How to Change the Face of Nuclear Policy: Diversify

Research has repeatedly shown that diverse teams generate the best outcomes and that the presence of women in policy discussions adds value and sustainability to policies and impact.


Credit: U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Shane A. Cuomo

It has been one year since more than thirty leaders in nuclear policy stood up to advance gender equality through public pledges in support of institutional change. Since then, Gender Champions in Nuclear Policy, a leadership network in nuclear policy committed to breaking down gender barriers and making gender equality a working reality, has grown to include the leaders of over forty-two organizations worldwide. The latest, Thomas Mason, Director of Los Alamos National Laboratory, marks the first U.S. national laboratory director to join their ranks.

Collectively, the group has made 140 specific, time-bound commitments ranging from pledging to increase women’s participation in panels, events, and publishing, to establishing paid internship programs and bringing gender diversity to their Boards of Directors. Champions also pledge to use their own cachet as speakers to improve the gender balance of panel discussions.

Together, they are demonstrating that we can create change within our own institutions and networks to create better outcomes through diversity.

There is a long history of exclusion and discrimination in the nuclear field, particularly for women and people of color. Nevertheless, they persisted. Research—including New America’s Consensual Straitjacket and Vincent Intondi’s African Americans Against the Bomb—aims to correct the record about the impact of underrepresented communities in nonproliferation and disarmament efforts. This research also identifies the sexism, racism, harassment, and structural hurdles that bar full participation of these communities. In 2018, Women in International Security found that only three of the top twenty-two think tanks in Washington working on foreign policy, national and international security, have an equal number of men and women on staff. Over the past three years, terms such as “manels” (all-men panels) and “marticles” (articles that only quote men) have reflected the persistence of the male default when it comes to nuclear experts. The nuclear policy field is finally recognizing these inequalities and taking steps to change them.

Diversity and inclusion matters. Research has repeatedly shown that diverse teams generate the best outcomes and that women’s presence and contributions to peace and security discussions add value and sustainability to policies and impact. Diverse teams are more likely to avoid group-think, challenge and refine proposed ideas, and create additional sustainable solutions, whether in business deals or through peace processes. Trying to exclude over half the population from resolving the problems posed by nuclear threats is not only unjust, but it is also unwise.

The Gender Champions in Nuclear Policy network believes that leadership commitment is essential to creating the kinds of policy, behavioral, environmental, and cultural changes to make the nuclear field an inclusive space. Leaders of organizations across the nuclear space—including think tanks, advocacy organizations, industry networks, women’s empowerment groups, professional societies, foundations, and academic institutions—agree to avoid wherever possible sitting on single-gender panels (with exceptions for certain women’s empowerment organizations), as well as to at least three additional customized pledges that reflect the needs of their organizations. The leaders then track these pledges, found on the group’s website, and report on their progress. The policy network was inspired by the success of the International Gender Champions, a network of international organizations, permanent mission, and civil society organization leaders determined to break down gender barriers.

Initial reporting indicates significant progress on the majority of the pledges. Some successes have already been made public, such as the equal numbers of male and female panelists for the 2019 Carnegie International Nuclear Policy Conference, or One Earth Future’s publication of its aggregate pay information.

The challenges have been almost as interesting as progress. The transparent nature of the group’s commitments has increased the space to discuss cultural and structural problems that make it more difficult for women and other underrepresented communities to join and advance in nuclear policy organizations. Some have discovered that in order to increase women’s participation and leadership they need to address other organizational elements, such as human resources staffing, recruitment plans, or by-laws. We have realized the lack of data—whether about the make-up of our grant portfolios or the history of our conferences—is hindering our ability to see progress. We have seen incredible enthusiasm and commitment to addressing these problems and thinking more deeply about practical ways to create inclusive workspaces, but this initiative will only achieve its goals if we are honest and transparent around our failures as well as our successes.

We recognize that this moment to create change may be fleeting. We challenge all leaders to adopt the same principles as the Gender Champions in Nuclear Policy. Their support and advocacy are necessary to create advance gender equality in their organizations, and in the field as a whole. Organizations need this focus in order to make diversity and inclusion a priority in their work—they cannot expect their staff to be more courageous than their leadership.

Laura Holgate is vice president for materials risk management at the Nuclear Threat Initiative and the former U.S. ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency. Michelle Dover is program director at Ploughshares Fund, a global security foundation. 


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