How to Promote Women’s Leadership in Transatlantic Think Tanks

Something I noticed immediately when I started out in the foreign policy space is the very small number of women in executive positions. I come from Germany, a country with a female head of state and a female defence minister. Yet, the female representation debate has not yet trickled down too far into other areas of professional life. The think tank sector specifically in which I have been working for two years now is dominated by male boards, male directors, male fellows, and male panels. “Male” in the context of transatlantic think tanks also typifies white, affluent and university educated. This makes it difficult for any early-career woman to envision her future in the field.

As a disclaimer, I am not a gender researcher by any means. My focus is and will remain foreign policy. However, I work for a transatlantic think tank and gender parity and equal professional opportunities for women will affect me throughout my career. I wanted to do my part to help shed light on the situation in organizations like mine. I was able to do so through a McCloy Fellowship from the American Council on Germany. In my role, it has been important to learn the foundations of my field, to know how to advocate for an event and compile a budget. However, I have begun to claim more research-focused work and to make my way towards a fellow position. As such, I wanted to explore where the leading women are in organizations like the one I work for.


Foreign policy currently does not automatically assume the intellectual and leadership contributions of women, while we do so with men. Transatlantic think tanks are, however, in a unique position as analytical institutions and path givers to change this. They are positioned at the hinges of government, academia, and society and as such influence both politics and public opinion.

Think tanks represent a more profound pool of expertise and are positioned to advocate the natural assumption of women as experts and leaders. For the future of transatlantic relations, we need to overcome bias structures and assume and value women as leaders and experts. It requires both female-male and junior-senior cooperation within transatlantic relations to make women more visible and conversations more diverse.

To take a quantitative look, women remain underrepresented as commentators, panelists, and in citations in international relations. They make up, for example, only 12% of the one hundred most frequently cited political scientists (The Political Science 400). Additionally, women accounted for just 24 percent of foreign affairs and national security experts invited to speak on major political talk shows (de Jonge Oudraat & Kamali-Nafar, 2018:1).

Statistics aside, what did I find during my research in the U.S. and Germany? I interviewed women in senior research and/or executive positions to highlight structure, and leadership in the field. Each woman describes transatlantic relations as rooted in a male-dominated, post-World War II order and in military and security discourse. A place where realism is the dominant school of thought. One interviewee argues, “the top echelons of thinking and leading are men so how do we expect the lexicon to be different.”

Of course, a rigid structure produces roadblocks for those who do not benefit from it. All interviewees see pay equity as the most pressing issue, in some cases receiving only half of a male colleague’s remuneration. The second leading issue is parenthood, with the lack of appropriate maternity leave and childcare facilities. The assumption remains that women cannot do both; have a child and be successful in their jobs. Their husbands are not subject to the same assumption. The third most pressing issue was described as “acceptance and opportunity.” A lack of institutional support remains to grow in a position, with both a reluctance to promote and give external-facing opportunities. Many older, established men still doubt a woman’s fundamental right to be at the table.


Naturally, a problem asks for a solution. In a male-dominated system, women cannot bring about change by themselves and female-male cooperation is necessary. Men must accept and actively champion female representation as a strategic issue and as instrumentally important. They must realize the best people are not solely their peers, and diversifying the conversation and leadership is advantageous to their organization.

Women must further cooperate through the ranks. A senior woman needs to be a good colleague to other women, as she sets the tone for what is acceptable. Senior women need to support, showcase, sponsor and mentor younger colleagues. They also need to help source writing, speaking and participation opportunities.      

Most importantly, junior women must realize women are not automatically supportive. Many women define themselves through their womanhood in addition to their professional position, which creates an extra level of insecurity and perceived competition. And, junior women do not have to lean in but rather must dare to fight. There will be a situation when your boss accuses you of inappropriate behaviour in the form of a “private meeting,” when in fact you had a two-minute coffee break chat with a male participant – in public, in broad daylight. These things are not okay and no professional hierarchy nor the gender of your accuser changes that. In other words, some women just really want that special place in hell for themselves as Madeleine Albright claimed. It oftentimes has nothing to do with your actual capabilities, but with their own, very real insecurities.

Carolin Wefer is Program Assistant at the German Marshall Fund (GMF) and a McCloy Fellow with the American Council on Germany. She focuses on foreign and trade policy with specific expertise on the Korean peninsula. Carolin joined GMF in 2017 after having worked at a think tank from the LSE European Institute. She holds an MSc in International Relations from the London School of Economics and a BA International Relations from the University of Exeter.