Consolidating themes and identifying strategies for change: next steps in supporting women in think tanks

6 July 2015
SERIES Women in think tanks 11 items

The last in our series on women in think tanks, this post begins by reflecting more generally on the question of women in think tanks. It then summarises important points of discussion from throughout the series, first recounting factors that shape the experience of women in think tanks, then suggesting strategies for promoting greater equity, and finally exploring opportunities for follow-up. We hope that the series, rather than just providing recommended interventions for gender equity in think tanks, will provide material for think tanks to reflect on. There is a diversity of environments and factors that can help foster women’s success in the field of knowledge production and the compilation of findings from our contributors should provide think tanks with some possible next steps and help them in assessing what dynamics may be impeding improved equity of opportunity in their organisations.

A big picture look at the issue of women in think tanks

While working through this series on women in think tanks, we’ve tried to answer questions about whether equal opportunity exists in think tanks, how women experience think tank work, and what can be done to improve their experiences and to create more gender equitable workplaces in think tanks; However, we have had much less discussion about the importance of the role of women in think tanks.

Why is important to make think tanks more gender equitable spaces and what might that mean for the way they work and exact influence on policy processes?

There are several reasons why more gender equitable think tanks are desirable:

  • Equity and fairness: Equal opportunity to be employed, succeed in and exact influence within any field without regards to your gender, sexual orientation, race or class is an intrinsic question of fairness that stems from a belief that all people are equal and deserve the same opportunities to thrive. This is in fact a principle that many think tanks include among their own.
  • Creating a change in who is imagined to be a successful thinktanker: Encouraging more women to enter think tank work and supporting them in moving up the ranks helps in re-defining the typical thinktanker. Creating a space in think tanks where women can see themselves thriving will encourage more talented women to pursue careers in think tanks, as Cynthia Sanborn mentioned in our fourth post.
  • Strategic benefits to think tanks: there may be some strategic benefits to think tanks, such as matching diversity in government for relationship building as Ruth Levine discussed in her post.
  • Benefits of diversity to research quality: Research quality may also benefit from a more diverse staff representing different experiences. These experiences might include how public policy affects them personally or how they relate to the state among others, which can affect how they respond to policy challenges.

Could gender equity threaten policy influence?

However, would think tank leadership in some contexts and situations feel that adopting a more gender equitable workplace model that recognises care responsibilities and attempts to challenge the ideal of the masculine worker would somehow undermine their ability to influence policy? Policy influence is how think tanks measure their success and increasingly donors are asking that think tanks present measurable indicators of policy influence. If elected officials and policy makers are still overwhelmingly male and/or operating in a system that values masculine performances and modes of communication, but if a think tank does not, could they lose influence?

Maintaining funding and visibility is crucial for think tanks, but I believe that a think tank can navigate a masculine environment while still making efforts to not reproduce gender inequities within their staff. For instance, CEPA in Sri Lanka, although dominated by women researchers and utilising more ‘feminine’ research methods, was successful in maintaining viability and influencing policy. Priyanthi Fernando, in further conversation since her post, has also highlighted that policy influence does not only happen through interaction with high-level policy makers. It can happen by influencing policy makers’ constituencies through media and civil society, by opening up spaces for debate, or even by mentoring future leaders. Think tanks can use their staff strategically based on their strengths in different types of communication.

The key in promoting gender equity in this case would be equal valuation of both types of contribution. Think tank directors and senior management can be cognisant of the fact that policy makers may be more responsive to communication from people similar to them without mistaking it for individual ability. And surely there are very talented individuals with good communication skills that could be effective in achieving influence despite difference. Successful think tanks are no strangers to working strategically and this would likely be intuitive for them.

Think tanks can’t fix the whole problem on their own

The gap in gender equity in think tanks, particularly at higher levels, is large and as such warrants action within think tanks to address it; however, there are also significant exogenous factors that hinder think tanks’ abilities to recruit, employ and promote representative numbers of women. Major factors are pipeline issues that can be traced as far back as primary school education or a lack of social services and public goods in many countries. Women’s participation, particularly in STEM related policy fields, can be traced back to how their confidence and abilities are fostered from primary school. A lack of social supports such as state funded day cares and other public supports for families can make it harder for caregivers to balance work and career. A lack of public goods, like high quality public schools, can make it harder for individuals who might not be expected to be successful professionals to have a fighting chance at a policy career.

