Female commentators in IR: we’re here, on our terms

Rodger Shanahan makes two dubious assertions in his post on the ‘forgotten sex’ in international relations (IR). First, that to be commentating and engaging publicly is to be present in the field of IR, and second, to be visible is to be present in the practice of IR. Both these observations are incorrect.

It is true that, due to the dominance of males in foreign policy and IR, and the gendering of issues such as hard power and violence, women do not appear as prominent. Still, the burden of proof should not fall to women to demonstrate our direct public engagement with the field. A cursory glance at the blogosphere and the Twitterverse should leave no doubt as to the presence of female commentators. Just because our presence is not noted on certain fora, does not mean we are unwilling to engage or, worse still, absent.

There are a number of women who regularly blog, comment, exchange, tweet and debate in IR. Most prominently, these include Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop, US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and former director of Policy Planning for the US State Department and Princeton Professor Anne-Marie Slaughter; Australians bloggers and commenters, Leah Farrell (counter terrorism), Sheryn Lee (Southeast Asian politics), Nina Markovic (national affairs), Trish Jha (politics) and Danielle Chubb (North Korea), to name a few; on TV, Aussie journalists and presenters Leigh Sales, the fiesty Virginia Trioli, and Jenny Brockie; on international screens, the indomitable BBC anchor Zeinab Badawi, and countless others at think tanks, NGOs, academia and in the public service.

However, it is more than not looking in the right places to find women. There is a latent issue of discrimination in IR. My blogosphere colleague, Caitlin Fitzgerald, raises the point that our absence can be explained, in part, by the ‘old boys’ feel of foreign policy circles (also, h/t Matthew Hill) which can either be offputting for women or bar involvement. Particularly, in the subfields of international security and defence, this issue persists, and requires serious redress.

Second is Shanahan’s conceptualisation of female participation in the international relations realm. In Shanahan’s view, events such as the Arab Spring have appeared to be a largely male affair. There were countless numbers of women working to achieve change in Arab states. It’s not about looking for as many Amazonian women as you can wielding AK-47s, rolling around in pickup trucks, getting their rebel-ution on. It’s not about taking up a male image of a ruthless, bloodthirsty autocrat that qualifies women as being present. It’s Shanahan’s narrow conceptualisation of “International Relations Woman” and his parameters of reference that merely serve to highlight his idea of their absence.

The point is, we are out there, we are participating, we are commenting, we are engaging publicly but we aren’t always doing it on Shanahan’s terms. As the field of international relations continues to evolve, so too will the markers of presence and participation. So, next time you have something to say about this, Rodger, come and write on my blog. Not the other way around.

2 thoughts on “Female commentators in IR: we’re here, on our terms

  1. Well said Natalie. Women in Afghanistan are very strong and opinionated. They are contributed a great deal to the discussions and issues of international relations. Women are sometimes more subtle in working towards change but certainly they are there and indeed they have a strong voice.

  2. Natalie,

    While I agree that there are a considerable number of outspoken women in the international relations field I tend to agree with Shanahan that we remain outnumbered by men in the more influential domain of public lecturing as well as in senior policy and advisory roles in government, think tanks, universities and the public sector (supported by a cursory search of Australian Universities’ IR staff lists). That being said, in my view many of the women who are in those positions are often more visible than the men (for example CSIS’s Africa Program Director Jennifer Cooke, who introduces most of the Africa progam’s podcasts and Samina Yasmeen, who organises more public events than the rest of UWA’s Politics and IR staff put together).

    I think women’s under-representation in these areas is inseparable from women’s under-representation in senior management and executive roles in the private sector, the persistent gender pay gap, and the low numbers of women entering careers in science and engineering, all despite strong female performance in tertiary entrance exams and more women than men enrolling at university. These are serious issues for society, their causes are deeply rooted in our culture and social attitudes and therefore can’t be resolved without honest and open debate.

    I welcome Shanahan raising this issue, although I think his attempt at a light-hearted tone was misplaced. I would take this as an opportunity to ask the hard questions that need to be asked, rather than call for a “reconceptualisation of female participation in international relations” in order to argue that women are indeed present. In my reading of Shanahan’s piece he makes a point (in the third paragraph) to emphasise the presence of women in the field and directs his argument mainly at their under-representation.

    More broadly, and with respect to you Natalie, I read a strong defensive tone in your reply. This defensiveness, which I have also detected in other strong female commentators on ‘women’s issues’ is in my view inhibiting the development of a more open public discourse on these issues. In your 4th paragraph you briefly mention latent discrimination and female-unfriendly environments, however the main thrust of your argument appears to be that women are active and speaking out and shouldn’t have to conform to male expectations to be recognised. My view is that we shouldn’t be satisfied with unequal representation, a small number of brilliant women achieving success does not compensate for the absence of average or ordinary women throughout the system, women should not have to choose between children and career success, equality is’t about women becoming more like men or ‘reconceptualising’ what success or participation means for women…

    Feminism used to be about securing rights for women; the right to vote, the right to equal opportunity, equal pay, the right to control our sexuality… Women today have all these rights and yet still lag behind men on many indicators. Worryingly we are catching up in some ways we’d rather not: such as higher rates of alcohol consumption among young women, higher rates of violent crime, convergence in smoking rates… Feminist ideas are still relevant today, but they need a rebranding. The legal battle has been won, the cultural battle is far from over.

    The issues western society is now facing are inextricably linked to the roles of women. Fertility rates have fallen below replacement levels across the OECD, because women, now able to control their childbearing, are choosing to remain childless, delay childbearing (which often results in fewer children or unintentional childlessness) or have fewer children. Our aged care systems which are unprepared to face the coming onslaught of retiring baby boomers, have traditionally relied on low paid or unpaid female labour, our female dominated education systems have produced skills shortages leading to damaging structural unemployment… All this is indication that female social roles are undervalued, as a society we have failed to recognise their true importance and resource them accordingly. These social cues have been picked up, resulting in fewer babies, inadequate provision for aged care, lower quality teachers. Meanwhile, traditionally masculine fields have arguably been overvalued and over-resourced, notably investment banking which has been the source of some high profile problems in recent years.

    Women’s status within society and the status of what has been traditionally regarded as women’s work is a serious issue for men and women worldwide. This ‘soft’ issue even has a real impact on ‘hard’ issues such as international security, because of the structural problems it can cause. Consider the potentially destabilising impact of the millions of young men in Asia who will never be able to find a wife.

    Perhaps if there were more women in influential positions in the international relations field, the importance of the status of women in maintaining international stability and competitiveness would receive more attention.

    Jessica Hodder
    Feminist and UWA Honours Student (Political Science and International Relations)

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