City of Men: The Foreign Policy Community’s Women Retention Problem


Micah Zenko points out in a recent piece for Foreign Policy the glaring lack of women in Washington’s foreign policy community. Searching for numbers to support her assumptions, Zenko found less than 30 percent of policy and leadership positions held by women when she reviewed Washington’s ten most prominent think tanks.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies and Center for American Progress had the highest percentages of women in policy-related roles; the Stimson Center had the highest total percentage of women in all positions at 50 percent.

When Washingtonian magazine listed the salaries of ten think tank leaders, there was only one woman, Jessica Tuchman Mathews of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Zenko found the think tank gender trend to be relatively transferrable to academia, USAID and the Pentagon.

Anecdotally, Zenko found three reasons for the gender gap in the U.S. foreign policy community:

1) Women are generally less interested in writing about “hard power,” the dominant mode for discussing foreign policy.

2) Men in senior positions have an “unconscious cronyism” in hiring other men.

3) And, not dissimilar to explanations for the lack of women in corporate leadership, women cite difficulties juggling responsibilities at home with the demands of the job.

Suggesting that there is “unconscious cronyism” to explain the low number of women in these roles may not be a particularly satisfying answer to some and may be infuriating after observing some other data.

In the 1980s, approximately 80 percent of Foreign Service Officers (FSOs) were men. But since that decade, the numbers of women have significantly increased to the point that more women are starting off in the Foreign Service than men. In 2006, 215 women versus 172 men entered the basic A-100 courses held at the Foreign Service Institute–a trend that has held up for approximately the last decade.

What this suggests is that the foreign policy community has a retention and promotion-to-leadership problem.

Women are entering the field. Why is the community unable or unwilling to keep them?


  1. Brooke says:

    I would be interested to find out the answer to this question. Nice article and I like the pic of Hillary Clinton.

  2. Kevin C. Bradley says:

    If the changing trend has only been over the last decade, it seems as though we need to give the problem some time to work itself out. The women that are entering the service in greater numbers can’t hardly be expected to rise into leadership positions so quickly. Based on your data, it seems that this problem may work itself out in another 10 years time.

  3. Jana Oestreich says:

    I think it is the same as in any other profession, there are basically two reasons… 1) women take leave to have a family, and ; 2) women get fed up with the cronyism…it gets tiresome and is foreign to us… is very law schoolish or of the old-boy network, and quite frankly, women do not operate that way. If the woman is as qualified as the man, why should she not achieve the same level as a man sipping scotch in the locker room?
    As for the #1, perhaps the woman stays out of the work force with family….OR, perhaps the private sector offers flexible work opportunities, making it easier for her to balance both.
    As for #2, I think the old cronyism is starting to break-up….in part because today’s wives do not tolerate such barbaric behavior in their husbands, thus a generation of men more accepting of women in the work place is in play. Additionally, in the last decade, society has pushed for diversity in representative groups, boards and executives

  4. Monica says:

    What kind of support resources are offered to women in these roles? Also, are the women expected to think and behave like men? Or do they have some sort of way to create a role that is best suited to their learning and communication styles. As a female who has held leadership positions I have learned that there are a lot of complexities that exist in the way that women are socialized to lead versus their male counterparts. I favored a servant leadership style that didn’t go over well with some of my cohorts who were resistant to change, collaboration and used to a more authoritative leadership style. Those who did have a background in service and collaborative work liked the leadership style very well and developed tremendously because of it. There is also an interesting conundrum with how that played out with my asserting boundaries. A lot of times, those who I did not work well with assumed that because I did not take a more authoritative tone that this meant that I was weak. So when I stepped in from time to time to deal with disciplinary issues (mostly regarding breach of boundaries), I was met with a lot of resistance to find the whole thing rather draining. I would have been happy to cut the dead weight, but I didn’t have the authorization to do so, even with the support of those who carried a disproportionate amount of the work load. So it didn’t seem like an economically viable decision to continue to take that on and sustain all of the work I’d been investing.

    As a female in leadership, once the trust is gone, it’s nearly impossible to get that back (the exception being that organizations dominated by women that are created for women tend to be a little more inclusive and accepting). Many women often leave male dominated fields to find work that is more rewarding, provides better professional support for women, or to engage in gender equity advocacy.

    The work life balance at home can also an issue if the woman is expected to carry out the traditional gender roles on top of everything else.

  5. Zoey G says:

    It seems to be a reflection of the country as a whole. Just as black males obtained voting rights before women, the country seems to be open to a mixed race President before a white woman. Same goes for the art world which seems to embrace black men as genius artists more often then women of any race. Even academia it is still very much a boy’s club as well as the financial world. The good news is that boys clubs now accept all boys. The bad news is that women’s equality in labor has a long way to go. It’s really no surprise although disappointing that the State Department would be no different. Boys will be boys unless government mandated.

  6. Sonya Black says:

    I think capitalism was the reason less numbers of female enter those top offices.
    I also think woman take less risks when it comes to defending them.

    Like anachronism men and policies trade and investment have always been that way.
    Man as ruler ship endowed with power. I support woman wanting to enter the field
    And hope their seen as equal contemporary figures toward foreign policies.
    I see nothing more than woman sharing the strength with his contemporary equal.

    Thank God for Ms. Hillary Clinton

  7. Marla says:

    It is a shame to hear that they have a retention issue. I think the real question is what is the Department of State doing to promote the hiring of qualified women to posts. I am not sure if they have a hiring and retention plan in place at the moment. I wonder what is the percentage rate of women who apply and qualify for DOS positions.

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