Sarah Kendzior on Diversity

On June 14, 2018, Congresswoman Lois Frankel commented on the importance of female representation in democracy work at the hearing “Democracy Promotion in a Challenging World.” Yet women remain underrepresented in the fields essential to a thriving democracy, particularly foreign policy. Foreign policy is an industry - like the realm of media and international development - that typically requires unpaid labor in cities and expensive higher education degrees. To learn more about the barriers that hinder diversity in these fields, I interviewed Sarah Kendzior, the author of "The View From Flyover Country: Dispatches from the Forgotten America," who has written about the economic stratification in “prestige industries” that perpetuates and reinforces inequality in America. Without unpaid internships or the appropriate degrees, it is difficult to gain access to these fields - an ironic reality for industries often championed as supporters of equality. In Kendzior’s book, she includes an essay titled "U.S. Foreign Policy's Gender Gap," which examines the lack of opportunity to work in expensive cities where several of the industry's positions are based. She attributes the lack of diversity in most foreign policy work as a result of money, and what Faris Alikhan describes as "credential creep." Alikhan defines credential creep as "the stockpiling of prestigious degrees and experiences to differentiate oneself from the increasingly esteemed competition." As Alikhan and Kendzior note, these requisites typically "come at a price too high for the average person to pay."  

It’s more likely to lock out people who aren’t white, and women, especially if they have family obligations and they are the main family care provider. It’s unfortunate because it erases a lot of talent from the field. I always think about all the women who could have made an impact had they been given the same chances and second chances that wealthy white men are endlessly given,” Kendzior said.

Kendzior has written about and collected research for international affairs in media outlets such as Globe and Mail, Fast Company, Al Jazeera, Foreign Policy, Quartz, the Atlantic, the New York Times, and several others. She is one of the few female foreign policy writers represented in major outlets, whereas others often rely on social media as the predominant avenue for their research and stories.

“In the United States, the media won’t quote women as much, the articles written about politics are overwhelmingly written by men, especially white men. The same is true about op-eds; that’s another place where there will be an op-ed page and I’ll be the one picture of a woman on it. It’s ridiculous because there’s nothing that should hold women back or make us less competent in this arena. But it’s such a boys club and it’s been such a boy’s club for a long time," Kendzior said.

Not only are women poorly represented in prominent foreign policy positions, but their views are often neglected in the mainstream media spaces. These are the influential spaces that educate the world about foreign policies - policies that affect women, and often the international development work meant to empower them.

"A lot of women have been able to have more of a voice in the conversation of foreign policy [on Twitter] than regular media where they’re often locked out of or asked to comment on through a lens of “what does this mean to women?," according to Kendzior. When asked about some of the women she follows for foreign policy insight, Kendzior said, “There’s so many, but a few off the top of my head are Ruth Benghiat, Leah McElrath, Hend Amry, Laura Rozen, and Anna Fifield.”

Large international development NGOs tend to be staffed with more women than media and foreign policy fields. Isobel Coleman, American diplomat, author, and Chief Operating Officer of GiveDirectly, described the gap in foreign policy as a possible by-product of the industry’s less “welcoming” attitude towards women, a barrier reinforced by the economic factors spotlighted in Kendzior’s writing. Is it possible that more women work in international development - where they typically must work in tandem with the foreign policy community - because they want to? Or is it because it is significantly more difficult to enter the arena of foreign policy as a woman, which leaves the realm of NGOs a viable alternative for those who seek to make an impact on a global scale?

In situations when they’ve spoken out against discrimination, women are often treated as if their expectation of equal treatment is a veiled call for special treatment. Employers with this dismissive attitude choose to ignore the entrenched structural barriers to women’s job opportunities, which Kendzior and several other women have detailed as a frustrating reality.

“It’s frustrating because when you’re female you don’t want that to be the thing everybody talks about. But at the same time you’re facing issues of discrimination that men aren’t, and just want those issues to be resolved. Most women I talk to in any field dominated by men - which is usually a field of power like media, politics, and foreign policy - that’s basically what they want: respect and creative freedom. And to not have anything judged through this lens of gender, which is often a barrier to getting things done.” In order for “fields of power” to thrive, effective structural changes and inclusivity efforts must be made. If these industries are designed to serve the public, then it is time they begin to represent all of us; there should, indeed, be “nothing about us, without us.”

More women work in the social and public service sectors than private sectors, but a mere “12-14% of the NGOs with the largest budgets” in America have female leaders, according to the Guardian as of 2013. The lack of representation in leadership positions in the field of international work isn’t exclusively a gender phenomenon. That same year, the Guardian also reported that while one third of international development projects take place in Africa, NGO board members are overwhelmingly “western educated male graduates of European origin,” with only 8% of board members being of African descent. There is little data about diversity in international development, but Quantum Impact reports that “increased diversity is linked to stronger performance” in the workplace.

To respond to the lack of diversity in international work, ABA ROLI launched the Rule of Law Diversity Internship (ROLDI) with the generous support of the Jones Day Foundation. ROLDI is an “initiative to diversify the workforce engaged in the promotion of the rule of law abroad by offering summer internships to students from diverse backgrounds who otherwise might not have had the opportunity or means to engage in the rule of law field and experience other international aspects of Washington, DC.” The internship is for individuals with no prior experience in the international development or rule of law fields; all of the participants are also new to DC. Additionally, interns’ housing and transportation costs are fully covered. ABA ROLI hopes leaders across industries will also follow suit with new commitments to diversity in the workplace.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABA ROLI.