Women’s Advancement in the Think Tank Sector
A clear-eyed look within a sector at diversity statistics paves the way for improving representation and increasing innovation, as well as quality of thought in accordance with the business case for diversity. Although diversity is regularly assessed in the corporate sector, precisely due to the direct connection with gaining the competitive edge, this has less often been the case among think tanks. The nascent Think Tank Diversity Consortium (TTDC), composed of 10 leading DC think tanks, is starting the process of turning the eye inward to provide transparent information and encourage a stronger focus on diversity. The German Marshall Fund of the United States is among the ten founding members, along with: the Aspen Institute, Brookings Institution, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, CNA Analysis and Solutions, Council on Foreign Relations, Joint Center on Political and Economic Studies, Peterson Institute for International Economics, UN Foundation, and the Urban Institute.
Gender diversity provides an accessible starting point given ease of gaining statistical information on gender representation. Through examining the gender of TTDC member organizations’ president, senior leadership, and boards of trustees, it is possible to see where the group stands currently and where some thoughtful shifts can be anticipated.
An April 14, 2013 Foreign Policy blog post by Blake Hounshell observed, “how many major American think tanks are run by women? The short answer: not many. Out of the top 50 U.S. think tanks as ranked by the University of Pennsylvania’s James McGann, fully 42 are headed by men. (For the math-impaired out there, that’s 84 percent.)”
Findings within the TTDC are more positive. Of the founding ten member think tanks, four will be led by female presidents as of April 2014: the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the UN Foundation, the German Marshall Fund, and the Urban Institute. The position of president, consistent among all member organizations, oversees institutional strategies. Women are moving smoothly into these positions of senior leadership and will shortly achieve 40% of the total within the TTDC.
Each organization has a slightly different definition of senior leadership positions, but in most cases, the category includes Vice Presidents and Chief Financial Officers. Because of this, each organization has anywhere from three to twenty positions that are considered senior leadership level. Although the size of the senior leader pool varies, the role of women in leadership can be compared through percentage of representation. Most TTDC member organizations’ female representation in this category is between twenty and thirty percent, with the highest member organization being the Urban Institute with 57% women in senior leadership positions, the Council on Foreign Relations with its senior leaders equally divided between men and women, and the Aspen Institute, with 40% senior female leaders. CNA is also exemplary in gender representation, as 66% of the senior staff positions in the office of the president, and 75% with the chief operating officer leadership positions, are held by women. These organizations provide a strong framework for increasing women’s involvement at the highest levels of daily operations in the think tank sector.
However, there is one other category that makes significant institutional decisions, and that is the Board of Trustees where performance is so far least successful in terms of gender diversity. Boards of Trustees are often composed of high profile and highly successful individuals who are vested with the duty to provide strategic guidance and overarching strategic decisions for think tanks. Similar to senior leadership positions, each member organization’s board varies by size, with the smallest TTDC member board consisting of 14 individuals (Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies) and the largest consisting of 72 (Aspen Institute). The percentage of female trustees varied from 16% to 30% in most cases, with the Joint Center being the exception with the highest percentage of female trustees at 42.8%. It is of note that the lack of female leadership at the trustee level is a systemic issue and not an issue for the think tank sector alone. As women continue to break into senior leadership positions in the corporate, public, and nonprofit sectors, the number of female trustees will increase. This does not change the fact that intentional work needs to be undertaken rapidly to bring more women onto think tank boards.
Given the work yet to be done in achieving balanced representation of men and women in senior positions in the think tank sector, this is the right time for think tanks to exchange information about best practices, such as mentoring and coaching programs. Toward this goal, the TTDC and GMF are co-hosting an event on “Advancing Women in the Think Tank Sector” at GMF on June 27, 2014 and will share the results of what promises to be a robust exchange toward an essential goal.
Lora Berg, GMF Senior Fellow and Aaron Shifreen, Research Associate, Hanover Research