A toolkit for promoting gender equality in think-tanks and international affairs

29 March 2021

We know that think tanks occupy an influential space in policymaking as producers of knowledge and convenors of those involved in policy and decision-making. Yet, the think tank community has been slow at recognising and ensuring research does not entrench harmful practices or perpetuate biases and inequalities. Nor has there been much reflection on the cultural or structural barriers that inhibit women’s access or career progression.

The research that has been emerging over the last few years paints a worrying picture and  largely confirms what women have been saying for decades: women are underrepresented in executive positions and board rooms, are excluded from policy debates and are less influential on Twitter. This research is important because it allows us to take stock of where the community is and provides a baseline to measure future progress. However, future research must consider disparities between women and not perpetuate a binary understanding of gender.

Think tanks have an opportunity to become leaders in driving change across international affairs, and staff at Chatham House, the British American Security Information Council, and the Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy have written a toolkit to encourage this change.

It can be difficult to know where to start when one embarks on the institutional introspection and reform process that goes alongside wanting to move to more inclusive and gender-sensitive working practices. In the Gender, Think-Tanks and International Affairs toolkit, we provide detailed advice about how to get started and how to make progress in a range of different areas. Our five top tips for starting this work are:

  1. Involve the whole think tank. A holistic organisational approach is needed. Focusing solely on boosting visible representation, for instance, will limit progress and risks being tokenistic.
  2. Gender equality is everyone’s responsibility. Listen to, and hear from, all staff. Creating change needs to be an inclusive process: the burden should not fall on any individual or group to make change alone.
  3. Be intersectional. Understand the nuances of people’s lived reality and identities by focusing on gender in relation to ethnicity, race, age, social class, religion, disability and sexual orientation.
  4. Be consistent and persistent. Change will be a slow process, but being consistent and persevering in pushing for change will embed good practice and create a culture shift.
  5. Collect data and share best practices. Every think tank has more work to do on gender. Closing the data gap in the think tank sector will be instrumental in building an evidence base for creating change and monitoring progress.

If think tanks work collaboratively and share best practices, this can help bring about sector-wide institutional change. This is important because think tank research and ideas can have a direct impact on decision-makers. Democratising the working culture in think tanks and breaking out of long-term traditional lenses of analysis is part of ensuring that the policy recommendations think tanks make are well-thought through and reasoned, as well as working for a wide range of populations rather than just some demographics. We hope that the Gender, Think-Tanks and International Affairs toolkit can play a part in making working practices and working culture in think tanks more diverse and accessible.