Many Top Think Tanks in D.C. Remain Boys' Clubs

The all-knowing Washington, D.C., think tanks-the organizations that supply the White House, Congress, advocacy organizations, and the talk shows with policy experts and research to support the views du jour-have a mixed record of including women

Heather Boushey

WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)-Among the nation's most prominent think tanks, women hold less than one-third of directorships or lead research positions, according to an informal survey conducted by Women's Enews.

Only one of 10 leading research organizations in the nation's capital boasts a majority of women in senior research jobs, the survey found.

The findings are significant because high-level employees at Washington think tanks play prominent roles in the civic discussion of public policy. In appearances on TV and radio news and talk shows, on the op-ed pages of newspapers and in the very subjects they choose to research, the opinions of these thinkers exert a great deal of influence on American government and society.

“At the end of the day, these numbers reflect the fact that the glass ceiling we thought was eradicated has not been,” said Heather Boushey, the only female Ph.D. economist at Washington's Economic Policy Institute. “There is an element of discrimination that remains.”

The liberal Urban Institute had the highest percentage of women holding senior research positions, at 55 percent. The percentage increases to almost 65 percent if junior-level research associates are included in the number.

Two conservative organizations, The Heritage Foundation and Hudson Institute, shared second-place honors, at approximately 31 percent each. According to spokeswoman Khristine Bershers, The Heritage Foundation, led by such well-known right-wing politicians as Edwin Meese III, has focused actively on its lack of female representation and has sought to rectify the situation.

“We have increased the number of women in the organization significantly over the past year,” she said. Virginia Thomas, wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, is among the group's senior fellows.

Also at 31 percent is the research unit of Rand, based in Santa Monica, Calif., which in recent years has expanded beyond its original defense and national security policy focus to include domestic affairs.

At 24 percent, middle-of-the-road The Brookings Institution came next, followed by security- and defense-oriented Center for Strategic and International Studies (18 percent); the conservative American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research (14 percent); globalization group Institute for International Economics (14 percent); liberal Economic Policy Institute (10 percent); and libertarian group Cato Institute (7 percent). An 11th group, the trade-and industry-focused Economic Strategy Institute, had no women in senior research positions.

Urban Institute Has Exceptional Number of Top-Ranked Women

At Urban Institute, Director of Human Resources Deborah Hoover suggested that the disparity in numbers reflected the focus of the individual organization.

“We study issues women care about, like child care and income levels,” she said. In addition, Hoover also noted that the Urban Institute's broad scope creates more opportunities for social scientists.

“There seem to be more women in the social sciences,” she said. She estimated that for every job opening at the institute, she reviews more applications from women than from men.

But others hypothesize that the lack of women at other organizations comes from the difficulty of recruiting female economists and other women academics-who are in high demand and short supply. “We are aggressively looking for women and minorities, but it is not easy,” said Karen Conner, spokeswoman for the Economic Policy Institute. Boushey suggested that women economists-particularly those with doctorates-are wanted by a wide range of organizations, from academia to industry to government, and competition for their services is keen.

“There are many places a woman with a Ph.D. in economics can go, often for a higher salary,” Boushey said. Women with that level of education can make more money working as investment bankers, stock analysts or strategic planners at large corporations.

Some researchers counter that while the numbers of women remain low, they maintain a high profile. At the American Enterprise Institute, for example, both the vice president and senior director for foreign affairs are women. The organization's roster of scholars includes former Reagan administration Cabinet Secretary Jeane Kirkpatrick and Lynne Cheney, Vice President Dick Cheney's wife and the former chairwoman of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

“Women are not just in our organization,” said spokeswoman Meg Raney. “They play prominent roles in leadership positions.”

Regardless of Numbers Employed, Women's Points of View Are Missing

Yet a number of other studies support the conclusion that women's voices-across the ideological spectrum-remain few, regardless of how many women are employed by such groups. In one study, analyst Nicholas Ruble reviewed press citations by think tank representatives during the years 1997 to 1999. Of the 30 most frequently quoted experts, only one, Marilyn Moon of Urban Institute, was a woman.

A survey completed last year determined that only 11 percent of guests on the Sunday morning public affairs shows were women. The White House Project, a New York-based organization that promotes women in leadership, also found that after Sept. 11, the percentage dropped to under 9.4 percent. Furthermore, female guests, including women in elected office, policy-makers and researchers, were invited back less frequently than male guests.

“For women to be accepted as leaders, they must be seen and heard as leaders and experts in all fields, including especially the nation's top think tanks in Washington, which many television news programs turn to for guests,” said Marie C. Wilson, president of The White House Project. “Numbers count, and the more visible women are in positions of power, the more accepted it will become.”

The informal think tank poll did highlight one surprising finding: Contrary to stereotype, women's views on matters of public policy appear to reflect the same diversity as their male counterparts.

Ann Moline is a freelance writer based in Alexandria, Va.

For more information:

Also see Women's Enews, December 6, 2001:
“Women Denied Talk Show Rite of Political Passage”:

The White House Project
Study called “Who's Talking,” which analyzes the gender breakdown of guests on the Sunday political talk shows:

Think Tanks and the Media: