March 8, 2018


Gender, knowledge and think tanks

[This article was originally published in the On Think Tanks 2017 Annual Review. ]

In 2017, we were reminded of the dangers of not being gender-sensitive when
conducting research. In a message that went viral,
Alice Evans, a lecturer in international development at King’s College London, highlighted the fact that the international development community respects men as knowledge authorities far more than women. She went on to explain that men are rewarded through these gender stereotypes by having their work cited more frequently, or receiving more money for funded studies.

Publication volume has no statistically significant effect on the rank of female assistant professors. In the academic sector, only 1 in 5 tenure-track economics professors are women, though this number is probably similar in other fields and the mean gender pay gap in 2014/15 was 12.3%. Perhaps more worryingly, a recent piece of research suggests that men do not believe the data on gender bias in science.

This has an implication for think tanks. In 2017, OTT and the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) co-hosted an open table to explore the issue of gender in think tanks. Over 30 academics, development practitioners, think tank researchers, NGOs, and academic journal editors contributed to the discussion. Two key themes emerged, which require further research. One has to do with how the organisational set up of think tanks may hinder a women’s career progress. The other relates to how think tanks conduct research, which may inadvertently widen the gender gap.

Data from the Think Tank Initiative (TTI) shows that while 43% of think tank staff are female, only 23% of these organisations have female executive directors. We know this is partly due to a ‘leaky pipeline’, which creates a decreasing proportion of women at each professional level within think tanks. Organisations such as Grupo Sofia, Plataforma Comadres, and AWARD are attempting to raise the profile of women in social sciences and sciences.

But we need to be more nuanced with this data. Women are not a singular profile in themselves. They vary by class, race, age and sexual orientation. Insights from the meeting we held demonstrate that gender discrepancies only show part of the picture of who ends up excelling in think tanks. What is more, just looking at pure numbers does not account for the gendered siloisation of technical topics. For example, women tend to converge in some topics (such as social development, gender-related issues, education) while other areas are underrepresented (such as applied econometrics, war and security, international relations). Interestingly, this convergence trend is different in think tanks versus academia.

There are growing efforts to explore these issues. OTT is interested in the organisational set up of think tanks and policy research centres asking questions like: how is the business model rewarding a particular type of researcher and what are the gendered implications? TTI is also working to map out organisational policies, and practices of the institutions they support, for future research. However, we cannot wait to achieve critical mass in order to change male-dominated spaces. We need to change the spaces ourselves. To achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, we need to consider how think tanks perpetuate gendered stereotypes through our relationship with evidence and knowledge.

The second area we explored at our meeting focused on the gendered dynamics of knowledge organisations. Evidence is not only a technical issue, it is also a values-based political issue. If think tanks ignore normative gender expectations that privilege men and disadvantage women, they can perpetuate gender divides in how data is supplied, used, brokered and translated. Think tanks make choices in data collection, in what they measure and how and who they measure. These selections can deepen the divide and result in bad data.

For example, demographic health surveys only track births of women aged 15- 49, even though girls can get pregnant from the age of 11 and onwards. This is a flaw in how researchers are designing survey instruments. It also means governments are making policies about adolescent pregnancy without taking account of girls who are getting pregnant between the ages of 10 and 14 years. According to Plan’s Counting the Invisible project, there are an estimated 70,000 girls aged between 10 and 19 years who die of birth-related complications every year. The exact number of girls under 15 is still largely undocumented.

We must consider our role as researchers when designing studies. Does the evidence truly represent the complete picture? Who does it benefit if certain actors are not countered? As researchers, we have a duty to look at the gaps in evidence and stop recycling of bad data. Think tanks have a responsibility to be critical of the evidence in the world and how it serves the underrepresented.

If think tanks are not reflective of how they may perpetuate gendered stereotypes, they are in danger of losing female scholars and their insights. With this in mind, they need to be considerate of gender dynamics in the use and production of knowledge.

Read more from: Josephine Tsui