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Pushing for Parity
Realizing Gender Equality in Nuclear Policy

According to a recent report by New America, levels of gender disparity in nuclear policy range from insulated and unwelcoming to more open to ideas and new people, depending on the policy subfield. Women missileers with the US Air Force are bringing fresh perspective to an otherwise male-dominated vocation. (Photo/US Air Force/Airman Collin Schmidt)

 


Ambassador Laura Holgate said it is not uncommon to discover few women in the room at international nuclear policy events. Or to read an article quoting only male colleagues. Or to be watching a television segment on global security and just see men in suits as the interview subjects. 

But Holgate, vice president for materials risk management at the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), and others, including Stanley Foundation staff, are trying to fix this disparity through a new initiative, Gender Champions in Nuclear Policy.

The gender initiative replicates work Holgate did while she was US ambassador and representative to United Nations organizations in Vienna during the latter part of the Obama administration. In 2016, the US State Department asked Holgate to start a Vienna chapter of the International Gender Champions, which her counterpart in Geneva, Ambassador Pamela Hamamoto, had kicked off in 2015. Those who join the International Gender Champions, including the leaders of UN missions and affiliates, pledge not to sit on single-gender panels and to make at least two measurable commitments toward achieving gender equality.

When Holgate returned to the United States in early 2017, she started speaking with colleagues about her experience bringing the International Gender Champions initiative to Vienna.

“And we said, ‘What if we did something like that in the nuclear space?’” said Michelle Dover, director of programs at Ploughshares Fund, who worked with Holgate on designing the Gender Champions in Nuclear Policy initiative.

Holgate said it is vitally important for women to be part of the nuclear policy community. “The existential nature of nuclear policy issues—whether you’re talking about nonproliferation, or deterrence, or disarmament, or nuclear security, or arms control—these are at the heart of what can destroy our planet,” Holgate said. “We need all the smart people, all the different ways at looking at these issues in the conversation. When women are not part of this conversation, just like other underrepresented groups, the conversation is not as rich as it can be, and it won’t find solutions that are valuable or implementable or durable.”

The Strength of Stereotypes

Research about women in the nuclear policy field is scant, but anecdotal evidence suggests gender disparity is widespread. According to the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at Middlebury College, only one-third of the workforce at the US National Nuclear Security Administration is female, only 18 percent of the national delegations at a recent meeting on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty were women led, and only 10 percent of undergraduate courses on issues related to weapons of mass destruction have mostly female students, with women teaching only a quarter of those classes. Also, at two recent nuclear policy conferences, women were just 15 percent of the participants.

Dover said as far as anyone can tell, one reason there are so few women in prominent nuclear policy roles is because there is a strong overlap between the military and hard science, “both of which are well documented to be very male dominant.”


Michelle Dover, director of programs at Ploughshares Fund, said she joined the nuclear policy field because she found the people within it fascinating and had so much respect for their work. (Photo/Ploughshares)


“There just weren’t that many women in the Manhattan Project,” Dover said. “There were some notable exceptions in leadership. But it’s something that’s carried over into the policy community and into the field today. There’s also this element of war and peace and the archetypal feminine and masculine that has played into what roles people are allowed to play in the field.”

According to a recent report on women in nuclear security from the policy think tank New America—which includes interviews with 23 women who have worked in the nuclear, arms control, and nonproliferation fields, some since the 1970s—to be successful, women have had to pay a so-called gender tax. “In other words,” the report states, “on top of the job’s inherent complications and high stress, women also had to perform the constant mental and emotional calculus that comes with implicit sexism; explicit sexism and discrimination; gender and sexual harassment; and gendered expectations.” This has been a significant barrier for women to enter the field and/or rise up the ranks.

Dover said she joined the nuclear policy field because she found the people within it fascinating and had so much respect for their work. But there are still challenges she encounters, just by virtue of being female.

“I had to adopt a new language. I had to be very deliberate of how I presented myself, very conscious of when I was saying something or doing something that didn’t fit the typical, more masculine model of communications,” Dover said. “Sometimes there are situations I run into where it really can be kind of the old school stereotypical old boys’ club, but that’s changing.”

The New America report echoes Dover’s experience. Many of the women interviewed said adopting stereotypically masculine traits was crucial to success and that appearing too feminine in the national security world was a problem because they might not seem serious enough for the subject matter.

In the report, former US Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Michéle Flournoy calls women’s struggle to be accepted and deemed authoritative in the nuclear field the “consensual straitjacket.”

“I think women are socialized to sort of think outside the box to solve problems, and to make connections, and to work horizontally to build networks and relationships, and to sometimes solve a problem by reexamining the basic assumptions and looking at it differently. And that just was not welcomed very much in the nuclear conversation,” Flournoy said.

