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Women at the table

Looking Beyond “Manels”

Why increasing the number of women at the table is not enough.

Words: Marina Favaro
Pictures: WOCinTech Chat

President-elect Joe Biden made a passionate case this week for the nomination of retired General Lloyd Austin as his defense secretary. Usually, the defense secretary nomination is not hotly contested, but this time around, it has been. This is partly because for the first time a woman, Michele Flournoy, was a serious contender. Flournoy is well-regarded in defense circles for her expertise, integrity, and vision, and her advocates made a strong case for her appointment. Austin has more military experience — and if confirmed he will be the first Black defense secretary. Though some concerns have been raised over his appointment, there is no question that it represents a significant and important American first. It would be a grave mistake to minimize the Austin vs. Flournoy debate to a competition between race and gender. But Flournoy’s consideration for the role, and some of the conversation around it, does shine a light on a broader debate: the impact of increasing women at the table and what it means for a gender-transformative analysis.

Women have fought for a place at the defense table for decades. The case for gender balance in arms control, nonproliferation, and disarmament negotiations specifically has been made time and again. While necessary, increasing the visibility of women in nuclear policy circles is insufficient for truly gender-transformative work for three reasons. First, aiming for gender balance in arms control, nonproliferation, and disarmament has created a “consensual straitjacket,” which limits the actions of women who do have a seat at the table. Second, notions of masculinity and femininity are not the exclusive domain of biologically male or female individuals. To paraphrase Judith Butler, masculinity and femininity are not biologically fixed but socially constructed. And third, a focus on “gender” too-often advantages white women at the expense of women of color, queer, and gender non-conforming people.

Efforts to increase the representation of women in arms control, nonproliferation, and disarmament negotiations is indeed a step in the right direction. But “gender” is not a synonym for “women,” and gender parity is insufficient to achieve gender emancipation — and here’s why.


Empirical evidence indicates that attention to the different needs, interests, and experiences of men and women enhances the success of a variety of security tasks. As such, ensuring women have equal access to all aspects of nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation decision-making processes is a step towards better outcomes for the nuclear policy community. Gender Champions in Nuclear Policy (GCNP) is just one initiative that has taken up the torch to ensure the full and effective participation of women in nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation decision-making. In an effort to ensure gender diversity, GCNP asks its members to take the “Panel Parity Pledge” and avoid appearing on single-gender panels whenever possible. The key question, however, is: Does having more women at the table translate into cognitive diversity in decision-making? More importantly, does it encourage truly gender-transformative work? Not quite.

The under-representation of women in the nuclear policy field, and in diplomacy overall, is a serious issue. Those in favor of increased women’s participation in multilateral disarmament fora, such as the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference, argue that having more women involved in discussions would result in more meaningful outcomes. Yet this argument is guilty of falling into the tired trope that paints women as peaceful and passive matriarchs.

Gender-based expectations — even ones that are well-intentioned or positive — perpetuate perceived dichotomies that restrict women from positions of power through a false comparison of rational/empathetic or individual/community. These dichotomous constructions imply that women focus exclusively on communities — rather than states — as the primary subject of international relations. Given the prevalence of realism in international relations, the accusation that feminist IR theorists have forgone the state in their scholarship delegitimizes women’s voices in the world of foreign policymaking. In other words, this essentialized understanding about women’s “nature” brands women as naïve and unrealistic, thereby precluding them from positions of power.

If the primary goal of gender equality in the nuclear policy community is increasing the visibility of women, this does little to recognize the other intersectionalities at play. For example, the negative experiences of women in nuclear policy circles are amplified for women of color.

These dichotomies have also created the “consensual straitjacket” phenomenon, which speaks to the masculinized international political system and describes the restrictions on innovation that arise from gender and related taxes. It remains difficult for women to enter — and remain — in the nuclear policy world because it is defined and dominated by what can be best described as a “priesthood” that conflates national security and manliness with sexualized jargon about vertical erector launchers and thrust-to-weight ratios. Here, “priesthood” is being used to describe nuclear orthodoxy, which has long been the province of an insular, innovation-averse group of men.

