Ten Miles Square

July/August 2012 Where Are the Women Wonks?

Why the average D.C. think tank event features five guys in suits.

By Anne Kim

Every day in Washington, D.C., brings numerous announcements about the various policy events, forums, and conferences around town that serve as meet-and-greets for the city’s thinking elite. In addition to a prepackaged muffin or a stale sandwich and some badly brewed coffee, these events typically feature a slate of experts on whatever topic is the focus. Also typically, most of these experts are men.

One recent big-name panel on money in politics, for example, featured seven white men (including the moderator) and just one woman: Jane Harman, the Woodrow Wilson Center resident and former congresswoman. Another recent all-day, all-star conference on economic policy included only twelve women among the fifty featured speakers.

Certainly, some of the most powerful people in policy today are women, such as the Center for American Progress’s president, Neera Tanden, and Sarah Rosen Wartell, president of the Urban Institute. But male “brand-name” policy experts far outnumber the women. Men—white men—dominate the senior management at many of the most influential D.C. think tanks. And men—white men—dominate the ranks of “scholars” in many institutions.

Even at such venerable tanks as the Brookings Institution, male scholars heavily outnumber women. The worst offenders, not surprisingly, are the right-wing think tanks, many of whose staff rosters look like the membership of Augusta National. The Heritage Foundation, for example, has fifteen (almost identical) white men on their “senior management” page and only two women, neither of whom hold policy positions. At the American Enterprise Institute, just eight of the sixty resident scholars are women, as is only one of the institution’s top five officials.

One consequence of this is that we have the irony of a bunch of men debating the existence and merits of a “war on women” in this year’s campaigns. Another consequence is that too many Washington policy discussions are missing the perspective of half the people in America (actually, 50.8 percent) who will be affected by these decisions.

There are a number of possible explanations for the dearth of women in wonkery. The first is generational— people at think tanks are old. It’s no coincidence that almost everyone who works in think tanks is a “senior fellow.” Often, think tank fellows are senior in all meanings of the word. Washington has always revered two types of talent: the fresh and brilliant wunderkind, and the been-there and done-it-all sage. Think tanks especially revere the Yoda types—and women Yodas are few and far between.

A second possible explanation for the shortage of women wonks is that the situation is symptomatic of the larger shortage of women in politics. A common path to a think tank is to hold elected office or to work in a senior position on the Hill or in the White House. But according to the Center for American Women and Politics, women currently hold just 16.8 percent of the seats in Congress—seventy-three in the House, and seventeen in the Senate. And in the course of our nation’s history, women have held only forty-five Cabinet or Cabinet- level posts. According to a review of compensation studies by Politico, 41 percent of House chiefs of staff and 37 percent of House legislative directors in 2010 were women, compared to 84 percent of executive assistants and 82 percent of schedulers.

The Inter-Parliamentary Union currently ranks the United States seventy eighth in the world for the percentage of female members in parliament—one spot ahead of Turkmenistan. We trail such model democracies as Rwanda, the Seychelles, Angola, and Belarus. Thankfully, legislative jobs are not the only pipeline into D.C. think tanks—and, in fact, rank-and-file think tankers are more likely to be from academic backgrounds. With women now outpacing men in earning professional and graduate degrees, there should be no shortage of potential candidates for think tank jobs in the future.

A third possible explanation for the small number of women wonks is that women “self-select” into certain policy areas. And, indeed, there are some arenas in which women dominate—such as social policy, education, and, of course, abortion rights. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find many prominent male experts in these areas. But do women truly self-select into these policy areas, or is there an implicit glass ceiling that makes it tougher for women to achieve prominence in other fields? Many of the biggest and “sexiest” macroeconomic policy areas that drive the most attention—think tax, budget, and finance—are largely the province of men. An unfortunate implication of this gender split is that there are “Daddy” issues and “Mommy” ones— i.e., testosterone-charged issues involving trucks, money, and bombs, and “softer” issues like welfare and poverty.

Which leads to a final possible reason for the scarcity of women in policy: chauvinism. But, hey, it’s 2012, right? Unfortunately, the holy grail for many think tankers is to be a cable TV regular. And for this, women clearly face a higher bar—not only must they be policy experts, they must be policy babes. (Men, on the other hand, feel no pressure to be policy hunks. Just ask Bill O’Reilly.)

Filling out the ranks of women wonks is a multifaceted problem that will involve solving other big issues, such as recruiting more women into elected office. First, we need to acknowledge the problem. Think tanks might look for women to join their ranks, but they don’t try to groom or actively recruit them. Second, women in policy need to organize. There has not yet been a high-profile mentoring effort for women in public policy or an organized network for women to help each other. Finally, wonks should do what wonks do best— analyze the problem and offer solutions. Maybe they should even have an event.

