Washington Think Tanks: A Man’s World

Written by Nadia Crevecoeur

In recent years, many think tanks have begun to recognize the importance of diversifying their staff and recruiting and retaining more women. Think tanks have added programs that highlight women’s leadership and their experiences. However, a new report by Women In International Security (WIIS), WIIS Gender Scorecard: Washington, DC Think Tanks 2018, reveals that most think tanks continue to suffer from significant gender gaps. Only seven of the major foreign policy institutes are headed by women, and, on average, only 27 percent of expert staff in the national and international security fields are women.

Redressing the gender gaps in think tanks is critical because they play an important role in shaping foreign and defense policy agendas. Think tank experts shape these agendas by moving in and out of many critical positions in the US government and by participating in policy debates in the media.

The US and many other important international actors, including the UN Security Council and NATO, recognize the importance of integrating the perspectives and voices of women when they consider international security challenges. The most powerful decision-making institutions in the world have subscribed to the value of gender equality for international peace and security. Domestically, the US Congress adopted the Women, Peace and Security Act in October 2017, which posits that the US should be a global leader in promoting the role of women in security matters.

These national and international commitments seem to go largely unnoticed in the Washington, DC think tank community. Of the 22 major think tanks surveyed, only three have reached gender parity within their expert staff.

For many in the think tank community, women and gender programming means showcasing “women” and “women’s points of views.” Many in the national and international security establishments in Washington, DC remain oblivious to how and why gender impacts their work. Only one out of the 22 think tanks have integrated gender into their national and international security programming.

Lastly, WIIS reports important gender gaps on the governing bodies of the think tanks. On average, governing think tank boards have 22 percent women members. Governing boards are imperative to consider, since they oversee think tank activities and help set their strategic direction.

The under-representation of women in the think tank community is mirrored by their under-representation in the media — only 24 percent of foreign policy experts invited to speak on major political talk shows are women. The lack of women in think tanks and media is surprising given the large number of women enrolled over this past decade in graduate international affairs and international security programs.

The WIIS report calls on Washington, DC think tanks to close the gender gaps and undertake a gender analysis of their institutions. The report also advises think tanks to appoint gender advisors who can advise the leadership on how to improve their gender balance and gender programming. Gender advisors should be located in policy programs or in the front offices where they have direct access to the leadership rather than in human resources departments. The report also calls on think tank leaders to encourage their foreign policy and national and international security program directors to incorporate gender in their analyses of foreign policy and national security programs. Lastly, it calls on think tanks to keep track of data and hold people accountable.

In a world with increasingly complex national and international security challenges, think tanks need to broaden their expertise in order to advance peace and security in the 21st century. They can no longer ignore women’s voices and gender perspectives when it comes to these challenges.

Originally posted on the Gender Avenger website on Oct. 12, 2018.


Nadia Creve Coeur is a Senior Program Assistant at Women In International Security (WIIS). Nadia is a B.A. candidate in International affairs with a concentration in conflict resolution at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. Her research interests include measuring peacekeeping success, the intersection of gender and security, and the youth, peace and security agenda.

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