NTI’s Laura Holgate on Gender Disparity in Disarmament Diplomacy

This post was written by Margaret Miller, an intern with NTI’s Global Nuclear Policy Program. Miller graduated from the College of William & Mary – University of St Andrews Joint Degree Programme and will begin graduate studies at Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program in the fall.

The title of the new United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR) report on gender parity in arms control, non-proliferation, and disarmament diplomacy says it all: Still Behind the Curve. But why? And what can be done about it?

On June 24, 2019, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace hosted a presentation of the UNIDIR report. James Acton, co-director of Carnegie’s Nuclear Policy Program, discussed the report’s conclusions with Renata Dwan, director of UNIDIR, and Laura Holgate, NTI Vice President for Materials Risk Management.

Still Behind the Curve reported four key findings:

  • Gender parity has improved in arms control, non-proliferation, and disarmament diplomacy over the past 40 years – but still falls short.
  • Women attain more equal representation in large forums but tend to be shut out of small meetings. At the same time, women are better represented in committees on social, humanitarian, and cultural issues than disarmament and international security.
  • Women have remained consistently underrepresented in leadership positions over the past 40 years, beyond what the low proportion of women in disarmament diplomacy would predict.
  • Over the past four decades, Latin American, Caribbean, Western European, and “other” delegations had higher female representation, while African and Asian-Pacific nations sent delegations with more men to multilateral forums in the United Nations. Gender parity also correlated with income: high-income states achieved a slightly better gender balance than low-income ones in disarmament diplomacy.

The report suggested possible reasons for the gender imbalance, including “the perceived binary hierarchies between male–female and hard–soft policy issues; the military nature of the subject matter; work–life balance; institutional and informal practices that sustain gendered hierarchies and divisions of labour; and lack of consensus on the impact of socially constructed gender attributes in arms control, non-proliferation and disarmament negotiations.”

Breaking Down the Barriers to Equal Participation

Acton introduced the panel by noting that he was “in awe of the amount of effort that went into [the UNIDIR report],” which draws on an “astonishing wealth of empirical data.” Dwan addressed the data included in Still Behind the Curve—forty years of multilateral meetings in the United Nations involving nuclear, chemical, biological, and conventional arms diplomacy.

After summarizing the key findings, Dwan discussed the UNIDIR working groups convened with diplomats to examine their views on gender parity. Many diplomats argued that arms control was associated with so-called “hard” characteristics, such as “toughness,” military experience, engineering or STEM backgrounds, and seriousness. Diplomats noted that family tasks, lengthy assignments, and countries “hostile” to women made gender parity more difficult. Further, Dwan noted that “not everyone shared the view…that gender equality is a right; that women should be at the table simply because they’re human beings.”

Holgate discussed Gender Champions in Nuclear Policy, an initiative she is co-leading to engage leaders in fostering gender parity. Holgate declared that “systemic change requires top-down attention” to match women’s grassroots efforts, such as networking and mentorship. She also noted “the importance of male allies,” commenting that men lead so many organizations that gender parity efforts need their support. Holgate said, “one of the most compelling arguments” for gender parity in nuclear forums is “more diversity means more effectiveness,” with the goal “to have as many talented voiced in the room as possible.”

Improving Gender Parity Is Not a Distraction

Dwan was asked how the UNIDIR report had been perceived by governments and disarmament diplomats, and she noted that the community overall is eager for new ideas in a period of deteriorating arms control. However, some states see efforts to improve gender representation as a “Western debate” that distracts from the erosion of arms control regimes and risk of nuclear escalation. In response, Dwan remarked that “you can walk and chew gum at the same time” and the two issues may be related—perhaps the room’s composition has something to do with the current crisis.

Both Dwan and Holgate noted the difficulty of navigating stereotypes, including that women are inherently pacifistic, while emphasizing the importance of gender parity. Dwan highlighted how LGBTQ, gender, and racial diversity are linked, remarking that “gender parity opens that door” to start looking at a broader range of candidates. To that end, Holgate said that “diversity isn’t just add estrogen and stir,” but including women can be the start of a more inclusive process.

Download the full report here.

June 26, 2019

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