Women: From opinion makers to policy makers

By Salma Malik, May 14, 2014

It's often suggested that women bring a distinct perspective to policy questions and decision-making processes—but in truth, there is often nothing "feminine" about the perspectives that women bring.

A few years ago, Rose Gottemoeller—now the US undersecretary of state for arms control and international security—appreciatively used the term "women of mass destruction" at an informal meeting with a group of Pakistani women who work in security studies. The group she referred to was young and energetic. These women knew their subject matter and understood the politics that surrounded it. But despite what Gottemoeller's term might have implied, none of them produced work with a gendered bent.

Fast forward to this year when, at a congress of women leaders, this author asked Sujatha Singh, India's foreign secretary, a very loaded question: what legacy she would leave as a female foreign secretary, especially regarding the India-Pakistan conflict. Singh answered, very pragmatically, that her legacy would be no different from what a male counterpart's legacy might have been.

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Also this year, at a launch event for a report on regional security that I had co-written, a (female) social activist pointedly asked me why the report had failed to be gender-sensitive. I had to concede that the questioner's point was legitimate.

This experience helped me realize that many women, perhaps most, approach issues such as disarmament, policy making, and science and technology from established, male-dominated perspectives, rather than trying to develop alternate perspectives. Women in the policy world not only must demonstrate their competence but also struggle to rise above stereotypes. They must prove that they are equal to their male counterparts—or, at the least, they must strive to sound gender-neutral. Consequently, women often take on personas that are stern, hawkish, and "masculine."

Security studies and policy making are cut-throat worlds. Women are disadvantaged in these already difficult environments by being fewer in number. Thus they are always struggling to create space for themselves, to make themselves heard, to be taken seriously, to be man enough to receive respect. And though women are very scarce in policy circles, especially at the highest levels, the situation may be even worse than it appears—it's doubtful that women exert influence even to the extent that their low representation suggests they should.

Hard and soft. Certain research areas are considered hard—nuclear policy making, missile proliferation, arms races, and now cyber warfare. These issue areas are generally dominated by men. Other issues, such as gender and security, women's rights, post-conflict reconstruction, and activism are stereotyped as softer, more feminine. Women are not well represented in the "hard" issues; when they do work on these issues, they tend to produce work that is not gendered, that largely reinforces the dominant (male) narrative. Women are better represented when it comes to "soft" issues, but the issues themselves are considered less important. Moreover, research in "soft" areas often brings in elements of anthropology or sociology, and interdisciplinary approaches are generally frowned on for "hard" issues.

In Pakistan and India, women working on "hard" issues tend to be, if anything, more hawkish and more supportive of established narratives than their male counterparts are. Meanwhile, with a few exceptions, women working on nuclear issues are reluctant to pursue fields such as disarmament, the dangers of accidental nuclear releases, and nuclear waste and its negative effects on civilian populations (women and children above all). Some female journalists focus on these issues, and some activists, but women produce next to nothing on these issues in the context of academic journals or formal policy debate.

Why? It may be because nuclear issues in Pakistan and India are very much wedded to a nation-building narrative. These countries have moved well beyond the initial stages of their nuclear development, but the discourse on nuclear issues remains, in effect, state-owned and state-directed. For any opinion maker, man or woman, gaining credibility and acceptability depends on creating a niche for oneself that reinforces the nationalist discourse.

In Pakistan, the number of female students who seek degrees in security or defense studies is increasing over time. And quite a few female students are concentrating on nuclear issues. But again, these students seem not to focus on disarmament—or, in general, on the alternative perspectives on nuclear issues that might cause established points of view to be seriously challenged. This may be because faculty members steer young women away from such focuses. Or because young entrants to the job market can expect an easier time of it if they stay to an established path than if they bravely experiment. (As an aside, if you ask young women in security studies who their mentors are, hardly any will name another woman.)

Similar problems pertain in the technical arena. In Pakistan, a number of outstanding women have gained top-flight educations and become brilliant scientists or technicians, doing high-caliber work at top research organizations. But even then, they rarely manage to rise to the highest levels in the scientific community or gain a voice in nuclear policy and decision making. So again, women might not exert influence even to the extent that their meager numbers suggest they should.

Exploding the myth. The state-centric, male-dominated perspective on security issues that holds sway in Pakistan can no longer be considered adequate to meet the large and complex set of security challenges that the country faces. For example, alternative security concerns such as post-conflict rehabilitation strategies must be brought to bear on strategic decision making. Today's challenges can only be met by applying an interdisciplinary approach, one that pairs security studies with gender studies, sociology, anthropology, history, social work, or other disciplines.

Meanwhile, if gender stereotyping in security studies continues as it is—in Pakistan, in any case—women working in the field will create very little in the way of a feminist legacy. They will engage in hawkish opinion making but will not participate meaningfully as policy makers. For things to change, more women must make a concerted effort to focus on women's security issues. Women must lobby for greater representation in all aspects of policy. They must seek to involve women legislators, academics, activists, and opinion makers in building a serious alternative to the dominant male nuclear narrative—a narrative with a genuine chance of producing disarmament. As long as women involved in policy are just isolated voices, they can never explode the myth that nuclear policy is rightfully a boys-only club.

Topics: Nuclear Weapons


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