On Diversity, European Think Tanks Can Learn from the Biden Administration

Corinna Hörst
Louise Langeby
4 min read
Photo Credit: Vasilis Asvestas / Shutterstock
President Joe Biden vowed to make his administration the most diverse in U.S. history. His initial appointments and nominations showcase a team featuring prominent “firsts” in key positions when it comes to gender and race.

President Joe Biden vowed to make his administration the most diverse in U.S. history. His initial appointments and nominations showcase a team featuring prominent “firsts” in key positions when it comes to gender and race. For example, for the first time the White House communications team will be entirely female with four of the seven appointees being women of color. His economic team includes a female secretary of the treasury as well as the first female to serve as the director of national intelligence, among others.

Biden’s promise that his administration will reflect the country and the steps he has taken so far are a reminder that democratic governments are there to respond and adapt to citizens’ demands, and thus that political leadership must reflect their diversity. They should also resonate with think tanks and public policy institutions that aim to provide ideas and analysis, stimulate public debate, and offer innovative yet concrete policy recommendations to tackle the world’s most pressing problems.

Addressing gender equality inside these institutions and in their work can be a first step. If think tanks want to remain relevant, they need to promote and integrate the principles of diversity and inclusion among their staff and output. Last year an Action Statement was circulated in Washington policy circles, endorsed by approximately 300 think tank employees. It provides recommendations on how to ensure greater diversity in the think tank community. It is time for European public policy institutions to follow this example by considering gender diversity and inclusion in their research, media engagements, leadership, and convening.

There has been an increased focus on these issues at Brussels-based think tanks. Last year a study by the German Marshall Fund reviewed the gender composition of 25 European think tanks. While revealing that they employ men and women in nearly equal measure, it also found that their leadership continues to be predominantly male.

Pursuing gender parity on think tank panels has become the norm rather than the exception in recent years. Event organizers in the European policy sphere are much more sensitive to the implications of featuring all-male panels than was the case just five years ago. The impact has been positive, even where it is only due to a concern about negative publicity.  According to a fall 2020 private survey conducted as part of the Brussels Binder’s Brussels Binder Beyond project, 36 percent of speakers at events organized by 14 European think tanks in 2019 were women and 46 percent of the panels organized had at least 40 percent female speakers.

Women play an important role when it comes to think tank research and publications. According to the Brussels Binder Beyond survey mentioned above, 27 percent of the European think tank publications were authored by women and 37 percent were co-authored by men and women. There is increasing awareness of the issue even if there is not yet full gender parity, differences between policy areas persist and fewer women experts are cited in publications.  

However, the statistics look worse when it comes to media engagement. According to the Brussels Binder survey, only 27 percent of European think tank media engagements were by women. So, while many women contribute to the policy work and research of think tanks, they are not always doing so publicly. This reinforces old stereotypes of women as administrators and men as public figures.

A large part of the work of think tankers involves developing new policy ideas and recommendations in the hope that policymakers and governments will bring about better solutions to the many challenges we face. These will only be impactful if they emanate from a diverse set of thinkers and policy expert collaborations. How can new and creative ideas possibly develop in anything other than a diverse and inclusive environment?

Gender diversity plays an increasingly pivotal role in many sectors in Europe. Ranging from Finland’s all-female government coalition, to the German government’s new mandatory quota of having at least one woman on the board of all publicly listed company, the move toward more diverse leadership in decision making is undeniable. While the coronavirus pandemic has fundamentally challenged how think tanks operate, it has also provided an impetus to adjust existing structures and procedures to be more inclusive. President Biden is following through on his promise that his administration would look like the country. The European think tank sector must do the same. Its employees, activities, and output should reflect all of Europe.