With so much recent focus on the importance of women to the 2012 elections and the role of women in the workplace, let’s not forget one obvious place to have this discussion: at the think tanks and other institutions that hold significant sway over public policy. Without greater representation from women, maybe it’s not such a surprise that so many of the policy debates in Washington seem to be missing half the picture.

Anne Kim is Editor of Republic 3.0.


  • Brian Libby on July 11, 2012 11:51 AM:

    Embarrassing photo choice for this story.

  • Jessamyn West on July 11, 2012 11:57 AM:

    This was the photo you chose to run with this article?

    "But, hey, it’s 2012, right?"


  • Anne Hjortshoj on July 11, 2012 11:58 AM:

    The photo selection for this article undermines its point fairly aggressively. Embarrassing for the paper (and I'm sure, for the article's author).

  • Anonymous Thinktanker on July 11, 2012 12:03 PM:

    A female colleague of mine - really sharp, and not in a female-dominated subject matter -recently quit because she got married. Apparently, he has wealth and she doesn't need to work. This was disappointing to me, both for her and for our organization. This type of self-selection might be included in a taxonomy of impediments to the development of the female ranks in think-tanks.

  • Liz on July 11, 2012 12:30 PM:

    Your photo just makes me sad. It is exactly the problem, isn't it?

  • KEM on July 11, 2012 12:36 PM:

    Who was the intended audience for this story? Likely not the same as the intended audience for the photograph. Was the momentary (ahem) titillation worth alienating such a large subset of your readers?

  • Gidg on July 11, 2012 12:36 PM:

    Ah. So the problem is that there aren't enough sex kittens in glasses & tiny tank tops in Washington think tanks? Because that's what this picture conveys. Wow.

  • Anon on July 11, 2012 12:36 PM:

    There seems to be confusion between the text and the art direction about whether this article is about women in think tanks or women in tiny tanks.

  • Jacob on July 11, 2012 12:38 PM:

    Gee... why aren't smart women lining up to shill for the Heritage Foundation? Ya' think it might be their terrible polices as they relate to reproductive freedom/women?

    Great photo for the article bros!

  • Donald Ball on July 11, 2012 12:47 PM:

    The choice of picture should embarrass you. It's also sadly reinforces the larger point.

  • Really? on July 11, 2012 12:53 PM:

    It's insane that an editor allowed this photo to go with this story. Pathetic.

  • Jeff on July 11, 2012 1:43 PM:

    "Unfortunately, the holy grail for many think tankers is to be a cable TV regular."

    This is way off. Perhaps for some of the middle of the road think tanks with small budgets they desire to get on TV. But cable TV isn't where the experts debate the experts. It's where blowhards mouth off to sympathetic TV hosts.

  • Ross W on July 11, 2012 1:44 PM:

    Piling on. WTF on the photo?! I guess that's one way to get comments.

  • Seriously on July 11, 2012 1:50 PM:

    All you people complaining about the image... go watch a murder mystery or something

  • SamiJ on July 11, 2012 2:13 PM:

    Why is there a 'cheesecake' photo used for an analytical piece on why women are left out of policy making? CLEARLY they are left out of editorial decisions as well.

    This is offensive, and does nothing to illustrate the piece. However, it does underscore how women are sexualized and objectified by media.

  • Chucky on July 11, 2012 2:19 PM:

    The fact that most of the comments on here are about the photo choice is probably a good indication that it was a bad one, and that the photo undermines the article. Probably a good idea to change it, if you want the text to be taken seriously, that is.

  • KLM on July 11, 2012 2:49 PM:

    Please change the photo that currently accompanies this article. It's counter to the content of the piece and implies that Washington Monthly views women's primary value as coming from their bodies, even when they are policymakers who ought to be--and have asked to be--valued for their intelligence.

  • EricF on July 11, 2012 3:22 PM:

    "The Heritage Foundation, for example, has fifteen (almost identical) white men on their “senior management” page"

    "almost identical?" Racist much?

  • Daniel on July 11, 2012 3:34 PM:

    Can anyone explain what's actually wrong with the photo?

  • Kathy on July 11, 2012 3:45 PM:

    It has been said, but the fact that someone or several someones thought the photo was even okay points to why there are no women at think tanks. Even at the highest levels in 2012, women are not seen as fully human or fully competent. That this picture hasn't been taken down yet speaks to how much the editors really don't care about the message they are sending.