The Importance of Women in Nuclear Policy

Dover said that if women are involved in nuclear policy, “I think we’re going to get better policies, because if you include different perspectives, you’re more likely to be challenged on your own views, and have to think through what you’re doing, and you have to work harder to find consensus and forge something new.”

Dover said she thinks more women entered more-prominent roles in the nuclear policy field after joining the diplomatic corps and military, and as they have made headway into other professions.

“Actually the [nuclear] freeze movement, which was led by women, was a breakthrough in getting women’s leadership into the field,” Dover said. “But it’s still a place where few women are.”

Holgate said her experience in the nuclear policy field has varied. And she’s not alone. According to those interviewed for the New America report, “the sub-field of nuclear posture and deterrence policy, and on the military side, the people who actually handle the weapons,” is seen as insulated, male dominated, and unwelcoming. Other subfields, like arms control and nonproliferation, are described as “more open to ideas and new people, as well as to women generally.” Several of those interviewed for the report said that may be because those fields involve the need for negotiation and cooperation, and different perspectives are often welcomed.

Holgate said the gender disparity in nuclear policy is most visible in public events and in so-called “manels,” a term coined for panels comprising only men.

“The research has shown vast underrepresentation of women in national security articles that quote people, or news shows or in talk shows that have guests,” Holgate said. “It’s like there’s a whole missing chunk of talent that is not getting visibility and you see the same men over and over, even on issues that are not necessarily at the heart of their expertise.”

The gender disparity is also more visible in the higher echelons of nuclear policy organizations, according to Dover.

From left, Nu Hoai Vi Nguyen, of the Vietnam Agency for Radiation and Nuclear Safety; Shoko Iso, director of the Project Promotion Division at the Nuclear Material Control Center; Mina Golshan, deputy chief inspector and director, Office for Nuclear Regulation; and Dua’a Al Jilani, nuclear safety specialist at the Jordan Atomic Energy Commission, take part in a panel on improving gender balance in science, technology, engineering, and math careers, on November 5, 2018, at the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, Austria. A panel full of women in the nuclear field is rare; most often, they are composed entirely of men. (Photo/Dean Calma/IAEA)


“At the entry level, it’s almost 50-50 actually these days. It’s really balanced. But then if you move up the ladder in organizations, women’s leadership just becomes less and less. When you get to the board level it is generally the worst—fewer than 20 percent representation sometimes.”

The Creation of the Initiative

Holgate said she and Dover recognized that tackling the gender gap needs to involve the leaders of nuclear policy organizations.

“There had been a lot of work among women in the nuclear policy field, peer-to-peer interactions, mentoring interactions, midlevel women reaching out to young women and so on. But because very few organizations within the nuclear community had women in leadership positions, much less the head of those organizations, I called what we’ve been doing ‘side out, bottom out,’” Holgate said. “We needed to supplement that with top-down efforts to improve gender balance and to really get at the structural issues that can only be done with the support and advocacy and, frankly, championship of heads of organizations, most of whom are male.”

Ploughshares provided Holgate with a grant to apply the International Climate Champions model to the nuclear policy field. Over a series of months, Holgate, Dover, and Gabrielle Tarini, a research assistant from Harvard University, held brainstorming sessions with several women from a range of communities within the nuclear policy field, including nongovernmental organizations, activist groups, think tanks, and foundations.

The result, Gender Champions in Nuclear Policy, launched in November 2018. To date, more than 30 organizations, including the Stanley Foundation, have joined.

“It is heartening to be part of a group of organizations committed to breaking down gender barriers and improving gender equality in the nuclear policy field,” said Jennifer Smyser, vice president and director of policy programming strategy at the Stanley Foundation. “We applaud the others involved and look forward to the benefits our collective actions will bring.”

The leader of each organization that has signed on to the initiative serves as champion. The Stanley Foundation’s champion is its president, Keith Porter. “The Stanley Foundation is honored to be part of Gender Champions in Nuclear Policy,” Porter said. “Beyond the fact that gender equality is just and right across all fields, I also believe diverse teams yield the best and most sustainable results. The Stanley Foundation is committed to breaking down barriers and making gender equality a reality in all our work.”

“When we’re talking about existential threats to the world, we should settle for nothing less than the best possible performance that we can get. And that means inclusiveness.”—Laura Holgate

As with the International Gender Champions initiative, all of the nuclear policy champions have signed on to a panel-parity pledge, vowing to avoid appearing on single-gender panels. Champions also are asked to commit to at least three separate pledges to spur more action on gender equality within their organizations.

“One of the reasons this kind of thing can work at a large scale is that the commitments can be tailored to the individual organizations,” Holgate said. “What’s the most impactful thing, or what’s the next set of things that leaders of those organizations can do that will really be meaningful? There’s a certain amount of self-reflection that needs to go on to create really high-quality commitments that, if accomplished, do make a change in that organization.”