Not only is there little evidence women are inherently more peaceful than men, but the process of gaining and maintaining status in elite, male-dominated policy in-groups might socialize women into a different role entirely. For example, research indicates that women political leaders may be more likely to initiate conflict than their male colleagues, indicating that women feel pressure to “perform” their toughness and competence through initiating conflict. Former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of the UK is often cited for her warmongering but there are plenty of anecdotal historical examples. The sample size, however, is so tiny that it seems worthless to ask if women are more or less likely to wage war than men.

Notwithstanding the statistically insignificant sample size, gendered expectations of women as “doves” delegitimize the voices of women who are already in nuclear policy circles. This may make women more likely to act in the way they expect their male colleagues would act in order to be taken seriously. Ultimately, these expectations and work conditions do not lead to gender-transformative analysis.


It is more productive to think of gender as a spectrum, in which gender is not just about women but also about men and masculinity. For this reason, contemporary feminist international relations scholars, such as Lauren Wilcox, Chandra Mohanty, Laura J. Shepherd, Toni Haastrup, Helen M. Kinsella, Marsha Henry, Sanam Naraghi Anderlini, Owino Okech, (the list goes on!) claim that a gendered analysis of the assumptions that underpin international affairs can yield fruitful results.

In the nuclear policy context, female professionals continue to be underrepresented in public policymaking discourse. Meanwhile, an alternative discourse has developed that characterizes opposition to nuclear weapons as feminine. This is underscored by Renata Dwan, the Deputy Director of Chatham House, who juxtaposes “the traditionally women-friendly humanitarian discourse” with diplomatic fora such as the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty negotiations. This only further reinforces the notion that policy- and decision-making spaces are exclusively masculine.

Patriarchal oppression does not exclusively flow from men unto women: masculinity is not exclusively the domain of biologically male persons, nor is femininity exclusively the domain of biological females. Masculinity and femininity, therefore, are social constructions. Hence, it is entirely possible for Thatcher to act like an “Iron Lady” or a “real man.” In fact, some commentators argue that such behavior is necessary for both women and men to succeed in the tough world of international politics.

Queer and gender non-conforming people also remain under-represented in security policy fora because until recent years those identities were grounds for denial of employment and security clearances. Under the Trump administration, transgender servicepeople in the US military are allowed to enlist and serve only if they stick to their biological sex; no transitioning. It is expected that this might change under the Biden Administration. Understanding gender as a spectrum rather than a binary also underscores how merely increasing the visibility of women in the nuclear policy community is insufficient to achieve a gender-transformative outcome.

If the primary goal of gender equality in the nuclear policy community is increasing the visibility of women, this does little to recognize the other intersectionalities at play. For example, the negative experiences of women in nuclear policy circles are amplified for women of color. Ambassador Bonnie Jenkins, the coordinator for threat reduction programs in the US State Department’s Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation from 2009 to 2017, speaks from experience about discrete acts of discrimination, such as harassment, implicit or explicit sexism; structural discrimination, which manifests in organizational culture; and extra pressures that white women do not experience, which are often framed as asking oneself whether she is adequately representing women and/or people of color. Taking the experiences and voices of these populations seriously exposes how much power is necessary to maintain the status quo of the international political system. Ambassador Jenkins founded Women of Color Advancing Peace, Security, and Conflict Transformation, an organization that aims to advance the leadership and professional development of women of color in international security policy circles.


While necessary, increasing the visibility of women in nuclear policy circles is insufficient for truly gender-transformative work because 1) having more women at the table does not translate into cognitive diversity in decision-making because of the “consensual straightjacket” that limits the actions of women who do have a seat at the table; 2) more women at the table does not automatically mean less war; and 3) gender is a spectrum — not a synonym for (white) women. Gender-transformative work, therefore, requires inclusivity and intersectionality. More importantly, it’s not just about eradicating “manels” because gender concerns men and masculinity along with women and femininity. The fundamental aim of gendered analysis should be asking: “Who’s affected, who makes the decisions, and how are the health and lasting peace of a society impacted?” In other words, taking a gendered approach to policy is largely concerned with power — something nuclear policy circles are especially concerned with.

Marina Favaro is a policy analyst at the British American Security Information Council (BASIC).

Marina Favaro

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