Women in Think Tanks: Thinking about gender and equal opportunity in think tanks

11 May 2015
SERIES Women in think tanks 11 items

[Editor’s note: This is the first post of a new series on Women in Think Tanks. The series has been edited by Meghan Froehner and follows a few posts written about the subject in the past. The series is accompanied by a Women in Think Tanks Reading List]

Over the next few weeks, we will be publishing a series of posts on women in think tanks. As editor of the series, I called on women thinktankers to offer their perspectives on the role that their gender identity plays in the workplace. Are there barriers to women succeeding in think tanks? If so, what are they? Are women funnelled into certain policy issues or do they themselves choose to work on different topics than men? Does gender shape the way discourse and research is developed? Do men and women apply different methodologies? These were some of the questions I set out to answer. However, in the course of developing the series, I became aware that the questions were shaped very much by my own identities and experiences. Therefore, in this first post, I will reflect on what the series set out to do and how these objectives evolved over time through conversations with other women thinktankers. The nature of this dynamic reflective process reveals a lot about how to think around women in think tanks. The post will conclude with an introduction of the contributors and the themes they will discuss.

As a former student of gender and development and a researcher with experience in a women’s policy organisation, a think tank, in Washington, D.C., I developed a series of questions as a prompt for contributors, while anticipating that most responses would focus on work-family policies and discrimination, which are applicable to many workplace settings, but also hoping to elicit any think tank specific dynamics that might exist. I found myself wondering if the exercise would be worthwhile or if we ought not just provide a list of the many studies and policy papers lauding public and institutional policies that help women succeed and stay in the work place by taking into account their disproportionate care burdens. These were the themes I was familiar with and those most often discussed by policy researchers I had worked with and certainly shaped the type of questions I asked. And as a feminist researcher and gender specialist, I had no idea what type of response I would receive from women who did not necessarily identify as feminist or work on gender issues.

Contributors were central to identifying possibly limiting assumptions in the questions being asked. Priyanthi Fernando indicated the possible error in problematizing women’s participation in think tanks. She suggested that in her regional context, Sri Lanka, women may face fewer barriers in entering research or knowledge sectors than in many other types of employment, but that women’s presence in the sector has a different gendered dynamic that may be an indicator or cause of how that work is viewed in Sri Lanka. Another researcher pointed out that it is important to remember that in many, if not most, think tanks there are not structured paths for promotion and ascension to leadership and that thinktankers can come to their organisations from varied backgrounds, which is highly relevant to the type of interventions that would be applicable.

These thinktankers’ responses, in addition to feedback from other contributors, underlined the importance of involving people from the start of such reflective processes. Although I am myself a woman that has worked in think tanks, the specific context of this work makes my experience insufficient to frame a complete debate. The heterogeneity of experiences must be reflected to find out more about the reality of women in think tanks. Luckily, the open-ended and participatory format of this blog space left room for contestation by contributors and the series evolved to emphasise these themes.

The Importance of Context

Responses from contributors pointed to the critical importance of context, both regional and political, in understanding women’s role in think tanks. Ruth Levine, Global Development and Population Program Director at the Hewlett Foundation, introduced a discussion on the increasing number of women serving as elected and appointed officials in certain contexts and how a mirrored increase in women in policy research could be valuable in the policy process. This is reinforced by Priyanthi Fernando’s commentary on the need to understand constraints that women thinktankers face as reflective of constraints in the wider job market and of the social, cultural and political realities of women in their society.


Contributors also emphasised the importance of the diversity of women’s experiences that are shaped not only by gender, but also by dimensions such as motherhood, race, class or nationality. Critical analysis that takes into account the complexity of these intersecting identities is elaborated in theory on intersectionality. Many contributors called attention to the importance of professional identities like economist or anthropologist and how these identities interact with how women (and men) perceive their gendered reality. Likely, the roles of economist or anthropologist are experienced differently by men and women because of the gendered associations with those roles and we may also see how the gendering of certain fields may be related to how those activities are valued in organisations and society at large.

