Do think tanks need more female leaders?

13 September 2017

[This post was originally published on the IDRC blog on September 6, 2017.]

Women around the world are underrepresented at both leadership and management levels — less than one-third of senior and middle-management positions are held by women. As Khalida Ghaus, executive director of the Social Policy and Development Centre in Pakistan noted in the 2007-08 Women at Work Review, “Gender discrimination still persists and male employees of offices and factories would hesitate to accept a female as their superior, and rarely as the chief executive.” Nearly a decade later, these challenges persist in diverse sectors on an international scale, including think tanks.

Canada is demonstrating its commitment to increasing economic leadership among women with the newly launched Feminist International Assistance Policy. Similarly, Sustainable Development Goal 5’s focus on achieving gender equality and empowering women and girls also aims to ensure women’s leadership. Certainly, getting more women into leadership roles feels like an important goal in itself, and there’s a social justice argument to be made for fostering equality. But why do we need more women leaders? Do we expect women to be better leaders? And does this lead to stronger, more equitable organizations?

Think tanks, such as the 43 supported by the Think Tank Initiative (TTI), are in a position to answer these tough questions. They’re immersed in their local contexts and work to provide evidence that can influence policy. In a 2015 series on women in think tanks, women “thinktankers” offered their perspectives on gender identity in the workplace. Leadership emerged as a key theme, and series editor Meghan Froehnor provided several reasons why gender-equitable think tanks are desirable: they ensure equity and fairness, support more women to enter think tank work and move up the ranks, and facilitate research quality through diversity in researcher experiences. She also noted, importantly, that it’s the characteristics and practices of women, rather than the simple fact that they’re female, that makes the difference.

What do the numbers tell us?

So what does female leadership look like for the 43 TTI-supported think tanks in the global South? According to 2016 data, 43% of think tank staff are female, yet only 23% (10 of the 43) have female executive directors. As Enrique Mendizabal suggests, something may be discouraging women from “following through” all the way to executive roles. To learn more about these trends, TTI is mapping out the organizational policies and practices of the institutions it supports.

Looking beyond the think tank landscape, here in Canada we’ve recently seen the formation of Canada’s first sex-balanced cabinet. Similarly, Kenya’s 2010 Constitution aims to guarantee gender mainstreaming in all elective and appointive bodies, requiring that they are composed of “not more than two-thirds of either gender”. Despite this effort, there are still relatively few female MPs in Kenya’s National Assembly and the Senate — a reminder that quotas aren’t always effective.

When they work, quotas can be a useful tool for getting more women into positions of leadership. And as Ruth Levine outlines in a blog post on female representation within think tanks and government, the benefits to increased representation for women in think tanks can include influence within the policy community.

Does female leadership = gender equality?

Even if we do see female leadership numbers increase, it is important to consider whether greater numbers of female leaders will enable gender equality. We can’t conflate women with gender, and we need to consider where diversity in women’s experiences fits into this discussion. The category of ‘women’ is not a uniform one with a shared experience or single point of view.

Clearly, having a female leader in place is not a silver bullet for achieving gender equality. As women thinktankers share in a blog post about women-led organizations, it comes down to the attributes and practices of these female leaders, not the simple fact that they are women.

Whether female leaders foster gender equality depends on both the individual leader as well as the nature of the organization’s structures, processes, and norms. In a blog post on the gender dynamics of knowledge organizations, Priyanthi Fernando, former Executive Director of Sri Lanka’s Centre for Poverty Analysis reminds us that “A discussion of women’s participation and ascension to leadership roles in think tanks [assumes] that think tanks are also gendered organizations, and that somehow women led think tanks could behave differently, and that there are organizational practices that might ‘relieve some of the barriers to inclusion and promotion that women face in think tanks.’”

As a starting point, it is essential to look at both the organization and how gender is integrated across its policies and practices, as well as the leader’s style and characteristics. This is an essential next step for anyone interested in understanding why and how female leadership should be fostered, the difference it can make, and the importance of supporting organizational approaches to gender equality.