I’m Happy to Lean In. But first, I Need a Seat at the Table

Future Foreign Policy


This weekend, the world observes International Women’s Day, which technically falls on Sunday, 8-March, but it is very difficult to get people to do anything on a Sunday, even attend their preferred houses of worship. All week long, International Women’s Day (IWD) organizers have been marshaling their disparate and globally-dispersed supporters under the giant umbrella of gender equality, holding various events—memorialized by social media—to mark this annual celebration of grrlpower.

This year’s festivities have the distinction of commemorating the 20th Anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, the United Nations’ roadmap forrealizing women’s rights. The cumulative effects of two decades of activism and goodwill brings an added ooomf to several of the wonderful initiatives being launched this week, which aim to chip away at the insidious influence of inequality.

Among them is a campaign by the UK’s Department for International Development to help end female genital mutilation, and address its enduring psycho-social-medical effects. There’s also #UpForSchool, a celebrity-backed crusade that promotes education for the 30 million girls currently denied this right. And the searing BBC documentary “India’s Daughter,” which debuted this week, demonstrates just how ingrained women’s status as second (or third, or fourth) class citizens can be in certain corners of the globe.

Of course, sustained efforts to integrate, empower and galvanize women do exist outside of annual IWD commemorations, in both the public and private spheres. Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In is perhaps the most well-known in the business world, but equally great initiatives like the 30 Percent Club aspire to have women comprise 30% of corporate boards by the end of 2015. The #HeForShe campaign (fronted by Brown University alumna Emma Watson) invites men to be part of the conversation about gender equality, and the Women Peacemakers program asks women who have been on the frontlines of peace negotiations to reflect on and record their insights. On a lighter but no less important note, the #AskHerMore movement prods entertainment interviewers to ask female nominees on the red carpet something—anything—other than questions about fashion. This amazing, inspiring list goes on and on, its brilliance diminished only by the fact that the gulf between the sexes yawns wide enough to accommodate so many compelling endeavors.

In my own field, foreign policy, there are notable new organizations like Foreign Policy Interrupted (FPI), dedicated to combating the trenchant gender disparity which exists in the international affairs arena. It may be here that the imbalance is most visible, if not the most prevalent. FPI’s research indicates that women write no more than a quarter of op-eds in major newspapers, and comprise no more than a quarter of guests discussing foreign policy on major network news programs. As disappointing as this is, the talent pool they have to choose from is nowhere near as large as it should be—worldwide, women only make up about a fifth of parliamentarians, 13% of government ministers, and anywhere between 15-30% of the United Nations own leadership ranks.

The reasons why more of these necessary and important female voices are not making their way to the head of the table are well-documented, and have as much to do with the subtly malignant effects of sexism as anything else. However, in many cases, it’s because they aren’t invited to the table in the first place. I’m happy to Lean In—but I need to be sitting in the same room as all the other influencers, thought leaders, and power brokers, rather than in the overflow area, where the audio system is unreliable and the video feed keeps cutting out.

So…what to do? I’m not really content to wait for an invitation to the big leagues that may be a long time coming: by one estimate, it could take 80 years for gender parity to filter up through the workplace ranks. Is there any way to bypass this entrenched system erected on top of an outdated power structure?

Well, we can start by building our own table, and we can begin to tackle the global “to-do” list by asking the Great Sisterhood of XX Chromosomes what it thinks about the seemingly endless supply of crises which emerge daily onto the international stage. Certainly, I include myself in this esteemed group. As a Caucasian, 30-something female with a dog-eared American passport and a graduate degree, I have lots of opinions, and am dying to share them with you. But there are other, less-visible, less-strident voices which may be of much greater value. For example, we need to ask the mothers of would-be Islamic State recruits how we can keep such extreme ideology from appealing to their children. We need to engage the daughters of Donestk about the hardships they endure in the struggle for their disputed neighbourhood. We need to question the sisters of Ebola victims in Sierra Leone about how to rebuild their ravaged communities. We need to invite the nieces of narcotraffickers to share their thoughts about the ineffectiveness of the War on Drugs, and canvass the aunties of Athens about how to best frame negotiations about Greek debt restructuring. Most of all we need to listen, carefully, to their answers, and then make sure we incorporate their wisdom born of experience into our policies—especially if it radically differs from received wisdom.

Obviously, this won’t fix everything overnight. Or even in the time span it takes for the next generation of female superstars to come of age. But it’s a start, and it’s long overdue. For centuries, we’ve been stuck with the status quo: in the corporate world, in international affairs, in education, sports, media and everything in-between. The present state of affairs is very evidently not working, and yet it endures. It’s time to start saying, loudly, “this isn’t good enough anymore.” So on this International Women’s Day, let’s celebrate by building our own table, pulling up a chair, and changing the conversation. Female carpenters wanted.

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