Female think tank leaders around the world

25 July 2012

We have been compiling a list of think tanks led by women around the world. If we went by the number of women in think tank gatherings one would find it easy to assume that women have had very little presence in leadership positions in the think tank sector, even if they have a large presence in their staff and in senior positions within them. We know that they are fewer than men, but it would still be interesting to inquire about the characteristics of those who reach positions of leadership: what is their background like? As this research in based on gender and people, rather than topics, making the list has proved being a challenging task. There are no previous large lists on the subject, and we have had to review think tanks’ information and staff profiles one by one to find which ones are led by women. Our list is still in process, but we’re able to draw some conclusions.

We hope, too, that you’ll contribute with your own insights and information.

Most women who lead think tanks work in fields like social development or economics, and they have an education comparable to their men peers. We find that think tanks in the United States are increasingly embracing women as leaders, even if the leading American think tanks have large gender gaps, and in regions like Eastern Europe they are very active in the most influential think tanks.

Ways of accessing leading positions can vary widely, from nominated positions to those elected through an election system among members of the institutions. In most cases, female directors, as with men, have made a previous career inside their think tanks, escalating from positions that can be either an area management or just a staff member, especially when they start from an early age in the think tank. There are still problems of gender discrimination and under-recognition of women at work places, which intensifies in a highly competitive ground as scientific research, that keep woman away from the allure of working as researchers and team leaders. We can also observe a bias toward certain areas of interest as education, social issues, and evidently, gender issues, even in countries with large opportunities as the United States. Amanda Marcotte writes about the existence of “daddy issues” –such as economics, security or foreign policy- and “mommy issues” –such as education, health, poverty, etc.- that build up a divide in career prospects of women and generates an ongoing debate in the U.S. Marcotte leaves an open question about the voluntary nature of these choices among women.

In Eastern Europe, particularly in the Balkans, most women have previous careers in international organisations in the 1990s and early 2000s, especially at the UNDP, owing to the fact that the international community had an essential role in restoring peace and civil organisations after the war. International organisations as UNDP have gender equality policies that look forward a greater participation of women in politics and civic society. In the rest of Europe, women tend to come from academia and government.

In Latin America, most think tanks are related to academia, and many centres are linked to universities and schools, where women have had fairly equal opportunities to build a career. We have found a higher number of women leaders than expected in the most important think tanks of the region, and who have built solid careers comparable to those of men. Cynthia Sanborn, director of Universidad del Pacifico Research Centre in Lima, Peru, mentions that women who want a career in public policy research have today the same possibilities as men to reach leadership positions. Most research centres in Peru choose their leaders through elections where full members of the institution vote and participate. Nonetheless, one large barrier that women often face is the process to get a doctorate, that involves at least three or four years in a life stage where many prefer to start a family, what creates a disadvantage for them in a sphere where competition for hiring the most prepared is in its highest point.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, women think tank directors have in most cases an outstanding formation, many of them having studied abroad in European and North American universities (9 out of 10 in our list, as of 24 July 2012), and they are attached to the academic world in their countries. There are fewer links than expected between activism and leadership in research institutions, rather having directors who have had a scholar career for a long time and have slowly escalated towards leadership positions. Mubiana Macwan’gi, director of the Institute of Economic and Social Research, University of Zambiaexplains her path to her actual position, citing factors as parental support she received to get further education -which is still the exception for many women-, working hard to get opportunities as studying abroad , as a passion for research she has held since young.

In general, access to higher education is the main tool for women to arrive to build a career in research institutions, as competition around the world requires skills to deal with challenges such as knowledge generation, interacting with foreign cooperation and funding sources, and influence.

We are gradually increasing our list of think tanks led by women and we will focus on other regions. Suggestion about other think tanks led by women around the world that should be added to the list, please contact @onthinktanks or follow #womeninthinktanks