June 8, 2015


Women in think tanks series: lessons so far

When we first considered producing a series on women in think tanks we envisaged that there would be demand for it -mostly, we expected that it would generate an interesting discussion. We have found that there was an even greater interest than anticipated.

Any discussion on women in think tanks tends to be underlined by a great number of assumptions. These include, for instance, that there are not enough female researchers or that female leaders are scarce generally. We expect more women to work in the more qualitative research sectors while men to focus their attention on quantitative research and hard-nosed economics.

Unfortunately, while this all sounds plausible, it is also not hard to find cases that disprove these assumptions. And then, it all depends on when you are looking at the issue. For instance, last year, in Peru, two of the top three think tanks were led by women. This year, two are led by men. In the UK, a few years ago, two of the top three international development think tanks were led by women, today, only one is led by a woman (the one that had been led by a man). Hence, looking at numbers alone cannot be enough.

The Think Tank Initiative’s think tanks provide an interesting cohort as it covers three regions: Latin America, Africa and South Asia. According to the TTI:

  • Of 5,033 think tank staff, 2,123 are female (42.2%)
  • Of 43 think tanks, 6 have female EDs (14%)

They do not currently have desegregated data for each region or for different roles (e.g. researchers, communications, management) but, at first glance, we may confirm something that the authors of the #womeninthinktanks series posts have stressed: There are many more women in the early stages of their careers than at the top. Something happens along the way that discourage women from “following through” all the way to executive roles.

But numbers are not enough. It is necessary to look into the complex nature of think tanks, the thinktanking job (and jobs), and the characteristics of individual thinktankers.

The series has had the desired effect: to elicit a discussion on a number of issues related to women in think tanks -and think tanks and their employees more generally. We have also developed a Topic Page on Women in Think Tanks to bring together posts and literature on the subject. Please, let us know if you’d like to add anything to it.

Let me reflect on some of the lessons learned.

A think tanker career: is there such a thing?

All authors seem to agree that there is a model of an ideal thinktanker that needs to change -or, at the very least, needs to be made explicit. The model, they argue, does not take into account the nature and the responsibilities of female researchers (and thinktankers more generally -as it can include communicators and managers). It prioritises a 24/7 work culture that follows the 24/4 political and media culture that think tanks aim to influence.

This culture works against, mainly, women who have to balance other responsibilities, such as care. It leads to an intrusion of their professional life into their personal life and could limit their own potential. This happens in many practical ways, for instance:

  • Think tanks expect their researchers to undertake time-intensive research, to be available to respond to the media and seize political windows and influencing opportunities, whenever these happen.
  • Think tanks increasingly judge their staff on quantitate measures: number of publications, financial targets, cases of influence, media appearances, etc. These reward certain type of behaviours, most often associated with men.

Business models matter enormously, too: some think tanks are centrally managed and funded meaning that all staff receive a salary (at least a basic salary) and funding responsibilities are shared, in others researchers’ income in entirely up to the researchers themselves who are responsible for fundraising for their work, and in yet other models, think tanks impose strict financial targets on individual researchers. In the second a third cases, women -and anyone with caring responsibilities- may be unfairly treated.

Of course, care is not solely provided by women and the negative effects that a 24/7 culture has on people can be felt by men as well as women.

The flexibility that comes with business models in which think tanks are solely responsible for their income may be a good thing in certain cases but it may also lead to researchers ‘dropping off’ the radar during difficult times. Since the think tank, in these cases, has no financial stake on their fundraising capacity they are unlikely to support them during difficult periods. However, inflexibility, as in the case of target-setting think tanks, on the other hand, can lead to women researchers choosing to work alone or ‘passing on’ promotion opportunities to keep their targets low, which would involve assuming much larger financial target responsibilities.

But just as think tank business models come in many different forms, and each has different effects on their employees, think tanks are conceived in different ways in different countries. This has an effect on the careers that thinktankers can have in a think tank.

When the authors talk about a research career in a think tank they are thinking of think tanks that are more akin to academic bodies or research centres. The model think tank that Cynthia Sanborn and María Balarínhave in mind is one in which researchers could potentially spend their whole professional life in. But the think tanks that Claudia Williams and Tiffany Boiman know are centres in which researchers join for a few years to then move on to greater (ideally) things.

Many think tanks in the developing world, unlike those in developed countries -and especially the Anglo-American tradition of think tanks, represent one of the best career choices for their researchers. The alternatives: universities, the government, NGOs, or consultancies, are too bureaucratic, politicised, poorly funded or too business driven. Leaving them (to join another think tanks or to move on to a different type of organisation in the country) is not at the top of their agendas. Often there are 2 or 3 think tanks at most so there are limited employment opportunities for them. They expect to live-out their entire professional careers in them. Inevitably, then, opportunities for promotion are extremely limited and, almost inevitably, unfair.

In Britain or the US, a think tank is a more transitory place for most researchers who are driven instead by political or ideological motivations and see think tanks as vehicles, stepping stones, for their ambitions. They may join them for brief periods while they develop their policy ideas and establish the necessary networks to take them forward, then join a political organisation or even the government to try to implement them, return to a think tank (sometimes a different one) to reflect on their experience, join an NGO or a corporation, maybe go into academia for a brief period, etc.

