By Patricia H. Kushlis
February 28, 2014 Update: Click on this link for Lois Roth's article "Nice Girl or Pushy Bitch."
Why should anyone be surprised that men still rule the upper reaches of the US foreign policy roost – as they have since the beginning of the Republic - and that the State Department is as sexist as the rest? That only the Pentagon is worse. This according to Micah Zenko in his recent FP article entitled “City of Men.” See also his August 8 follow-up post at the Council on Foreign Relations.
As a Foreign Service Officer with the US Information Agency from 1970-1998, before that a PHD student in political science at Syracuse’s Maxwell School and an adjunct professor of political science at the University of New Mexico (1999-2005), I have had my own experiences as a professional in that very man’s world. There were men who went out of their way to help my Foreign Service career along and others who worked just as hard to thwart or undermine it.
Rather than bewail what might, or might not have been, however, I thought it might be fun, and perhaps even instructive, to compare the few State Department statistics Zenko included in his article with the situation when I was a career FSO trying to scale Jacob’s ladder.
“Wanted: Qualified White Males?” Oh, really?
In “City of Men,” Zenko quotes John Robinson, the State Department’s chief diversity officer, as having written that “twenty-two percent of senior leaders at the Department of State are women.” Zenko does not tell his readers, however, that the title of Robinson’s article is “Wanted: Qualified White Males.” This column appeared in the May 2010 State Department Magazine and its title alone speaks volumes about the Department’s attitude towards its female employees – a troubling attitude Zenko identified in his article.
Furthermore, according to Zenko, of the 171 chiefs of mission at U.S. Embassies today, 50 are women (29 percent). This data is from the State Department’s website so it should be current.
How does the situation described by Zenko compare with years past? How problematic was gender equality in the Foreign Service and at State 15 or more years ago? And why has the State Department been so reticent to publish gender-related data in recent years? Or maybe it has and I just missed it. If so please let me know (Kushlis@gmail.com) and include the links.
My husband receives a copy of State Magazine, the publication in which Robinson’s article appeared. The paucity of gender based promotion data in the magazine over the past decade has been palpable – especially once color photos and tabloid sized headlines predominated over text. I too received the magazine for a short time – but my name seems to have been stricken from the recipient list several years ago no explanations given. Nevertheless, both of us were career officers with equally long service records and I think should be being treated equally in retirement. Yes, even by the magazine. Dream on.
Maybe, however, this small slight also helps to put into perspective State’s recalcitrant attitude in addressing its gaping endemic gender inequality problem especially within the Department but also in public. Meanwhile, former (especially married) female employees are apparently still considered appendages regardless of their own career achievements or longevity in the service.
Whatever happened to trickle up?
But what startles me the most is that after all these years – I left the Foreign Service 13 years ago – the percentages of women at the highest levels of the Foreign Service and at State have not increased as much as I expected they would have during those intervening years particularly given the percentages of women at the two grades beneath the top - waiting in the wings. In 1994, for instance, 32.8 percent of FSO-1s and 38.9 percent of FSO-2s in USIA were women. That was 17 years ago. Whatever happened to the trickle up that was supposed to happen?
In 1994, 16.9 percent of USIA’s Senior Foreign Service and 18 percent of its Senior Executive Service (Civil Service) were women as compared with 22 percent at State in 2009. True, USIA was not State. I don’t have many of State’s figures at my fingertips - but USIA’s Foreign Service and a good chunk of its Civil Service were folded into State in 1999 when the Agency was abolished. So this may be like comparing Granny Smiths to Macintoshes but in the end they’re both still apples. An increase of only about three-four percent, therefore, represents a rather small increase in a span of 15 years (Robinson’s data was for 2009) especially considering the far higher percentages of female officers in the grades below. So the three-four percent increase is – all things considered - not very much.
The overall percentages today are close enough to the 1994 data to suggest that the State Department and the Foreign Service remain, as Zenko suggests, Bohemian Groves at the top – despite the fact that more American women are now graduating from college than men, that the Department was hit by a heavy duty gender discrimination law suit years ago (the class action Palmer suit) that it ultimately lost despite years of fighting it in court and regardless of the fact that State has had three female Secretaries since 1996: Madeleine Albright, Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton – breaking with the previously entrenched tradition of top male leadership since State was founded in 1789. Shouldn’t the succession of women Secretaries have changed the tone, the attitude and helped make the system more equitable for women at all levels?
Not really: the Glass Ceiling Likely Remains Unshattered
Zenko attempted to answer this thorny question as to why American female professionals do not break through the glass ceiling by summarizing several of his conversations with female colleagues about their experiences in Washington, DC’s foreign affairs community. Here’s the gist of what he heard:
1) Women are less interested in researching and writing about “hard power” whereas “hard power” approaches to foreign policy retain a predominant role in US foreign policy making -hence limiting women’s potential jobs in the foreign policy apparatus;
2) The preponderance of men at think tanks results in unconscious cronyism in hiring other men as research fellows or selecting them as workshop participants (the male bonding “boys will be boys” syndrome);
3) Women are at times uncomfortable in almost exclusively male settings where they believe they are the “token” female;
4) Think-tank work requires constant travel and regardless the job is not nine-to-five. Trying to manage a home and a family and also make it to the top is a sacrifice many women are not willing to make.
Do any or all of these explanations for the continuing gender imbalance apply to State and the Foreign Service today - or are other factors also at play?
In my own experience, reasons Two and Four had far more credence than One and Three for my Foreign Service colleagues - although I also knew plenty of female FSOs who traveled a great deal for the Department and I also realized that both male and female FSOs needed to balance family concerns and constraints with demanding careers.
The "Nice Girl or Pushy Bitch" Syndrome
I think, however, that there was – and likely still is - something more subtle and endemic at work that may well negatively affect women’s careers in the State Department and other US government foreign affairs agencies that Zenko did not mention. This concerns how women are treated in the all-important and intertwined chicken-and-egg assignments and promotion systems. Without career enhancing assignments, promotions do not follow. But without promotions, career enhancing assignments do not happen either.
In February 1980, Lois Roth, a perceptive USIA Senior Foreign Service Officer, wrote an article entitled "Nice Girl or Pushy Bitch” In it, Roth – drawing upon her experiences as a member of USIA FSO mid-level panels – wrote that far too many talented and experienced women in the Agency lost out on promotions to their male colleagues because of damaging and sexist descriptions of the women contained in their evaluation reports. She found this problem in 45 out of 46 cases. These women- who knows, I may have been one of them - came across in their evaluations as either pliable, helpful ‘nice girls’ or ‘women with personality problems’ – “no matter how competent, talented or superb they may have been.”
Let’s face it, if an officer can’t get promoted from one mid-level grade to another than she will never have a chance to compete for the top. Roth’s succinct article, therefore, should still be required reading by every female State Department officer and all rating officers and promotion panelists. Gender discrimination in the promotion system can be subtle and subjective as well as overt. A look at today’s numbers suggests that in all likelihood it still exists.
Note: this Post is part of WV's "The Troubled State of State" series found in the lefthand side bar.