  • BLM on July 11, 2012 3:56 PM:

    "And for this, women clearly face a higher bar—not only must they be policy experts, they must be policy babes."

    Looks like the same chauvinism holds sway at Washington Monthly's art department! Depressing.

  • Frank Drebin on July 11, 2012 4:34 PM:

    Congratulations on a wealthy, educated, feminist public policy expert taking a brave stand in favor of wealthy, educated female budding policy experts. Why assist women stooped over corn grinders in Guatemala when you can work for the interests of the ladies who lunch?

  • Joe Grossberg on July 11, 2012 4:57 PM:

    "The Heritage Foundation, for example, has fifteen (almost identical) white men on their 'senior management' page"

    Umm ... Mike Gonzalez's bio says he was born in Cuba. John Fogarty is in his mid 30's and Ed Meese is 80.

    What, do "all white (and Latin) guys look the same"? I would think an Asian-American would be more sensitive to the idiocy of such remarks.

    Anne Kim: What is wrong with you?

    Editors: Do your freaking job!

    And nice photo, guys. What the heck? Is this Washington Monthly or Maxim?

  • Ophelia Benson on July 11, 2012 7:48 PM:

    So you figured readers wouldn't know what a "woman" was, and you provided the picture to explain?

    Good thinking.

  • Ms. Daisy Cutter on July 11, 2012 8:56 PM:

    "All you people complaining about the image... go watch a murder mystery or something"

    Is "go watch a murder mystery" the new "make us a sammich"?

    Daniel, you honestly can't see the problem with an article lamenting the lack of women in power... paired with a photo of a woman as cheesecake? Are you going to throw out the strawman of "Sexy women can be empowered, too"?

  • The picture is ridiculous on July 11, 2012 9:15 PM:

    Great way to show what a sophisticated magazine you are, Washington Monthly.

    Lots of quality control going on here.

    Next time, don't try to be provocative - you end up committing the same mistakes you pretend so righteously to rail against.

  • ceilidth on July 11, 2012 10:39 PM:

    Look around at your own magazine and blog. Where are the women? They are way outnumbered by the men. And that's why no one checked the appropriateness of the picture for the article. This is a teenaged male view of women in power.

  • Vidya on July 12, 2012 4:13 AM:

    um...i think the photo is trying to make a point, which is that women are (problematically) not valued for the correct attributes in the policy world. can no one else see that perhaps this photo is attempting to actually encapsulate what the problem is?

  • Ajb on July 12, 2012 7:27 AM:

    Why is there a pictures of breasts as the photo? Seriously? It's insulting and demeaning. Articles about male policy wonks don't double up as sexualized ads for underwear.

  • Joe Grossberg on July 12, 2012 11:35 AM:

    "Seriously": It's hard to take you ... seriously ... when you're too cowardly to post under your name. Ooh, you can make sexist jokes anonymously -- you're so clever!

    Daniel: (I can only speak for myself.) This photo is not about "DC's hottest wonks"; it's about the lack of female wonks in DC. A woman wonk's attire does not consist of a skimpy tank-top, except maybe in someone's sexual fantasies. It's akin to a serious article on the nursing profession being accompanied by a woman in a "sexy nurse" costume.

    Vidya: It occurred to me that the photo was intended as ironic commentary, and I suppose that's possible, but my hunch is that you may be giving them too much credit and rationalizing a bad editorial decision.

  • C. Page on July 12, 2012 12:08 PM:

    The headline photo undermines the message of the entire article. I'm convinced the WM is merely trolling for increased hits with this one.

  • Sanford Cook on July 12, 2012 12:49 PM:

    Good article but when you take an orthogonal view it is not 50.8% who are unrepresented it is more like 98%. (Referring to other stories in this issue) why is Eric Olsen, the commercial fisherman, not represented in think tanks dealing with fisheries? Why are those injured by metal shavings in J&J drugs not represented in pharma think tanks? Why are no colleagues of the Big Branch Mine dead and those dying from black lung sitting on energy think tanks?

    Yes we need more women in these organizations (for whatever good these groups do beyond supporting some contributor's ideology/business plan) but even more we need someone to start representing all of us.

    Congress doesn't and think tanks don't either.

  • Bruce McGlory on July 12, 2012 1:14 PM:

    So, who's the knuckle-dragging idiot who chose this picture to head this article?

  • Ranger Jay on July 12, 2012 9:16 PM:

    It's a picture. It's a magazine. Get over it.