Understanding the current status of women in think tanks

Our contributors to the women in think tanks series have identified a number of characteristics and themes that aid in the understanding of the status and experience of women in think tanks in various contexts.

Context is crucial

When analysing gender in think tanks, it is essential to recognise that think tanks exist within their cultural and political contexts and it is crucial that they are analysed within that frame. As gender relations will be shaped by those cultural and political realities, assessing and addressing gender barriers within a think tank is part of a more complete process of challenging gender discrimination in societies in general.

Taking on discrimination as a research area, as Cynthia Sanborn explained was done at CIUP, is one way of understanding the landscape of discrimination in one’s context. However, in cases where this is not financially or strategically viable, think tank staff coming from underrepresented groups can serve as experts on their own experiences and should be consulted to help orient interventions so they can be implemented in an effective way.

Sexism and discrimination is happening

Although some contributors hypothesised that the incidence of sexism and discrimination and some other gendered barriers may be lower in think tanks than some other fields, it certainly is still a phenomena that women (and other non-masculine presenting individuals) experience in all contexts explored in the series. In the data we have available we see that women are underrepresented in think tanks, particularly in certain issue areas and in top management positions. Among think tanks funded by the Think Tank Initiative, we know that just over 42% of staff are women but only 14% of think tanks have women executive directors. Josephine Tsui illustrated that women were particularly underrepresented in economics think tanks in the UK and this type of issue divide by gender was supported anecdotally by the commentary from other contributors.

Gender barriers are often subtle 

The subtly of gendered barriers was strongly argued by María Balarin and reinforced by commentary from other contributors. In Balarín’s own study, she discusses several ways that subtle unspoken gendered barriers manifest as a preference for ‘masculine’ behaviours that women tend not to be socialised in. This is the workings of a model of an ‘ideal worker’ who is supported by a carer in the home and who exhibits typically ‘masculine’ behaviours such as complete commitment to work, assertiveness, and competitiveness that is introduced in Balarín’s post and expanded upon in Rachel Moss’s post. Examples of these manifestations compiled from various posts include:

  • That women are discouraged from applying for promotions in early stages of their careers while men are often encouraged to do so, often in an unconscious way.
  • How women are valued in an organisation and how they assess their own professional value.
  • Women self-selecting or incentivised into ‘feminine’ issue areas and administrative-heavy work. There is a horizontal and vertical segregation of men and women in academia. A horizontal segregation by subject area where women are concentrated in the arts, social policy, humanities, and health, while men are more concentrated in areas that also tend to be more prestigious and higher paying, like economics and hard sciences. And a vertical segregation exists where women hold more positions with higher levels of administrative duties and that hold lower levels of prestige, authority, notoriety, and remuneration.
  • Difficulties for women with care responsibilities excelling in academia. They often make up for the strain on their time by decreasing their time invested in research activities, which is the activity most central in creating notoriety for oneself as a researcher, and instead prioritise teaching and administrative responsibilities.
  • The motherhood penalty and the fatherhood bonus (see our post from DC thinktankers). Men are often rewarded when they have children, seen as more responsible and committed to work because of their family responsibilities a US study shows that men stand to gain a 6 per cent salary increase by becoming fathers. In contrast women on average suffer a 4 per cent decrease in their earning for each child they have. Another study showed that women were viewed unfavourably when requesting flex-time as less committed to work, while men were viewed more favourably as a result of such requests. Men were also granted flex-time requests at significantly higher rates than women.

Care responsibility shapes women’s experiences in the workplace

Nearly all contributors cited care responsibility as a central factor in shaping women’s experiences in think tanks and the workplace in general. The preference for workers without care responsibilities, or those we perceive as less likely to have care responsibilities in the future, is manifested in the subtle gendered barriers and attitudes present in recruitment, retention and promotion. 

It is worth noting, that this may be a factor that greatly affects think tanks capacity to recruit mid-career researchers. Unable to offer sufficient employee benefits and competitive salaries they are not attractive enough for researchers with families and care responsibilities.  

