The empowering role of think tanks

21 November 2017

This post draws from my reflections and insights as part of the OTT Fellowship Programme on how we, as young leaders of think tanks from around the world, can be the main drivers of an inclusive and non-discriminatory change. It is a reflection on how we, women and men, can use our knowledge to bring gender equality closer to our minds and our policy agendas.

The primary role of think tanks is considered to be the generation of knowledge through research. However, the research process is not always as inclusive as it could be. When it comes to the people involved in the decision-making, agenda-setting and creation stages of research, think tanks don’t always have the most inclusive institutional structures. From my perspective, this affects the perception of knowledge think tanks provide and portray within societies.

I believe think tanks have the potential to be examples of social equity- role models for non-discriminatory practices and for human rights protection. As the “brains of the society”- “the thinkers” who provide rational advice to decision-makers – they must act as the microsystem of an equitable society in which everyone has a fair chance. Created in the context of democracy, they should actively advocate for the functioning of democracy. Nevertheless, think tanks are not isolated from their societies. On the contrary, they are part of the current challenges faced by society as they push to become better and fulfill their missions. Some of these challenges relate to the role of women in think tanks, ensuring and increasing their representation and participation, promoting and advancing women in leadership roles, and improving the balance between work and family.

I felt those challenges when working or collaborating with think tanks. In some think tanks, women are still expected to make the coffee for the men in the room. Some of them tacitly comply with this role, even though women are hired for their intellectual capacities, not their coffee-making skills. I was even told the reasoning behind this is that women make better coffee than men do… in a century and within institutions where coffee-making machines are available! In other think tanks, women are in charge of administrative duties and less involved in the decision-making processes. The most worrying fact, however, is that I witnessed think tanks asking discriminatory questions during their job interviews. For example, during job interviews, women were asked if they planned to have a family or give birth to a child.

It is understandable that not every think tank has the capacity, nor the expertise, to ensure the protection of human rights at each and every level. Nevertheless, they can always improve how they safeguard these rights and address human rights issues in their immediate environment.

One easy step think tanks can take to mainstream human rights protection is to assume a leading role when developing a questionnaire or guidelines for pre-interviews, interviews and practices within think tanks, ensuring all questions are non-discriminatory. What’s innovative about this suggestion is that they can approach it from the point of view of the principles they defend and portray within their societies.

Here are a few basic examples of non-discriminatory interview advice think tanks can touch upon:

  1. The questions addressed during a potential job interview must refer to the knowledge and the experience that a person might possess and how it relates to the think tank’s objectives. The questions should not impact the emotional or physical integrity of the person. From a think tank’s perspective, questions about marital status are not only discriminatory, but are completely irrelevant. Knowing if someone is married or not does not help a think tank make a more informed decision about the professional value of the person for the institution.
  2. Think tanks should not ask candidates about their future family plans. A woman must not be asked if she has or plans to have children, unless the issue is brought up by the candidate willing to negotiate her working time. Since knowledge can be produced anywhere, think tanks should be more flexible in allowing their employees to work from home or with a flexible schedule, allowing women and men to find the right balance between work and family time.
  3. Think tanks must not address questions in a biased way. Asking women if they can make coffee and asking men if they can work in certain programs is unacceptable. Gender does not make a difference when it comes to the taste of the coffee or the outcome of a program, and think tanks should know better than that.
  4. The identity (race, gender, religion, ethnicity, etc.) of the person is irrelevant in a think tank interview, unless the intention is to accommodate certain individual needs. A candidate’s multicultural background or the lack of it can also be touched upon in terms of research interests and motivation in a particular area.

As we ask the state institutions to be respectful of human rights, we should ask the institutions producing knowledge for societies to do the same. Here are some examples on how think tanks can ensure equitable gender spaces: