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IA-Forum Interview: Jolynn Shoemaker

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International Affairs Forum: In recent years your organization, Women in International Security, has been conducting various studies on the status and progress of women in international security. Two years ago you published a study on the next generation of girls and women in science and technology and how that feeds into national security. Can you give us a progress update?

Jolynn Shoemaker: This reporting came out of a half-day session where we brought together women who are working in the science, technology and security nexus, and those who are particularly working on the academic research side of looking at how to maintain the U.S. security edge on science and technology. One of the things that we thought we could bring to the table was looking at the women’s aspect of that as a piece of it. What people mentioned was the problem with the talent pool right now in the U.S. on science and technology and it’s as much a generational issue as a gender issue. There are not enough young people who are going into science and technology, of course our educational system is not as strong as other countries on math and science.

There has been research and people talking about it, but of course action is slower than recognizing that there’s a problem. So there seems to be a recognition that there’s a problem but very little sort of in terms of very concrete efforts to rectify it. We need to start getting people interested in these fields, at a very young age certainly. And there is certainly an issue with getting more women, more young girls interested in it too.

There is still a real gap in terms of people who have gone into science and technology not being aware of the national and international security dimensions of the types of opportunities that are out there and the types of work that they could do that would impact and benefit security issues. I think one of our difficulties is that there’s so much stove-piping in these sectors - those who go into science and technology from the beginning are focused on working in a lab, things like that. The opportunities to take different career paths aren’t really put before a lot of these people in their career, in their educational curriculums. Hopefully as WIIS grows there’ll be opportunities to build awareness because we have strong links in the academic sector, to make women who have that kind of background aware of the opportunities of bringing it to the nexus with security. And hopefully we can also advocate for more opportunities for fellowships and other things that will bring some of those people into U.S. government work.


IA-Forum: The report noted the importance of increasing the visibility of female role models in the science, technology and security field. Since 2007, WIIS has been working towards is publishing a report card on the progress of women in international security. What have you found so far?

Ms. Shoemaker: We are still in the progress of doing that report card, and essentially the report card ultimately will be almost shorter reports focused on individual sectors. Right now we are focusing almost exclusively on women’s participation in the U.S. executive branch, in peace and security related positions. Almost a year ago we had done a report on women in U.N. peace operations, and when we started this new project looking at women in the U.S. government, it actually dovetailed quite a bit.

The way we approached it was strongly influenced by how we had approached that previous project. Not surprisingly, a lot of the themes that are emerging are very similar. Some are different because there are certain unique bureaucratic situations concerning the U.N. and recruitment and retention, and so forth. One of the huge themes that comes up again and again is concern with work-life balance in this field. What we’ve found with both our U.N. project and ‘report card’ project, looking at women in the U.S. government, is that the problem is no longer necessarily with women entering the field. The numbers indicate that at the entry-level, professional slots in many of these institutions including the U.S. government, there’s pretty much gender equity in terms of the numbers. And then what happens - every step along the way to advancement, the disparity grows.

So the problem right now is starting at the mid-level, and it’s continuing to get worse as you go up the ladder to higher positions. And so it’s really been reflected in the interviews in terms of women’s struggles with balancing priorities on work, family and their struggles because the structures have not evolved to accommodate any of that. So essentially I think there’s more willingness to put that out there on the table as an issue. We sort of found with some of our more senior-level women who had stepped out of the government quite a while ago, who were from a previous generation, that there was almost a hesitancy to even act like that was an issue. And I’m not quite sure how we’ll eventually address that on the findings, but my suspicion is that in the earlier generations that sort of paved the way for women in leadership on international security, that it was almost thought of as weakening your credibility if you brought those issues up.

And increasingly what we’re seeing especially from women at the mid-level is a vocalization of those issues, a very strong level of dissatisfaction with the bureaucratic structures in these different entities, and a pushback. To give you an example, we’ve heard a lot from women in the Defense Department on the civilian side that women at the mid-level who are starting families are not necessarily leaving those high stress policy jobs, but are actually asking for more flexibility. And what we’ve heard from women who are older and have moved out of government, and were in government when women were much in the minority was that you didn’t bring that up, you were just expected to leave those kinds of jobs if you couldn’t do those kinds of hours. So there is progress, but the progress is very ad hoc, and it’s almost cultural. But a cultural shift is happening but the bureaucracies have not followed. So that’s a key thing; we’ll be really focusing on that with our recommendations as well. Mentoring is extremely important and it’s probably just as important to men, but women do it a little bit differently. They put tremendous value on those personal relationships. The women who have succeeded into the highest levels of power in this field are those who were pushed oftentimes even when they themselves didn’t have the confidence, by very influential mentors. Mentors who had a lot of credibility, and who really sort of gave them that extra confidence or that extra almost were maybe even demanding, if they were in a supervisory role so that they could push them forward. So mentoring is another key theme that’s coming out.

One thing that’s different from our report on the women in the U.N. is that the women in the U.N., when we asked about leadership styles, is that pretty much all the women we interviewed at the senior level said that they believed that women actually bring a different leadership style to the table, especially when it comes to peace-keeping, peace-building, dealing with host populations, and these kind of very difficult environments and different countries. Yet the U.S. women we’re interviewing are much more hesitant to make that argument. They’re really not agreeing with that argument.


IA-Forum: How do you account for the discrepancy?

Ms. Shoemaker: I don’t know yet. I think part of it may be a real nervousness about stereotyping. A lot of these women have said, “I’ve worked for men, I’ve worked for women, I’ve seen women who have bad leadership styles, I’ve seen women with good. I’ve seen men who display leadership styles that are very effective as well inclusive, consultative”, the things that we’ve actually pulled out on the U.N. project that women were saying were very common to women. So I’m not entirely sure but there is definitely much more of a resistance to making that concession though. It’s a gender-based thing with a lot of these kinds of approaches. It may also be because we are interviewing women, some of them, have actually served out in conflict zones and in the field, but others have been more on a hard security side, or a state-focused security side. So maybe because they haven’t been out there in those same environments that women in peace-keeping and peace-building have, they haven’t seen that aspect. It may also be something to do with what women are reacting to or seeing in the U.N. culture.


IA-Forum: Why does the issue of gender matter in international security?

Ms. Shoemaker: Well I think there’s two levels to this. One, we need to be aware that there’s a major issue coming up with the huge baby boomer generation retiring. So there’s a talent crisis. Essentially you have all these people who are going to be retiring, and at least on the government side, U.S. government side, they have not done a good job about sort of building up this pipeline of leaders behind the people who are going to retire. Everyone’s talking about this, but again, there’s sort of this lag in action. This is going to be a huge issue coming up, and I think a big part of our argument is “we need to pay attention to what the patterns here are”. If women are entering and then opting out completely, because they feel frustrated with X or Y, then the bottom line is you’re losing them. So you’re losing the talent that you’ve A, invested in, and B, will hopefully bring leadership in the future if they were to be groomed and stay in the system. So the pure diversity of talent issue is a big one internally.

The other reason I think it is important is, bringing women in will bring different approaches. Bringing in people from different backgrounds and so forth, so it’s not just a gender issue, but you do want a diversity of perspectives, especially in this field because there are so many issues that we have not resolved, or we have not found a way to address in the best way possible, so we need the best brains to be focused on that. So that’s the other piece of it. We need to look at what’s happening with what our work force is looking like in this field, and we also need to look at what our work force brings to the table on solutions to international security challenges.

On the macro level, sort of one level out, with globalization we’re all interconnected, we’re realizing that more and more and especially in this field. Whether you’re working on nonproliferation, or you’re working on rule of law, you are dealing with people every day from organizations, from institutions, from foreign governments, from multilateral institutions. What we do on the U.S. side certainly reflects it, it sets an example of how we prioritize.

But also solving the problems that we need to solve multilaterally with international partners and so forth, we need to be looking at how women in these other countries can be involved to be partners in solving some of them. I’m thinking particularly about conflict, because these violent conflicts are very difficult to resolve, and the peace oftentimes is not sustainable, they fall back into conflict, and so we really need to get much broader participation in those kinds of processes. So that’s the other aspect that gender is very important to be looking at and making sure that as from a U.S. national security perspective, that as we’re working with other countries, and as we’re aiding other countries in a variety of ways, that that’s incorporated.


IA-Forum: Let me follow up on that. Where WIIS is an organization with international membership, what are you hearing from members overseas about their career concerns, and even achievements? In which countries do you think women are faring better in this field?

