Google Nuclear Security Summit and then click ‘images.’ You will find hundreds of pictures of government leaders gathered to discuss nuclear weapons, as part of their international policy. It’s a striking picture – a sea of men in professional attire, with a handful of women scattered among them. And they are taking a picture to commemorate their discussion on nuclear strategy and strengthen the relationships between their countries. Countries with populations that are probably around 50% female at birth.

The Nuclear Security Summits, unfortunately, are not an aberration. Rather, the Summits are part of a larger pattern of international politics. This pattern is they are testosterone heavy and slow to welcome women. Elle Magazine highlighted it in the perfect way – photoshopping all the men from pictures of public life. If a picture is worth a thousand words, these edited pictures are worth a million. In a society that claims to be progressive and inclusive, men still manage to retain the majority control of a vital aspect of it. 

The Roots of Disparity

Women do not easily embrace traits vital in foreign policy discussions at a young age because society will often harshly judge them for it. These traits include decisive leadership, challenging authority/preconceived assumptions, and being outspoken.

If a woman embraces any of these traits, the chances of ridicule and judgement increase. Reprimands of being ‘too bitchy’ or ‘having too many opinions’ may abound. On the other hand, when a man develops these traits, he is praised as ambitious and encouraged to keep growing. At a young age, this creates the foundation for hesitancy towards public service. 

Barriers Within Foreign Policy Spaces

If women decide to go into international policy, they have a very long path before making it to senior levels. And unfortunately, in today’s society, women are still expected to bear the brunt of family responsibilities. This may encourage women to change jobs, in an effort to juggle their home life and work. Men do not have the same pressure to strike the perfect life-work balance. Therefore, they have more flexibility to dedicate time to their work. And in a field like international relations, it’s a lot about who you know. The extra time spent in the office can be the difference between changing careers and advancing in the field. 

A Slowly Changing Field

International policy has been seen as a boy’s club since its formal inception, but things are changing. Women know they must be in those discussions because the decisions that are created in them impact their lives. Women have the opportunity to bring a different and unique point of view to heated debates. Maybe, if women were involved in helping the first woman astronaut, embarrassing mishaps like giving Sally Ride 100 tampons for a week long journey would’ve been avoided. In slightly more grave decisions, such as China’s one child policy, women could’ve perhaps better foreseen the disastrous effects the policy would have on child bearing and infanticide rates. Certainly, they would have expanded the discussion past the army’s detached tactical approach.

Men are also at a disadvantage. They have spent so long accustomed to wielding authority that compromise is not in their nature. Women, however, have learned to deal with men over the course of many, many centuries. This has helped them become adept at compromise and building consensus. Would this not be a vital trait to have when trying to maintain peace?

Still a Long Way To Go

Although women should be welcomed into international security spaces, they continue to be kept out. Despite the structural barriers standing in the way, there is also the very real problem of sexism in these spaces. Men feel entitled to the space they have occupied for many years, and brush aside a woman’s ‘fragile’ or ‘sensitive’ approach.

I have begun venturing into international security spaces, and have engaged with organizations that value my voice. However, discussions in informal settings often end with an opinion getting dismissed, and it is usually my own. I am firmly anti war, and when I argue for preventative programs and focusing on sustainable long term peace, I find myself brushed aside because ‘it’s impractical.’

Though I push back, and make sure I have my point heard, the careless dismissal and subversion of my arguments never fails to sting. Why is my voice, cultivated through years of hard work and study, not as valid? More frustrating is that this dismissal often comes from men who have not studied a lick of international policy, nor do they bother to try to understand the intricacies of peace, and just how damaging violent clashes can be. They do not care for my opinion because it is not coming out of a man’s mouth, even if that man has not spent as much time cultivating it as myself. 

Looking Ahead in Foreign Policy

Women belong in international policy and security. However, major structural and cultural changes must happen alongside this fight for women.

Though we have already begun to make major strides forward, the progress is far from over.

Read also:
“Girl Power” Politics: How Feminism Influences Our Views of Female Leaders
The Physical Appearance Issue: Are Women in Politics Changing?
Do Men and Women Do Politics Differently?