Where Are the Women Wonks?

Why the average D.C. think tank event features five guys in suits.

Every day in Washington, D.C., brings numerous announcements about the various policy events, forums, and conferences around town that serve as meet-and-greets for the city’s thinking elite. In addition to a prepackaged muffin or a stale sandwich and some badly brewed coffee, these events typically feature a slate of experts on whatever topic is the focus. Also typically, most of these experts are men.

One recent big-name panel on money in politics, for example, featured seven white men (including the moderator) and just one woman: Jane Harman, the Woodrow Wilson Center resident and former congresswoman. Another recent all-day, all-star conference on economic policy included only twelve women among the fifty featured speakers.

Certainly, some of the most powerful people in policy today are women, such as the Center for American Progress’s president, Neera Tanden, and Sarah Rosen Wartell, president of the Urban Institute. But male “brand-name” policy experts far outnumber the women. Men—white men—dominate the senior management at many of the most influential D.C. think tanks. And men—white men—dominate the ranks of “scholars” in many institutions.

Even at such venerable tanks as the Brookings Institution, male scholars heavily outnumber women. The worst offenders, not surprisingly, are the right-wing think tanks, many of whose staff rosters look like the membership of Augusta National. The Heritage Foundation, for example, has fifteen (almost identical) white men on their “senior management” page and only two women, neither of whom hold policy positions. At the American Enterprise Institute, just eight of the sixty resident scholars are women, as is only one of the institution’s top five officials.

One consequence of this is that we have the irony of a bunch of men debating the existence and merits of a “war on women” in this year’s campaigns. Another consequence is that too many Washington policy discussions are missing the perspective of half the people in America (actually, 50.8 percent) who will be affected by these decisions.

There are a number of possible explanations for the dearth of women in wonkery. The first is generational— people at think tanks are old. It’s no coincidence that almost everyone who works in think tanks is a “senior fellow.” Often, think tank fellows are senior in all meanings of the word. Washington has always revered two types of talent: the fresh and brilliant wunderkind, and the been-there and done-it-all sage. Think tanks especially revere the Yoda types—and women Yodas are few and far between.

A second possible explanation for the shortage of women wonks is that the situation is symptomatic of the larger shortage of women in politics. A common path to a think tank is to hold elected office or to work in a senior position on the Hill or in the White House. But according to the Center for American Women and Politics, women currently hold just 16.8 percent of the seats in Congress—seventy-three in the House, and seventeen in the Senate. And in the course of our nation’s history, women have held only forty-five Cabinet or Cabinet- level posts. According to a review of compensation studies by Politico, 41 percent of House chiefs of staff and 37 percent of House legislative directors in 2010 were women, compared to 84 percent of executive assistants and 82 percent of schedulers.

The Inter-Parliamentary Union currently ranks the United States seventy eighth in the world for the percentage of female members in parliament—one spot ahead of Turkmenistan. We trail such model democracies as Rwanda, the Seychelles, Angola, and Belarus. Thankfully, legislative jobs are not the only pipeline into D.C. think tanks—and, in fact, rank-and-file think tankers are more likely to be from academic backgrounds. With women now outpacing men in earning professional and graduate degrees, there should be no shortage of potential candidates for think tank jobs in the future.

A third possible explanation for the small number of women wonks is that women “self-select” into certain policy areas. And, indeed, there are some arenas in which women dominate—such as social policy, education, and, of course, abortion rights. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find many prominent male experts in these areas. But do women truly self-select into these policy areas, or is there an implicit glass ceiling that makes it tougher for women to achieve prominence in other fields? Many of the biggest and “sexiest” macroeconomic policy areas that drive the most attention—think tax, budget, and finance—are largely the province of men. An unfortunate implication of this gender split is that there are “Daddy” issues and “Mommy” ones— i.e., testosterone-charged issues involving trucks, money, and bombs, and “softer” issues like welfare and poverty.

Which leads to a final possible reason for the scarcity of women in policy: chauvinism. But, hey, it’s 2012, right? Unfortunately, the holy grail for many think tankers is to be a cable TV regular. And for this, women clearly face a higher bar—not only must they be policy experts, they must be policy babes. (Men, on the other hand, feel no pressure to be policy hunks. Just ask Bill O’Reilly.)

Filling out the ranks of women wonks is a multifaceted problem that will involve solving other big issues, such as recruiting more women into elected office. First, we need to acknowledge the problem. Think tanks might look for women to join their ranks, but they don’t try to groom or actively recruit them. Second, women in policy need to organize. There has not yet been a high-profile mentoring effort for women in public policy or an organized network for women to help each other. Finally, wonks should do what wonks do best— analyze the problem and offer solutions. Maybe they should even have an event.

With so much recent focus on the importance of women to the 2012 elections and the role of women in the workplace, let’s not forget one obvious place to have this discussion: at the think tanks and other institutions that hold significant sway over public policy. Without greater representation from women, maybe it’s not such a surprise that so many of the policy debates in Washington seem to be missing half the picture.

Anne Kim

Anne Kim is Senior Writer at the Washington Monthly.