Ms. Shoemaker: That’s a hard one. Surprisingly, what we hear anecdotally from our international affiliates in Western Europe is there seems to be this perception at least among them that it’s worse there than in the U.S.; there’s a lot more discrimination. I’ll give you an example. You know here WIIS is very much a network that we have men and women in our network, and our stance is that we want men to be in our network who believe in our mission and will help mentor women but some of our international groups feel that they need a “women only” fora. What we’re finding is that certain groups, it’s reflecting what stage they’re at. What women are telling them in their areas is “OK, we need a women only group”. So we get the feedback on an ad hoc basis about what women are saying from our network from different places. Especially on the hard security side, it is still very difficult in many of these countries for women to break into that. On the other hand, some of the post-conflict countries have a higher percentage of women participation in places like their legislatures primarily because they have set mechanisms with quotas and so forth. But I think that’s interesting because it kind of indicates maybe when you’re starting from rock bottom and you really need all the talent, then there’s an opening there.


IA-Forum: It’s more practical…

Ms. Shoemaker: Right. But it becomes a little bit more difficult as entrenched interests become more entrenched. The people with power want to block out new voices and so forth. So I think that in many ways some of these countries that are developing or are recovering from crises are sort of, there’s an open window sometimes that maybe is not there in other more established places. But I don’t have like a lot of facts behind that. Rwanda has the highest proportion of women in their Parliament, which is really amazing with what that country’s recent history has been. But one of the things once you start to really look at the peace and security angle, is even in those countries, that’s great, it’s a first step. But if you look at national security issues, or more security focused issues, there’s not as many women participating. So there’s a lot of different things that factor into it. There’s discrimination, but as we found in our reporting, women oftentimes eliminate themselves from these discussions because they either feel intimidated that they’re not completely an expert.


IA-Forum: You put together the Plum Book, to recommend certain women for positions in the Obama administration. So in recent years has that list grown in size, and are you optimistic about the trend for women working in international security careers?

Ms. Shoemaker: Yes, it has absolutely grown in size. We’ve done it for a number of presidential transitions. This time was truly an amazing response from our membership. We have over 500 members in the Plum Book - definitely a lot more than it had been before. I’m not sure but my guess is that part of that is just due to, there’s been a number of articles lately about the younger generation’s interest in public service, that being one piece of it, and the second being just excitement over the Obama administration.

Part of the follow-up with the Plum Book as you know is this process of vetting people and getting people in is very, very slow, much slower than I think anyone anticipated. A very big structural problem is that what we’re hearing from young members coming out, very talented women, is the process is really broken for getting into government. I think people looked at the Plum Book as a way of increasing their visibility for one route which is political appointments. Because the civil service, the recruitment process is truly broken, and it’s heartbreaking to be honest, to talk to so many really outstanding WIIS members, women who want to be in the government and to be honest, should be and cannot get in because of this process, and so that is something that I’m sure we’ll bring up in our findings. A lot of people who really were interested in putting their names in the Plum Book have tried the other route.


IA-Forum: So what do you think is the broken piece of that process?

Ms. Shoemaker: Well I think it’s similar to some of the things we found when we talked to people on the U.N. side. The U.S.A. jobs website, which everyone has to go through, but the problem I think for people is that they have this kind of very onerous process which is just really crazy, and they go through it all and they sort of answer these questions then their application kind of disappears into the ether. I think the really frustrating thing from a practical level is that the way the process goes is that where it does go is some office that’s not connected necessarily with any substantive experts. It’s an HR arm that is most of the time not even located anywhere near D.C.

The people who are looking at these applications have no idea they’d have a list in front of them or it’s computerized to a point where if you don’t have certain key words in there you’re just booted out. So it seems to be really divorced from having at least initially the applications vetted by people who have some idea of what’s useful in those kinds of jobs. They’re really going to need to relook at it if the U.S. wants to continue to have a competitive edge in bringing good people into the government. So that’s one of the lessons that has come out; we’re hearing it more and more, and so it’s a big concern.


IA-Forum: There have been two female Secretaries of State now, when do you think the U.S. will see a female Secretary of Defense?

Ms. Shoemaker: I think we’re actually fairly close. To give you just an example, we actually have quite a few women from within the WIIS network, or have been associated with WIIS for years who have been appointed into political positions in DOD. Perfect example, Michele Flournoy, Undersecretary for Policy. Now that is a very powerful influential position within DOD, within the Office of the Secretary of Defense. That alone is precedent-setting and she’s so well respected for her knowledge and for her approach to things that I think that that will really actually help us get there. There are a lot of great women who are going into the Office of Secretary of Defense in decision-making roles who are incredibly competent. So I think that will really push us forward.


Jolynn Shoemaker is Executive Director of Women in International Security (WIIS). Previously, she handled international law and policy issues for the Initiative for Inclusive Security (formerly Women Waging Peace), an initiative of Hunt Alternatives Fund.

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