In these two models (of think tanks as a home or as a stepping stone) thinktankers need and expect different things. These different models demand that we consider different think tank careers or professional experiences. And in these different careers, it is important, too that we consider different ways to addressing the different needs of all employees or participants.

Good advice may not be enough; who provides it is important, too

In the past I have held the view that think tanks are not meant to be representative bodies and therefore should not worry if their staff not representative of wider society. I still think that we ought to be careful about imposing on think tanks the same demands we would impose on democratic institutions (such as political parties or congress) but an effort has to be made to avoid certain extreme situations. I completely agree, for instance, with the backlash on all-male panels. I am also critical of international development think tanks mainly staffed by Americans, British or Europeans advocating for policies that affect the lives of millions in countries far away from their own (and where they are not accountable for their mistakes).

Ruth Levine’s post provides a strong argument for making a concerted effort to recruit more women in think tanks:

I believe women in think tanks can communicate with women who are elected representatives, political appointees and government officials more effectively than men can. In part, this is because of gender-specific ways of speaking and listening.

They are also more likely to address issues that affect women, she argues. But her argument is also perfectly applicable to recruiting more people with disabilities, more ethnic minorities, more graduates from regional universities, more former policymakers and business entrepreneurs, etc.

Think tanks’ research agendas do not simply ‘apear out of thin air’, they are developed by the researchers in their interaction with their experience and context. Ruth’s argument could be read as: do you want a think tank’s research to be more relevant? Hire more researchers with the relevant experience.

My friends in business may be right after all when they question the ‘expertise’ of researchers who have never ‘done’ or ‘experienced’ the issues that they claim to be experts on, but have instead focused on ‘studying’ them.

People first business models

It may sounds obvious but think tanks often forget that their most important assets are their people. Policymakers do not read a brief because it has a great title or because the content is very good -as much as I think that communication is important. The think tank brand and the author matter a great deal more. Time-poor decision makers rely on this to decide what to read or who to talk to.

When think tanks worry more about their financial sustainability they risk forcing people into a business model rather than constructing a business model around the people the think tank wants to involve. This can lead to the best people leaving the think tanks. But can also make it impossible to recruit the best people. This is why, for instance, international development think tanks in the US, Britain or Brussels struggle to employ more researchers from developing countries. The standard business model in Aid think tanks in Europe is based on high financial targets for individual researchers -who also have to fundraise for their teams. This means that new recruits need to be able to fundraise enough to cover their salaries, their team’s costs, and an organisational overhead. Unless the researcher has the right networks, he or she will struggle to raise enough funds. And the right networks are often local which means that the best positioned researchers to take on these jobs are local ones -or those who have lived and work in Britain or Brussels for a long time.

If the think tanks want to recruit more researchers from Latin America, Africa or Asia they will have to consider a full rethink of their business models.

This is another argument emerging from the posts so far. If think tanks want to recruit and promote more women (or any other under-reprsented group) they need a full rethink of their business models. Simply encouraging more women to apply may not be enough -the numbers, in fact, suggests that there are plenty of women working in think tanks, but they are certainly not able to ‘follow through’ to all positions of leadership.

These new models need to take into account some of the recommendations made by the authors, such as:

  • Institutionalising mentoring and learning schemes -which take time and need to be funded
  • Investing in the careers of promising researchers, communicators and managers -which may include supporting them through periods away from the think tanks in other sectors or types of organisations
  • Recruiting senior female researchers from academia, government, business, and other key sectors or audiences where the think tanks would like to make a difference
  • Establishing affirmative-action quotas -in some cases (and sectors) where strong corrections need to be done
  • Designing welfare support agreements with employees to ensure minimum benefits (such as maternity and paternity leave, care leave, pensions, health insurance, etc.)
  • Encouraging the development of and the participation in new spaces for researchers to organise and address their own interests -possibly encouraging the formation of unions or support networks
  • Promoting a healthier model for an ideal researcher or think tanker -and possibly of an ideal politician or journalist or entrepreneur to benefit society at large
  • Rethinking the ‘office’ to include more flexible designs, flexible working hours, remote working, tele-working, etc -which could start by developing simple intranets that would allow staff to access their files anywhere in the world thus given them, at least, the choice of working from home or near to home when necessary.

 What next?

The series is not over. We are expecting more contributions from authors in the UK, Africa and elsewhere. Given the number of comments and emails we have received we will continue to encourage women (and men) in think tanks to contribute to the series on an ongoing basis in the future.

We hope these will provide actionable recommendations for think tanks to take forward.

We will also encourage and support any events or meetings that want to discuss this issue, so please do get in touch with us.

Finally, we will develop a possible research agenda to encourage funders and think tanks themselves to take on. We think, and we think the contributors agree with this, that more research is necessary to understand the current situation of women in think tanks (and why not, of “everyone” in think tanks?) before we can make far-reaching recommendations. This may be a case of: “more research is needed” when, in fact, more is necessary.

About the author:

Enrique Mendizabal:  Founder, On Think Tanks

Read more from: Enrique Mendizabal