Women-led organisations can offer some lessons on gender inclusion

The input from our DC-based thinktankers focused on their experiences in women-led organisations and how that might shape the opportunities for women in those organisations. They believed that women-led organisations generally opened up more opportunities for women to advance and were generally better about recognising employees as more complete individuals that might have care responsibilities. Their experience with women-focused organisations was that there was a desire to maintain consistency with the research goals and policy recommendations that they were promoting.

Nonetheless, it is important to note that being led by women is not a silver bullet. Women-led organisations were said to be more sensitive to care-givers’ flexibility needs as their leaders may have personal experiences that make them sensitive to gender-differentiated needs for women; however, it is essential to recognise that it is the characteristics and practices of the women in positions of leadership rather than the simple fact of being a woman that makes the greatest differences.

Claudia Williams also hypothesised that women-focused organisations, like those she’s worked at, tend to be less hierarchical as a result of their social justice focus and as such leave more spaces for junior and mid-level employees to contribute to and be recognised within their organisations.

Useful strategies in promoting greater gender equity in think tanks

Contributors pointed to the following interventions as important strategies for the achievement of gender equity:

  1. No male-only panels: In some ways a gimmick, this is a simple and effective way of putting gender at the top of the think tank’s agenda. Committing to avoiding all-male panels and doing all there is possible to avoiding all-male publications (although this may be harder in the short term for some think tanks) can be a first step on a road to change. The following recommendations may involve greater commitments and investments.
  2. Assessments: Not only counting the number of women researchers in the organisation [Editor’s note: although lack of data in this case is telling. We requested  information to two large funders -the TTI and the TTF- but none had desegregated data on the numbers of women working in the think tanks they support, by region and/or country nor by level of seniority and role] but also assessing the gendered nature of your organisations. How do women researchers feel in the workplace? Is gendered commentary commonplace (i.e. maybe she’s too busy with her family to take another project, are you sure that she can make an unbiased decision? – questions that call into question the rationality and decision making abilities of women because of gender stereotypes). Are women considered for promotions when they come up? What issues do women researchers in your organisation identify as crucial to their gender experience in your particular cultural and political context?
  3. Work-life balance and well-being: In our post from DC thinktankers, Claudia Williams identifies work-life balance and organisational concern for workers’ well-being as central to success for women thinktankers. Healthy work-life balance is positive for all workers, but especially critical for individuals with care responsibilities. Supporting the well-being of employees so that they feel valued as individuals and not just because of their outputs, also helps create a work environment where employees feel appreciated, care more deeply about the fate of their organisation, and are therefore more willing to participate actively in the organisation. This can help close the so-called confidence gapfor women who are less likely to participate and engage actively in group discussions and public events by encouraging their participation in the organisation and reinforcing their value to the organisations. How many think tanks have the capacity (or willingness) to invest in human resources advice or teams?
  4. Mentorship and workplace supports: Cited by both the Peruvian and American researchers interviewed, mentorship and workplace supports in the context of a supportive and inclusive workplace can help women succeed in the workplace. It can provide them with greater confidence in their work and help them to feel like a more integrated part of the organisation. Part of this mentorship process should be seen making concerted efforts to get women researchers involved in institutional activities, panels and other speaking engagements where men still tend to dominate (see Congrats, you have an all-male panel! and say no to #man panels). Claudia Williams also cited workplace supports as an important way for management to stay in tune with their staff and help maintain healthy work-life balances, good for all employees but especially important for retaining women with care responsibilities. Initiatives like Grupo Sofía in Peru may offer a mentoring opportunity; young members could benefit from the experience, networks and contacts of their more experienced ones.
  5. Gender sensitisation and training in unconscious bias: echoing the discussion on women-led organisations, having leadership that is gender-sensitised and trained in unconscious bias will help lessens many of the practices of subtle bias. A gender-sensitised workplace makes it easier for employees to present themselves as dynamic individuals who, although privileging their professional identity in the workplace, have lives and responsibilities outside of the workplace. Workers, especially women, wouldn’t have to worry that by revealing their role as a carer or exhibiting emotion they will no longer fit within the model of an ideal worker. There is an academic field that think tanks could tap into for inspiration.
  6. Telework and flex-time: an important component in helping workers maintain work-life balance is a certain level of flexibility on the part of employers through policies like telework and flex-time. These policies can help workers balance personal responsibilities with their work schedule and help women stay in the professional world during critical stages of their lives if they have small children or are caring for ailing parents. Many workers do point out that these policies can lead to an unhealthy blurring of professional and personal life where workers are making up for the time they spent caring by working late into the night and miss out on sleep and time for self-care. Therefore, when these measures are not used in conjunction with some kind of greater consideration for work-life balance, they are not more than a stopgap measure that helps keep women from dropping out of the workforce completely.
  7. Supporting staff development and funding employee benefits: Throughout this series, benefits and supports for workers, especially those with care responsibilities has been cited as an essential component of retaining and fostering women’s participation in think tanks. Claudia Williams discussed the difficulty of maintaining work life balance in organisations whose overhead costs are underfunded causing them to take on oppressive project loads to fill out their budgets, while Cynthia Sanborn proposed a possible strategy, important especially for smaller and start-up organisations, of working with donors who prioritise gender equity to help fund their overhead and staff development budget with the goal of not only better capacitation of staff but also improved gender equity. Enrique Mendizabal cited other gender mechanisms that result from funding structures in his post, highlighting that in think tanks where thinktankers fundraise individually they are much less likely to be supported during difficult times and therefore to drop out of the workforce. In cases where think tanks hold researchers to strict fundraising targets associated with their seniority, workers with care responsibilities might pass on promotion opportunities to keep their targets more manageable. Further investigation into think tanks business models and strategies for think tanks to avoid overcommitting to project loads while maintaining sufficient budgets would be positive change for all workers, but with particularly large potential benefits for those with care responsibilities. The On Think Tanks topics page on funding strategies provides useful insights into different funding strategies for think tanks that may be helpful in orienting think tanks that are wary of the gender effects of their funding structure.

Research and assessment is an essential first (next) step

The women in think tanks series has provided a useful foundation for thinking about the role of women and equal opportunity in think tanks and the knowledge production sector in general, introducing perspectives from women thinktankers from a variety of contexts. We hope that this can serve as a starting point for a more comprehensive discussion and greater attention to gender equity in think tanks.

  1. Data: Specifically, there is a conspicuous lack of data on gender breakdowns of staff within think tanks. Regional and/or country specific assessments are essential to better understand gender dynamics in relation to that particular context.
  2. Transparency: Having assessments and publishing gender diversity in annual reports or by some other scale is also an important part of think tank transparency. It would be appropriate, too, to report on salary differences between make and female thinktankers. This information should be requested by funders themselves -at least those committed to gender equality.
  3. Research: At least: 1) Analysis of gender dynamics in different think tank business models is also essential for understanding (university-based or party-affiliated, fundraised by researchers or by leadership, etc). 2) Analysis by policy areas and disciplines is crucial in understanding where gendered differences are rooted. 3) Analysis of gender dynamics in the strategies and tactics that think tanks follow to achieve their objectives is also necessary. This kind of information is necessary in order to make focused and appropriate recommendations for action in improving gender equity. We may find that a large portion of gender inequities are stem from underrepresentation of women in economics, like our UK case, but if it’s not the case the way of treating the problem will change. Norma Correa, professor of anthropology at Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú and also a member of the Grupo Sofia, suggested that assessing how many women are leaving think tanks for other fields (or dropping out of the workforce) and for what reasons would be helpful in determining what might not be working for women in think tanks, although a slightly more complicated research project than assessing those who are in think tanks currently.
  4. Networking: Spaces for networking, learning and sharing experiences are crucial for women in think tanks. They offer an opportunity to explore these (and other issues) in a supportive environment and launch (and test) solutions in collaboration. Grupo Sofía, in Peru, is one example of a model that could emerge elsewhere.
  5. Dissemination: We plan to follow this series with an event in Lima drawing experiences from individuals in think tanks, government and other sectors. The event will provide an opportunity to compile more experiences about women in think tanks in Peru and also to call for more research and data collection regarding women’s representation. We would be happy to support events organised elsewhere so please get in touch.