Winning the Future with More Women in Senior Positions

With high-profile women like Hillary Clinton, Susan Rice, and Michèle Flournoy roaming the halls of power, it’s easy to overlook the fact that women are still highly unrepresented in all foreign policy- and national security-related professions. In academia, think tanks, and in leadership positions at the Pentagon and the State Department, women do not crack 30% representation, and in the more explicitly “hard security” areas, the number is often in the teens.

Heather Hurlburt, head of the National Security Network, veteran think tanker, and former advisor and speechwriter to President Clinton and two Secretaries of State, wrote a piece in Foreign Policy wondering why this might be, what the practical costs are, and how to ameliorate the problem. Hurlburt is particularly concerned with the dwindling effect, with women at or near parity at the graduate school- and entry-level, but steadily disappearing at the higher echelons:

As the female head of a nonprofit with “National Security” in its title, I see a flood of talented young women as interns, job-seekers, and colleagues. No one has told them they’re not supposed to like “hard security.” They want to work on everything and climb the ladder as much as the men do. In fact, their confidence and assertiveness tends to unnerve my older male colleagues. The real question is, where do they go between the time they pour into the intern ranks at 22 and the time they are my peers and my mentors’ peers?

This same dwindling effect occurs in many traditionally male-dominated fields, including scientific and biomedical research. Women swell the ranks of grad students and young research fellows, but then abandon the academic track in droves as time goes by:

Women constitute approximately 45% of the postdoctoral fellows in the biomedical sciences at universities and research institutions in the USA, but a much lower percentage of women hold faculty positions. In the US National Institutes of Health (NIH; Bethesda, MD) Intramural Research Program, for example, women make up only 29% of the tenure-track investigators and hold just 19% of the tenured senior investigator appointments.

It is not just a delayed effect as we wait for all those young eager female students and postdocs to make their way up: in the last ten years the percentage of tenure-track or tenured women investigators at NIH has remained unchanged.

So why aren’t women sticking around to become leaders in fields like national security and scientific research? For her part, Hurlburt notes that part of the problem is a feedback loop that tells women at formative junctures of their career that such male-dominated professions are perhaps not “for” them. So, after studying and interning in “hard power” fields:

…many more women [eventually] find themselves in “soft power” policy areas. Does this happen because of something essentially feminine? No. About once every five years, starting in college, someone has told me that women “don’t like” hard security. Eventually, many women take the hint: If moving from defense to development buys you a more congenial workplace and bosses who seem to value you more, then it’s no wonder that the ranks of women in “hard security” dwindles along the way.

I think this is a big factor. A survey of NIH postdocs reveals that while two-thirds of male postdocs say they want to pursue a tenured PI position, only a half of women postdocs say the same. Like Hurlburt’s example, there is no essentialist feminine reason why women are more apt to drop out of the ranks at a higher rate than men. Part of the problem must be that just as in the national security establishment, from the early stages of graduate school and postdoctoral work, a large majority of one’s mentors, professors, department heads, field leaders, career role models, etc., have been men. Not only does that tend to set an adverse example to aspiring women, but it creates a boy’s club environment that naturally leads to various inequities of opportunity. Hurlburt notes:

[W]e must be honest that the core problem is that many men still turn first to other men — in hiring, but also in picking conference speakers, media spokespeople, and handing out assignments. If you don’t want to call it sexism, it is at least a bias toward comfort with what’s familiar.

The cumulative effect of this bias in the sciences is clear: a large reason woman postdocs do not want to pursue a PI position is that they do not feel they have a sufficient body of promising independent work to build upon: 67% of men, and only 48% of women, said they had a project that they could take with them when becoming a PI. I find that a devastating disparity. Not surprisingly then, men (59%) were far more confident than women (40%) that they would one day obtain a PI position. Likewise, women were more apt to stop pursuing a PI position if they failed in their initial attempt. 58% of men said they would just try again, and only 41% of women said the same.

Though there’s clearly more going on here, difference of views toward family and children are also a major factor in the choice of a scientific career. I don’t have detailed data for the national security fields, but children would seem to be less of an issue there, since it’s not obvious that a soft power/development career is any less demanding or more family-friendly than a hard power/security career.

Among NIH postdocs however, “more than 21% of women, but only 7% of men, said that plans to have children or to have more children were extremely important considerations in planning their career.” Overall, male postdocs were far less concerned with issues of time availability and potential child care and family responsibilities, and women reported being far more willing than men to make changes to accommodate their spouse’s career. All of this adds up to a steady abandonment of the tenure track by women.

It’s hard to know how to disentangle the cause and effect with all this data. Why are young female scientists less confident in their ability to become PIs? Is it because they know that they will bear the brunt of family and child responsibilities later on? Is it the adverse feedback of simply not encountering many senior female role models, which leads them to question the possibility of success at that level? Is there subtle bias in how their ubiquitous male supervisors (77% of women postdocs reported that both their current and previous mentor/supervisor were men) allocate work and encourage project development?

The biggest danger to not getting this right is what Heather Hurlburt calls a “straightforward loss in the ‘war for talent.'”

With American women now a majority of college graduates, receiving an ever-larger proportion of postgraduate degrees, and outperforming men academically, we’re missing brainpower if they don’t form a significant part of our national security infrastructure.

And likewise for our scientific research infrastructure. If left unaddressed, we’ll continue losing bright women to less demanding fields and sub-fields, and we’ll concede more scientific achievement to countries that have more generous public family support structures and more equitable norms. All of this is obviously way better than it was a few decades ago (here is a Bloggingheads episode of Heather discussing the issue with her mother, who graduated from the Fletcher School in 1961). But clearly there’s a lot to be done.

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