The Stanley Foundation’s Role

Porter said he committed the Stanley Foundation to three pledges: create and adhere to a set of principles regarding diversity, equality, and inclusion—including gender—in developing invitation lists for nuclear policy programming events, and ask partners to adhere to them as well for those events planned jointly; achieve an average of 45 percent women’s participation in nuclear policy programming events in 2019 and 50 percent by 2020; and develop guidelines for roundtable chairs and other discussion leaders to encourage balanced participation and use of honorifics during nuclear policy programming events. For example, women are commonly referred to as Miss or Ms. even when they have earned the distinction of a title such as doctor, ambassador, or professor, while men are more often addressed by the correct title.

“We tried to pick pledges that would challenge us and stretch our efforts in new ways,” Porter said.

The nuclear policy champions also were asked to designate focal points within their organizations to track the progress being made on the pledges on a daily basis. According to Holgate, “There needs to be arms and legs inside each organization who are empowered by their leaders to work internally to facilitate the accomplishment of those commitments and work with other focal points to share best practices.”

The Stanley Foundation’s focal point is Nuclear Policy Program Officer Ben Loehrke. “To make progress on today’s global nuclear challenges, we must ensure that our colleagues can equally contribute their drive, knowledge, and skill to the policy discussion,” Loehrke said. “We are proud to play our part, joining more than 30 other leading organizations, by promoting gender balance in the foundation’s nuclear program.”

In addition to its stated pledges, the Stanley Foundation is launching the Accelerator Initiative to help elevate women who are in the early stages of their careers in nuclear policy and/or emerging technology.


Attendees pose with hashtags at the inauguration of the International Gender Champions initiative in Vienna, Austria, in June 2017. Those who join the International Gender Champions, including the leaders of UN missions and affiliates, pledge not to sit on single-gender panels and to make at least two measurable commitments toward achieving gender equality. (Photo/Dean Calma/IAEA)


Luisa Kenausis, program assistant for nuclear policy at the Stanley Foundation, said these women will be given the opportunity to participate in the foundation’s 2019 nuclear policy programming. Those participating will have the chance “to sit down and have conversations with top experts in the field on a variety of cutting-edge issues,” Kenausis said. “And get their names out there, get their faces out there, and get taken seriously. I think this is really important—especially to people who are early in their career and who are women—to have those opportunities, because historically the mantle has been passed down through informal mentorships, which have tended to favor men. So we’re trying to correct that imbalance.”

The Stanley Foundation will provide the women taking part in the Accelerator Initiative the opportunity to write a policy paper with the support of an expert mentor and help the women with the publication process.

Accelerator Initiative participants will be drawn from nominations solicited from partners the Stanley Foundation has worked with closely over the past few years.

“We’re hoping that we can support these women who are new to the field, who are really promising and brilliant, and accelerate their careers as well as accelerating the slow journey toward gender parity in the field overall,” Kenausis said.

The Importance of Mentors

Kenausis herself is early in her career in nuclear policy. She received her bachelor’s degrees in nuclear science and engineering and political science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2017 and was a Herbert Scoville Jr. Peace Fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation in Washington, DC, before starting at the Stanley Foundation in September 2018.

“I was fortunate that my college education had a good gender balance in most of my classes. But that’s not true at a lot of other universities,” Kenausis said. “And when I was working in DC and attending events on nuclear weapons issues, it was common for me to be only one of a handful of women in a roomful of older men. That was definitely uncomfortable at times.”

Holgate said research has shown that young women are more inspired to be part of a community where they can see other women excelling and leading. She said she hopes to soon see an increased “presence, visibility, and impact of women in the nuclear policy field,” adding that the Gender Champions in Nuclear Policy initiative was specifically designed to be quantifiable.

“We’ll be doing an annual report on the performances against the pledges,” Holgate said. “Are the champions getting the things done that they said they would do? Then the deeper question is, are the things they are volunteering to have measured meaningful? Is the juice worth the squeeze?”

In the end, Holgate hopes to see more women promoted into upper management, see more women on national security shows, and see more women in the room at nuclear policy events.

“When we’re talking about existential threats to the world, we should settle for nothing less than the best possible performance that we can get,” Holgate said. “And that means inclusiveness.”


The Stanley Foundation’s nuclear policy programming aims to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of global efforts to halt the spread and avoid the use of nuclear weapons by advancing governance solutions that manage or leverage disruptive technologies. This includes efforts to develop understanding and awareness of the risks that emerging technologies pose, identifying and promoting innovative ways that they may be applied, informing and supporting nuclear governance institutions as stakeholders adapt to the implications of emerging technologies, and advancing solutions that involve stakeholders at all levels.


— Francie Williamson, The Stanley Foundation
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