Absent Influencers? Women in European Think Tanks

June 04, 2020
Corinna Hörst
Rosa Balfour
Pia Hüsch
Sofiia Shevchuk
Eleonora del Vecchio
3 min read
European think tanks have until recently been somewhat immune from discussions on gender equality.

European think tanks have until recently been somewhat immune from discussions on gender equality. As non-profit organizations, operating independently of governments and political parties, their organizational structure and productivities have seldom been scrutinized as other institutions in the political realm. Yet, think tanks are key influencers of public policy and their research, analysis, and engagement in public debate should reflect the diversity of the societies they are part of impacts the quality and relevance of their work given their role as informers of public opinion.

This paper argues that think tanks need to refocus on their value, mission, and role in order to be impactful in the current competitive and often poisonous political environment in many countries. As long as they do not renew their composition and capacity for innovation by bringing in fresh ideas from a more diversified mix of genders, ages, nationalities, and social, educational, and political backgrounds, they run the risk of being seen as “elitist” and out of touch with society as they do not reflect their diversity.

Reviewing the gender composition of 25 European think tanks reveal that while European think tanks employ men and women nearly equally, their leadership continues to be male-dominated. This is also the case on the research and analysis, or “content,” side of think tanks. At the senior level, the content work of think tanks is male-dominated, though there is greater gender equality at the entry and mid-career levels. On the administrative side of European think tanks, which is less visible to the public, the situation is different. Women make up 66 percent of senior employees and 74 percent of non-senior ones in “organizational” departments such as communications, finance, human resources, IT, and partnership and fundraising.

While the greater proportion of women in organizational functions has helped improve their number in the executive teams and the overall proportion of women in think tanks, there is increasingly a gendering of careers. While women have risen in the administration of think tanks, they are still poorly represented as senior experts, directors, and presidents of think tanks.

This paper contends that, if they want to continue to play a leading role across their fields of expertise and shape the way forward for Europe and the EU, think tanks must commit to reflecting in their composition the societies they aim to serve. It offers recommendations for changes they can learn from their peers in Europe and the United States to address the inadequate gender status quo in their organizational structures and procedures to ensure they remain relevant and impactful in the 21st century. These changes fall under following categories:

  •  Create a diversity-and-inclusion committee to advise the leadership and board;
  • Addressing discriminatory hiring and human-resources practices;
  • Offering paid internships or traineeships to ensure a more diverse pipeline for junior positions;
  • Creating an inclusive, flexible work environment;
  • Making diversity part of the vision plan and the mission;
  • Eliminating all-male panels and authorship;
  • Addressing criteria and methods for tasks and promotion; and
  • Promoting cooperation on diversity and inclusion.


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