Washington – Women are running some of the United States’ most prominent foreign policy focused think tanks, leading U.S. diplomatic initiatives, and reporting from the front lines of the world’s most dangerous conflict zones.
But there’s a dearth when it comes to women’s voices in U.S. media coverage of foreign policy issues, according to the founders of a new organisation that aims to amplify women’s voices in the media.
“There is a disparity between the number of women [and men] we see commenting on foreign policy issues,” said Foreign Policy Interrupted co-founder Elmira Bayrasli to a packed room of women (and a few men) Feb 4. at the Washington-based New America, a non-profit public policy institute and think tank.
While some well-known female commentators are called upon by major media outlets to “check the box,” added Bayrasli, “Every six months there’s still an uproar about ‘where are the women?'”
Absent or overshadowed?
According to data compiled by U.S. foreign policy analysts Tamara Coffman Wittes and Marc Lynch, 65 percent of last year’s Middle East events at six influential think tanks in Washington included no female speakers.
Women are also “systematically cited less than their male peers,” wrote Wittes and Lynch in a recent Washington Post op-ed discussing the gap between the considerable number of senior women in the field and their notable absence from public discourse.
With women comprising roughly half of the U.S. population, the question becomes: Is the dearth due to a lack of qualified women for media outlets to reach out to when covering foreign policy issues?
“Those who say that they make an effort to include women, but cannot find any are pushing a load of BS,” said Suzanne Dimaggio, who has been directing Track II diplomatic initiatives with several countries in the Middle East and Asia throughout her career.
“Today we see an ever-growing cadre of women with expertise on every aspect of foreign policy—from the traditional to the non-traditional and emerging issues,” Dimaggio told IPS during a telephone interview.
Bayrasli and co-founder Lauren Bohn—both commentators on international affairs—argue that women are underrepresented in media coverage of U.S. foreign policy because mainstream media has traditionally relied on male commentators and because women hold themselves to extremely high standards, which can hold them back.
In today’s fast-paced, competitive news media world, staff are scrambling to get out good information fast, so they don’t always have or take the time to look for new voices, said Bayrasli.
“The reality is that what bookers, producers and editors know is a rolodex of white men and that needs to change, but we also need to help them change that,” she said.
“I do think there’s this sense [among women that what they send to editors] has got to be really, really good, and honestly there’s a point when the best is the enemy of the ho good,” added moderator and New America president Anne-Marie Slaughter, the director of policy planning at the State Department from 2009-11.
Beyond checking the box
Dimaggio, a leader in facilitating U.S.-Iran policy dialogues, has a long resume of achievements in her field. But she acknowledged that especially earlier in her career, there were occasions when her abilities were underestimated because she is a woman.
“It was assumed that I would take a secondary role and men were given the last word,” said Dimaggio, an expert dialogue practitioner who runs New America’s Iran programme from New York. “But that’s not to say that I accepted playing a secondary role.”
She added that if major media outlets overlook qualified women when seeking expert commentary on foreign policy issues they should be held accountable, but more needs to be done by women as well.
“This problem won’t be resolved by only pressing those in positions of power to include more women. That certainly is a big piece of this. But, we, as women, must [also] change our own behaviour,” said Dimaggio.
“Things are getting better, but we still have a long way to go,” she said.
While Foreign Policy Interrupted, though still in its launch phase, exists to help women increase and improve their media presence, at least one well-known U.S. media publication has meanwhile been actively incorporating more women into its overall operation.
In the last three years Foreign Policy Magazine, a division of the Graham Holdings company, has gone from having one to 11 female regular columnists—half of its regular roster of 22—and its editorial staff is roughly 50/50.
“We realised that the magazine needed to be better, that there were too many of the same voices, and that our publication, which covers the ‘big tent’ of foreign policy, would not be adequately representative if it didn’t include women’s voices,” Executive Editor Ben Pauker told IPS.
Although the magazine now features an equal balance of female and male columnists, the male columnists write more frequently than the women. That could be for a number of reasons.
“It’s a function of getting some of our new columnists, both male and female, up to speed,” said Pauker.
Pauker told IPS that the magazine’s equity initiative, which will extend beyond the gender issue, is still a work in progress, but said at least anecdotally the response from readers has been “enormously positive.”
“It just makes us a better publication,” he said.