  • Internet Persona on July 12, 2012 10:47 PM:

    Ms Kim,

    If you had thought before knocking on other organizations, you should have taken the second to check your own institution.

    Senior Fellows - 12 out of 12 are males
    Contributors - 69 out of 84 are males
    Staff - 4 out of 7 are males

    Perhaps you should crusade a little closer to home?

  • Steve on July 12, 2012 10:50 PM:

    I liked the photo.

  • Internet Persona on July 12, 2012 10:57 PM:

    Also kudos on the picture. Doubles down on the message.

  • Sanders on July 12, 2012 10:59 PM:

    What think-tank does the lady in the photo work at? I'd like to think with her.

  • LookeeLoo on July 13, 2012 11:45 AM:

    Never mind the poor choice of photo for this essay, how about the author neglecting to mention that the DC think tank scene also excludes policy wonks of color? Other than the Joint Centers and the CAP, name me one big think tank with Senior Fellows or even staff that contains more than a sprinkling -- if that -- of blacks or Latinos? What about that?

  • Anonymous on July 13, 2012 12:08 PM:

    Idiotic article written by a dogmatic liberal.

    There will always be more men in intense high-pressure jobs because men are biologically more suited to that line of work -- end of story.

    The photo on the top of the article is also retarded.

  • Anonymous on July 13, 2012 12:09 PM:

    If you really want to get technical, then it's jewish ashkenazim who dominate think tanks, not wasps.

  • Bob S on July 13, 2012 12:15 PM:

    I think the males at the think tanks, cable shows, and Sunday morning shows should also adopt this dress code. Tanks tops for all!

  • I'm appalled on July 13, 2012 1:30 PM:

    Seriously? Remove the photo already.

  • Guest on July 17, 2012 11:27 AM:

    Come on, the photo selected shows the publisher/editor as well as others in the organization have no interest in changing the state of affairs the article is meant to address.

    Also, even in those areas where women predominate, men are selected in their stead. You do remember the absurdity of men addressing the abortion and contraception issues ad nauseum recently?

    I'd say the problem isn't self-selection, its misogyny or males protecting their turfs, as usual. There are some really excellent women working in finance, by the way. Many of them blew the whistle very early on corruption. And the few women who could select women, often choose men or antiwomen women, possibly to protect their own jobs.

    And if the subject is controversial like pornography, in which the media have a large vested interest, not to mention the interests of male viewers, female hosts such as Melissa Harris-Perry do not step up to the plate. In a recent episode, she did not defend the right of anti-pornography Gail Dines to speak on MSNBC against pornography but instead acquiesced to having several porn producers appear in her place. Again, to protect her job?

    The article makes excellent points, which are unlikely to lead to change. Aside in being actively seeking to maintain male supremacy, males have enormous advantages, to the disadvantage of the world and its species, human or otherwise, because they do not carry human life, give birth, or almost exclusively care for their children.

    Even progressive males want their pornography and other advantages and feel entitled to them, thank you very much.

  • Women in International Security on July 17, 2012 12:10 PM:

    The women wonks are out there! It is true that there needs to be more professional development, networking, and mentoring for women-but there ARE organizations out there to help! Women in International Security (WIIS) is a global network of women working in the peace and security fields. WIIS works on all of the things mentioned in the article in order to advance women's careers and leadership in international peace and security.

    We wrote up a longer response to this article on our blog, please check it out: http://womenininternationalsecurity.wordpress.com/

  • Joanne Bamberger aka PunditMom on July 19, 2012 1:15 PM:

    If people started looking around the blogosphere, they'd find many women pundits. (Myself included!)

    Author, Mothers of Intention: How Women and Social Media are Revolutionizing Politics in America


  • Ellen on July 25, 2012 3:32 PM:

    Men don't want smart women with strong opinions: that's why there seem to be fewer women policy wonks. But I don't believe for one minute that there is a shortage.

  • Sammy on July 31, 2012 8:09 AM:

    The photo makes it clear: WM = white male. Cheers!

  • Ludovic Blain on August 16, 2012 12:31 AM:

    "We trail such model democracies as Rwanda, the Seychelles, Angola, and Belarus" actually, rwanda is a model democracy...i guess we need a race analysis as well as a gender one to prevent ignorant comments like that getting through a writer and editor...

  • Toni on October 11, 2012 6:13 PM:

    I consider myself a ladywonk, but my boobs don't look like that...

  • Jerie O'Connor on January 23, 2013 2:25 PM:

    I have been reading this magazine for almost 44 years and this article/picture has generated the most publicity it has ever received by the media except for when it almost went out-of-business a decade ago.