Despite encouraging progress in international affairs careers over the past two decades, women still remain significantly under-represented in security careers (especially at senior-level positions). There is not one simple explanation for the disparity. It is a complex issue with both institutional and individual factors that inhibit women from reaching their full potential. However, research by Women In International Security (WIIS) indicates that women are not benefiting from the same level of mentorship and career support as male counterparts and that institutions often lack the gender awareness to design effective initiatives and approaches to reverse the representation gap. As a result, women are repeatedly passed over, or eliminate themselves, from advancement opportunities.
There are three main problems: Women are not receiving the types of mentoring that are needed for career advancement; women are not mentoring other women in the ways that are necessary to strengthen the pipeline of female talent, and women are not getting the institutional support that they need to succeed in many organizations. Advancement success requires mentorship that goes well beyond general advice. It hinges on “sponsorship.” Young women who are sponsored by their older peers have access to advocates for their career progression, recommendations on contacts, encouragement to overcome insecurity and gain confidence, and persuasion to push mentees to consider new opportunities that are vital stepping stones in advancement. For women, sponsorship is critical because women tend to self-eliminate from opportunities. Research shows that young women often choose not to pursue positions due to perceptions about the limits of their own abilities.
The second problem relates to how women mentor each other. Although it is less discussed, young women often have mixed reactions to female managers and leaders, often due in part to generational divides. Research indicates that many of the path-breaking women in male-dominated working environments felt a need to be “tough” and not give other women “special treatment.” Also, there is a distinct perception among accomplished women that younger women are not ambitious when they step out or “lean back” at certain points in their careers. Younger women often say that the highly-successful women are not giving them honest reflections about their experiences and regrets that would help them navigate difficult career and life decisions. The good news is that women are engaging in more dialogue about mentoring and even broaching the difficult subjects pertaining to career advancement and sacrifices along the way. Although these fields are always highly-competitive, the momentum around women supporting women is gaining ground.
Moreover, institutions like the OSCE are often ill-equipped to tackle gender imbalances at the highest levels. Whether public or private, national or multilateral, the norm is for organizations to pay insufficient attention to women’s retention and advancement at every level. Institutions are not gathering the data that is needed to fully understand patterns in advancement and loss of talent. But quantitative AND qualitative data is desperately needed in this area. Institutions often lack formal mentoring and leadership development programs. Although WIIS research has highlighted that informal mentoring relationships are most beneficial for women, it is still important to establish formal channels for access to mentoring advice.
Ultimately, effective leadership is the key to reversing the persistent gaps in women’s participation in the peace and security field. Gender-sensitive mentoring and leadership approaches by both women and men will be powerful drivers of change for the younger generations to come. With a deeper understanding of mentoring needs and implementation of better approaches, more women will be able to advance, support the pipeline of talent behind them, and ultimately, improve the workplace for everyone.
Jolynn Shoemaker, Esq., is a recognized leader and expert on women, peace and security, and on women’s leadership. She is an independent consultant, and a Non-resident Fellow at SIPRI North America, and Non-Resident Senior Associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.