from Women Around the World and Women and Foreign Policy Program

The Limits of Orthodoxy: What Diversity Brings to Nuclear Security

Voices from the Field features contributions from scholars and practitioners highlighting new research, thinking, and approaches to development challenges.
Negotiators meet in Palais Coburg, the venue for nuclear talks, in Vienna, Austria July 13, 2015.
Negotiators meet in Palais Coburg, the venue for nuclear talks, in Vienna, Austria July 13, 2015. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger

Voices from the Field features contributions from scholars and practitioners highlighting new research, thinking, and approaches to development challenges. This post is authored by Alexandra Stark, Minerva/Jennings Randolph Peace Scholar at the United States Institute of Peace, research fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School, and a PhD candidate at Georgetown University; and Heather Hurlburt, director of the New Models of Policy Change project at New America's Political Reform program. 

We face a particularly contentious set of challenges in the nuclear security arena today. From ensuring tensions between India and Pakistan don't escalate, to finding a way forward in negotiations with North Korea, to keeping Iran's nuclear ambitions on ice and re-envisioning the scope of US-Russian deterrence after the collapse of INF Treaty, international nuclear negotiators are scrambling for new ideas.

While policymakers are trying to find answers to these hard questions, they should consider another: Does who participates in the talks have an impact on policy innovation?

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High-profile female leaders like Wendy Sherman were visible and crucial leaders of Iran talks, but women’s participation in nuclear policymaking is being pushed to the sidelines.

Our new report, The ‘Consensual Straitjacket’: Four Decades of Women in Nuclear Security notes that “while women have been working in the nuclear policy field at leadership levels for decades, the space is still overwhelmingly white and male.” Through interviews with 23 women who have worked at senior levels in the nuclear, arms control, and non-proliferation fields from the 1970’s through the present day, we find that a lack of diversity is one critical factor impeding innovation in the nuclear policy security arena.

Diversity Strengthens Policy Processes and Outcomes

While women policymakers are not a monolith, our analysis found that they brought observable differences in workstyles, as well as in policy innovation.

The women we spoke to represented a range of ideologies and were quick to push back on the essentialist notion that women are inherently more peaceful and therefore likely to tip the scale to disarmament. As one respondent bluntly put it, “we don’t soften policy by adding estrogen.”

However, our interviewees, who have held senior positions across agencies, for both Republican and Democratic administrations, reported that the presence of more women in policy discussions created an environment where collaboration was valued over competitiveness. They highlighted that gender diversity tended to bring an increased openness to new ideas and more focus on listening—especially in challenging negotiation settings. Having a critical mass of women present also made it easier to build the social relationships and networks that facilitate decision-making.

These insights parallel social science findings in sectors from business to peace talks: Diverse teams produce better, and more durable, outcomes.

More on:

Defense and Security

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The “Consensual Straitjacket”

Our research also found that the nuclear security field tends to be insulated, hierarchical, and overwhelmingly male. The resulting emphasis on a shared “nuclear orthodoxy” limits policy design and invites groupthink. Ultimately, that nuclear orthodoxy leads to losses in talented personnel who are unable or unwilling to fit themselves in to this narrow paradigm. Individuals who might otherwise provide creative, alternative approaches instead struggle to fit into the stereotypical image of what a nuclear official should look and sound like.

Michèle Flournoy described this struggle, as well as the resulting lost creativity, as a “consensual straitjacket.” She told us, “I think women are socialized to sort of think outside the box to solve problems […] and to sometimes solve a problem by reexamining the basic assumptions and looking at it differently. And that just was not welcomed very much in the nuclear conversation.”

Participants described working very hard to learn the theory and technical details of nuclear policy and master the jargon used by this community. But they also described how they attempted to fit in to conventional modes of thinking, even as these conventions felt constraining.

Gender Diversity and International Negotiations

A lack of gender diversity at international nuclear negotiations like the Hanoi Summit could therefore limit their potential outcomes. In spite of the benefits that gender diversity brings, we found that women remain systematically under-represented in nuclear and non-proliferation international negotiations. Data developed by the International Law and Policy Institute (ILPI) and the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR) on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) Review Conferences shows that while the U.S. delegation was composed of 5 percent women in 1980, just 38 percent of U.S. delegates in 2015 were female.

U.S. delegations routinely interact with foreign counterpart delegations who also have few, if any, women delegates. At the 2015 NPT Review Conference, the Russian Federation delegation was 27 percent women, China was 30 percent, the UK 27 percent, South Korea 36 percent, and Iran did not have any women delegates.

The “Gender Tax”

Many of our interviewees also pointed out to us that much of the work of negotiations occurs through informal interactions. When they were the only or one of a few women present, women found that they were often shut out of gatherings where their male colleagues were building these social relationships. Although some women said representing the United States offered some protection and gravitas, sexist behavior and harassment were still common.

Christine Wormuth told us that in international situations, “in the early years, I certainly had lots of the whole kind of ‘are you the administrative assistant or are you the mistress?’ [Because] certainly you couldn't be there for substantive reasons.” The women we spoke to recounted a myriad of anecdotes about the harassment and derogatory comments that they faced at work from male colleagues, through the present day.

On top of doing their already-difficult jobs, these women faced an additional “gender tax” that required them to expend additional mental and emotional energy to navigate these high-stakes situations safely and tactfully. Wormuth recounted her reaction to being asked out to dinner by a high-ranking foreign representative: “It was so deflating because I realized, oh, he wasn't paying any attention to what I was saying, he was paying attention to how I looked.”

Our interviewees highlighted key challenges facing not just the nuclear community, but national security across the board. From the foundations of deterrence theory to the challenges of non-proliferation implementation to the problem of competing against the private sector for top-level talent, our findings show that personnel policies that value and encourage diversity would yield substantive policy benefits. Given the importance of these issues, and the need for U.S. innovation and leadership on major global challenges, this is a change we can't afford not to make.