A challenge to men in 2019: Embrace gender issues within foreign policy

This year, both men and women in
foreign policy circles should place more value on issues involving gender —
here are five ways to do so. 

By: /
8 January, 2019
French Junior Minister for Gender Equality Marlene Schiappa addresses guests who attended an International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women event at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, November 25, 2017. REUTERS/Ludovic Marin
Lauren Dobson-Hughes
By: Lauren Dobson-Hughes
Expert, international development and global health

Events on “women’s issues” in foreign policy tend to share one unifying characteristic. Is it the rarity of them? The all-male panels? No, it’s the fact the audience is nearly always 90 percent female. All too often, when we talk about women or gender in foreign policy, we end up preaching to the choir.

Yet this needn’t be the case. Gendered analyses don’t belong only to women. There are many mainstream issues that relate solely or largely to gender, and are important topics for everyone working in foreign policy. Gender even pops up in unexpected places, like defence procurement (ejector seats should be calibrated to the average women’s weight too).

Many gendered foreign policy issues are problems for women, but they’re problems caused by men. Take sexual violence — mainly a problem experienced by women or gender non-binary people, but primarily carried out by men. We need to be talking to men about this problem, yet too often, as Carleton professor Steve Saideman recently noted on Twitter, they absent themselves from conversations. 

In some foreign policy spaces it’s becoming less socially acceptable to publicly mock or dismiss gender issues. In some of the more traditionally masculine areas such as defence, it’s still common in hallway conversations. Even in friendlier spaces like international development, sections of the community have been slow to realize the pivotal role gender plays in their work. All male-panels on maternal health still happen — I attended one at a UN conference in 2015, for example.

“I wonder whether men are so used to feeling like leaders or experts in foreign policy spaces that new-to-them areas are uncomfortable and undermining.”

It’s clear gender should be part of mainstream foreign policy thought. So why does adding it to a foreign policy issue seem to make men head to the exits? And what can we do about it?

Let’s start with the perception that women’s issues are a niche, nice-to-have element if there’s the time, an embellishment on top of the basics. Once we’ve dealt with North Korea and Russia, we’ll get to those issues. Yet women comprise more than 50 percent of the population. Issues that disproportionately impact women are not niche. In fact, in the past, we’ve deliberately ignored over half the population in our analysis and work. We’re simply righting a wrong, by examining issues in their entirety.

There’s also the false idea that gender-lensing policies or practices is simply a nod to political correctness, and that areas of policy relating largely to gender are unscientific or a fad. They’re “soft” issues best handled by women, unlike a hard-headed focus on, say, global geopolitics. In fact, there is ample evidence of gender’s vital role in these so-called serious issues. For example, women’s involvement in peace negotiations increases the durability and success of peace agreements.

I wonder whether men are so used to feeling like leaders or experts in foreign policy spaces that new-to-them areas are uncomfortable and undermining. They feel like outsiders. Perhaps they fear being lectured or blamed. Or perhaps men aren’t sure how to go about being an expert in gender (the answer of course being that they don’t need to be experts, they need to listen and learn). 

There’s perhaps the sense that “women’s issues” don’t bring the exposure or networking that other policy areas do, or that there aren’t the same career opportunities or potential for advancement in studying or discussing gender.

So what can we do?

It is worth examining whether it is now time to take gender out of its silo, and mainstream it into foreign policy writ large. In the past, when fighting for gender issues to even be considered, women carved out their own spaces — side events, panels, papers. But have these separate spaces inadvertently marginalized issues facing the majority of the population? And is it time to bring them into the limelight?

On an individual level, let’s start with not putting the onus on women to lead change. There are already plenty of women experts, events, panels, schools of thought and articles. The problem is men don’t generally attend them, listen to them or read them. So men, challenge yourselves in 2019 to:

  1. Attend at least three sessions or panels on gender, and actively listen.
  2. Champion gender in your work. Ask organizers for agenda items, panels or events; invite guest speakers; read women talking about women.
  3. Suggest colleagues with expertise in these areas; organize discussions and ensure these discussions aren’t relegated to side notes, but are given priority.
  4. Invite a male colleague to attend a gender event with you.
  5. Challenge colleagues who downplay or make disparaging remarks about these policy areas.

These are simple, doable solutions. They won’t change the dynamic radically, but they’re a way to start challenging the notion that gendered areas of foreign policy are less valid, less scientific or less important.

Before you click away, we’d like to ask you for a favour … 


Open Canada is published by the Canadian International Council, but that’s only the beginning of what the CIC does. Through its research and live events hosted by its 18 branches across the country, the CIC is dedicated to engaging Canadians from all walks of life in an ongoing conversation about Canada’s place in the world.

By becoming a member, you’ll be joining a community of Canadians who seek to shape Canada’s role in the world, and you’ll help Open Canada continue to publish thoughtful and provocative reporting and analysis.

Join us