at the table," Bohn said, "you have a more likely environment for possible solutions."

Bayrasli and Bohn are "advocating" to hear more commentary and see more column inches from women, people of color, and thinkers from outside the United States.

"It's about adding value," she emphasized, an approach that resonates with Ben Pauker, executive editor of Foreign Policy magazine. He realized that Foreign Policy readers were "seeing a lot of the same voices" and made a dedicated push to increase the number of women among their regular columnists-a tally that is now up to 11 from only one. "It just makes us a better publication," Pauker told the audience. "There's no other way to say it."

Why does injecting previously unheard voices into the mix add value? "You find it in small, little, fine-grained ways," said Pauker. Women may have different types of sources from their male counterparts, for instance. Bayrasli singled Kim Barker's book, The Taliban Shuffle, as a good example of work done by a female journalist was able to gain access to women as sources as well as to male politicians-many of whom felt comfortable saying things to a woman that they likely would never have said to a male journalist. As a woman or a person of color, agreed Media Matters fellow and former MSNBC host Karen Finney, there are any number of reporting situations where "I might see something someone else might not pick up on."

Finney quoted a Media Matters report coming out this month that finds about 22% of the experts talking about foreign policy in the media are women. This number that takes on even greater significance because it doesn't reflect the instances when women are invited onto a television panel and don't get equal opportunities to talk-a situation that to Finney and New America president Anne-Marie Slaughter pointed out occurs all too often.

"Yes, foreign policy used to happen in oak-paneled rooms with gray-suited diplomats, but it's not like that anymore."

Having more voices at the table also matters now more than ever, contend both Finney and the founders of FPI, considering that for most people, what counts as "foreign policy" has changed. "Foreign policy is not just war," noted Bayrasli. "Yes, foreign policy used to happen in oak-paneled rooms with gray-suited diplomats, but it's not like that anymore." Education, health care, economics, and entrepreneurship all inform foreign policy these days, making the need for multi-dimensional approaches — and therefore more voices at the table — ever more pressing.

Slaughter observed that this more integrative understanding of foreign policy became a mainstream idea under Hillary Clinton's leadership at the State Department, where thinking about foreign policy in terms of development, diplomacy, and defense became "the norm in how we're talking about these issues." The process of finding common ground between national security and development in post-conflict countries, for example, changes when diplomats involve women on the ground, versed in the realities of people's lives, into decision-making dialogue.

If enriching foreign policy discussions with a wider variety of perspectives is why we need more women, FPI is chasing down how we get there. Bayrasli and Bohn identify two central issues that perpetuate the problem. First, academics and experts who are women have a tendency toward internalized perfectionism. They don't want to speak unless they know they can get it exactly right, whereas, says Finney, "I love men, I really do, but they'll talk about anything." Bohn says that FP is focused on eradicating this "confidence gap."

The second problem touches on the same issues raised by the HeForShe campaign, because it requires the intervention of male producers, editors and bookers to solve. In this age of fast-paced, 24-hour media, the people who need content go to writers and commentators who have performed for them in the past-most of whom hail from the intellectual cul-de-sac of old-school Washington. This dynamic keeps the ideas about foreign policy that get circulated in public discourse stuck in the past as well, says Bohn. But Bayrasli finds that men-once they understand challenges faced by women doing foreign policy work-are highly receptive to supporting their female colleagues, in many cases by recommending them to producers and editors.

Bohn and Bayrasli realize that changing the paradigm will take time. "This is a movement," Bohn acknowledged. Producers and editors have an opportunity to "interrupt" as well, said Finney, by making diversity a priority. FPI wants to help them do that, by "highlighting the women who are opining" in their newsletter and with a fellowship program that provides editorial mentorship.

FPI has dissected and diagnosed a problem and developed tools to fix it. When asked by Slaughter what success will look like to them, Bohn replied without hesitation: "not existing in five years." In the meantime, she and Bayrasli will keep right on interrupting.

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