Using Women as a Group for Analysis

Contributors also pointed to the complexities of using women as a group for analysis and the danger of conflating women with gender. Using women as a group for analysis not only runs the risk of homogenising women as a group and leaving out the experiences of marginalised people, but also reifying binary gender identities (men vs. women) and further reproducing the system of power relations we are looking to overcome through research on women. This is not to say, women should never be used as a group for analysis, but it should be done using an intersectional approach that recognises women’s lived experiences without equating them to truths about their gender but instead recognising them as outcomes of the systems of power relations in which they exist. Comprehensive analysis should also recognise that there are individuals that do not fall onto one side of the sex-gender binary and that binary analyses exclude genderqueer individuals.


The posts in this series will touch on these themes as ways of thinking about women in think tanks while discussing the dynamics of women’s participation in think tanks and organisational practices to improve gender diversity.

Our second post is authored by Priyanthi Fernando, international development consultant and former Executive Director of the Centre for Poverty Analysis (CEPA). Fernando provides a look into her experience of ten years as the Executive Director of a think tank. Among other issues, Fernando discusses the gendering of organisations, conceptions of the identity of workers as supported by caregivers in the home stemming from the out-dated model of male breadwinners and female caregivers, and the relationship of gender to the valuing of certain policy areas.

The third post, by Ruth Levine, addresses matching diversity in public policy with think tank and scholars and discusses the value of having women engaged in policy research in contexts where women are increasingly serving as elected representatives and appointed officials. Levine touches on the benefits of increased representation for think tanks in having their voices heard and suggests strategies for fostering women’s participation in think tanks.

The fourth post incorporates interview feedback from two DC thinktankersClaudia Williams, of the Washington Area Women’s Foundation, and Tiffany Boiman, of the Women’s Bureau of the U.S. Department of Labour, discuss their experiences in women-led organisations and the importance of organisational policies on family leave and work life balance. They discuss the challenges of navigating career decisions in a context where there are no government mandated maternity leave policies or paid family leave. Williams points to how working in an organisation that emphasises staffs well-being and work life balance, for all employees, is critical for keeping women in the workforce during phases of their life where they have the heaviest care burdens.

The fifth post explores the role of women in think tanks in the Peruvian context and draws on interview feedback from researchers working in Lima. Cynthia Sanborn contributes her perspective as the Director of Universidad de Pacifico’s researcher centre, CIUP, and María Balarín, a researcher at GRADE, emphasising organisational assessments of diversity and the crucial role of providing spaces for women researchers to maintain the same level of visibility as men researchers, as well as the possible role of donors in supporting organisations to be able to provide sufficient benefits to their staff. Other commentary pointed to the importance of having spaces for women think tankers to share common experiences, consolidating research and perspective of challenges that women thinktankers face specific to their gender, and recognising that a significant part of gender barriers stem from subtle preconceptions about gender roles and performances of femininity that may be difficult to address through formal institutional policy.

An unexpected [this section has been edited] post comes from Enrique Mendizabal who reflects on some lessons learned from the series so far. He draws, among others, a key conclusion: to be more inclusive, think tanks need to be willing to rethink their business models entirely. It may not be possible to tweet things around the edges only. Also, the discussion on women in think tanks is perfectly relevant to a conversation about any under-represented group in think tanks, maybe.

[Also edited] Another addition to the series is a re-post of Rachel Moss‘ article on gender and emotionality in the workplace, where she draws parallels with her studies on the performance of masculinity in medieval romance, and suggests that rather than just insisting women in the workplace perform in more masculine ways, we should rebuke the concept of the ‘ideal worker’ as an emotionally restrained masculine performing individual.

[Also edited] An eight post comes from Josephine Tsui, of the Overseas Development Institute, who analyses the gender distribution of staff in top think tanks and universities in the UK in an attempt to determine if there is systemic gender bias in knowledge production.

Our series concludes with a final post, reflecting on common themes from contributors and proposing ideas for further research and action on women in think tanks. This post outlines a number of actions that think tanks and their funders could take to promote #womeninthinktanks.

[Edited] an additional post was prepared for the series focusing on women in leadership positions in universities in Uganda. It was developed by Tabitha Mulyampiti based on a paper written with Catherine Kanabahita and Noor Muhidin, from the School of Women and Gender Studiesat Makerere University.