Female Leadership at Think Tanks

10 March 2016

International Women’s Day is a time to celebrate the achievements of women – socially, economically, culturally, and politically – and to reflect on the progress that has been made towards reaching global gender equality. And there’s a great deal to say about the work that’s being done on gender by think tanks, as well as the women involved, in the global South. 

At the Think Tank Initiative (TTI) where I work,+ we see examples of both (a) research with a strong gender focus (for example, in a project by Grupo Sofia to promote women in Peruvian social sciences or another project on maternal and child health in Nigeria) and (b) organizational practices aimed at achieving gender equality. In terms of organizational practices, which I focus on here, women thinktankers offered their perspectives on gender identity in the workplace in a recent series on women in think tanks by On Think Tanks. Not surprisingly, female leadership emerged as one of many themes central to a discussion of gender at think tanks. As Meghan Froehner, the editor of this series, notes, there are several reasons why gender equitable think tanks are desirable: ensuring equity and fairness, creating change, matching diversity in government, and enhancing research quality.

Statistically speaking

So what does female leadership look like, in terms of the numbers, within the TTI cohort? According to the latest data from the TTI (for 2014) of 5,033 think tank staff, 2,123 are female (42%), and during this same period 6 of 43 think tanks (or 14%) had female Executive Directors. As Enrique Mendizabal observes in a blog post, the leap between the number of female staff and female Executive Directors at TTI think tanks seems to confirm something that the authors of the Women in Think Tanks series stress: there are many more women in the early stages of their careers than at the top. This observation alone can help to make a case for why efforts, such as the creation of quotas or mentorship opportunities, should be geared towards increasing the number of female leaders in think tanks.


However, it’s also important to look beyond the numbers to explore whether more female leaders will necessarily enable gender equality, and to consider where intersectionality fits into this discussion. The category of ‘women’ is not a uniform one. By viewing women as a homogenous group, and assuming a shared experience or single point of view, there is a risk that the experiences of marginalized people will be ignored. Within any discussion of female leadership it is essential to explore other socially constructed categories beyond gender such as race, class, and disability. As the lived experiences of these individuals differ, tools such as quotas can only go so far.

Can we equate female leadership with gender equality?

There is also a danger that the words ‘women’ and ‘gender’ will be used interchangeably. Gender does not refer only to biological sex; instead it is a socially constructed category with power implications. In a blog post on the gender dynamics of knowledge organizations, Priyanthi Fernando, former Executive Director of Sri Lanka’s Centre for Poverty Analysis reflects on her ten years of experience as the Executive Director of a think tank, saying,

A discussion of women’s participation and ascension to leadership roles in think tanks, questions on gendered ways of thinking and discourse, paths to careers and gender divide in issue areas – all assume that think tanks are also gendered organisations, and that somehow women led think tanks could behave differently, and that there are organisational practices that might ‘relieve some of the barriers to inclusion and promotion that women face in think tanks.

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

Fostering female leadership: Quotas and mentorship

Bearing these complex issues in mind, there are some examples of approaches – such as quotas and mentorship activities – that can help to foster female leadership at think tanks.

Quotas, for example, are a tool for getting more women into these positions. Here in Canada we’ve recently seen the formation of Canada’s first sex-balanced cabinet. Along the same lines, Kenya imposed a new State constitution in 2012 that requires women to make up one third of all elected bodies. Another interesting initiative is the #nomoreallmalepanels Owen Pledge that calls on individuals to refuse to sit on panels that do not include at least one woman.

Quotas can, without a doubt, help to increase numbers. 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. Her article also lists numerous strategies for improving women’s representation in think tanks lists that have not been addressed in this article and may be of interest to the reader. Implementing quotas is not, however, akin to enhancing gender equality. As Andrea Cornwall notes:

Increasing the numbers of women involved may serve instrumental goals, but will not necessarily address more fundamental issues of power. There is no reason to suppose that women, by virtue of their sex, are any more open to sharing power and control than men.

However, bearing this in mind, quotas can be an effective starting point.

Mentorship is an example of another activity that can serve to foster leadership opportunities. In a recent blog post on the potential of mentorship, Antonia Mutoro of IPAR-Rwanda outlines the importance of mentorship for building the capacity of both individuals and the organization. Similarly, Priyanthi Fernando cites mentorship as an example of CEPA’s ‘caring’ culture in her blog – a culture that she argues helps to blur gender roles, and makes it easier for women to take on leadership roles.

Initiatives such as quotas and mentorship activities aimed at fostering female leadership must be part of broader systemic efforts aimed at enabling gender equality, and should ideally take intersectionality into consideration. That being said, steps such as implementing quotas, inviting female panelists to events, and providing mentoring can all serve to improve women’s representation in think tanks, hopefully creating opportunities for them to move up in their careers, should they choose to do so.