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  • Position : Director of the Eurasia Nonproliferation Program
  • Affiliation : James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Middlebury Institute of International Studies
  • Position : Coordinator, Information & Publications Program, Yaderny Kontrol editor
  • Affiliation : PIR Center
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"We definitely have not achieved anything close to gender equity in our sphere". Sarah Bidgood on why we should pay attention to gender diversity in the nonproliferation sphere

Sarah Bidgood

The editors decided to shift the focus a little from the problems of nuclear nonproliferation and arms control and talk about people. Nikita Degtyarev, PIR Center Information & Publications Program Coordinator, interviewed Sarah Bidgood, Director of the Eurasia Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey. In the interview, she spoke about women in the nonproliferation sphere: why it is important to talk about this, whether the UN or individual countries have begun to pay attention to the gender issue, how women are promoted in nuclear diplomacy.

Why is gender important for the NPT? Why should we pay attention to gender diversity in the nonproliferation sphere?

I think there are two different ways of answering this question, and both are important.

One is that everybody deserves to have an equal voice in conversations about nuclear policy. Unequivocally, whether you are a man or woman, or somebody from the US or Russia, or whatever the difference, everybody has right to participate in the conversation around nuclear weapons and policy because the decisions that are taken affect all of us. No one group has jurisdiction over this space.

Another, though, pertains to what people of different genders bring to a discussion and to problem solving on complex issues. While I am not of the belief that women have any kind of biological or genetic predisposition to be peaceful or to be able to be diplomatic or anything like that, I do think men and women are acculturated to behave in different ways, at least in American society. This can mean that men and women approach collaborative work or tackle problems in different ways, and when we’re working together on really complicated issues like arms control and nonproliferation and disarmament, these acculturated differences help us challenge one another, question our preconceptions, and improve the rigor of our thinking.

The same goes for people of different nations, people of different ages, of races, every manifestation of diversity. Everybody who brings a different perspective to the conversation might be able to offer a new approach to an entrenched problem or think up a solution that someone else can’t. The more diverse types of viewpoints that you can invite when dealing with a complex issue, the better. This is certainly true when it comes to nuclear weapons issues, and it is a clear argument for gender diversity. But we have a lot of work ahead of us in order to get where we need to be.


Can we say that women would suffer more from a nuclear attack or test than men?

Researchers have been looking for this question in depth for at least the past decade. UNIDIR found, for instance, that women would be more affected by not only the use of nuclear weapons in war but also nuclear testing and certain steps in the development of nuclear weapons. Part of this has to do with the biological makeup of men and women. There are different types of cancers that are more prevalent among people who have been exposed to radiation, and on balance, they tend to affect women more than men.

There are also cultural reasons why nuclear weapons use or tests might impact women more than men. And some of that is because, in many societies, men are the people who are going to war and women are at home with their families. If nuclear weapons use necessitates evacuations or displacements, these will affect women—who are often the primary caretakers—differently than men.  So, there are also differentiative impacts between the genders at all levels when it comes to nuclear weapons use.

These issues are obviously linked to bigger gender dynamics that are at play when we talk about war, but because the humanitarian consequences of the use of nuclear weapons are so devastating, the gendered impact is exacerbated.


Is there any tendency that shows us that the UN or individual countries have started to pay attention to this issue and promote more women in nuclear diplomacy?

Yes. I’ve been happy to see that, over the last 5 years in particular, there have been lots of efforts on the part of the UN and a number of national governments to try to encourage more women to engage in disarmament diplomacy, arms control, nonproliferation, and across all pillars of the NPT.

Some of these relate to training opportunities for women, and in general, I would advise anyone who is leading activities that are designed to bring more people into the diplomatic corps for instance to make sure they are doing so in ways that recruit equal numbers of men and women. Other activities relate to diversity in representation, so I’ve seen a growing focus on ensuring that panels, conferences, and publications include both female and male experts, which I think results in a more interesting and thought-provoking end result.

We’ve also seen more efforts related to what is called gender mainstreaming, where if an organization is going to hire for a position, for example, they make sure that they have equal numbers of male and female candidates. When taking policy decision within the organization, they’ll think carefully and deliberately about whether this policy will disproportionately disadvantage women. If they are going to have early morning meetings, for instance, they look at how this would affect women who are often the people who primarily are caretakers of children and might be dropping them off at school at that time, which would mean they couldn’t attend. This process goes beyond the context of the disarmament diplomacy space to thinking more generally about doing things in a way that allows women to participate fully in the same ways as men do. All of this additional thought and the deliberate steps different organizations in our field are taking are, I think, are making a difference.


Do we have NGOs in the nonproliferation sphere which work on promotion gender in the nonproliferation community? If yes, do they get any positive results, do they change the situation for the better?

There are a lot of non-governmental organizations that are trying to do more in this space in addition to the work they are already doing on disarmament nonproliferation and arms control. Organizations that have existed for a long time are also starting to pay closer attention to this issue to incorporate it into their programs.

There are also new organizations, though, that focus specifically on the intersection of gender and international security, including WMD issues. One US-based initiative that comes to mind is called Gender Champions in Nuclear Policy. It asks the heads of different organizations in our field to make concrete pledges that are aimed at increasing gender diversity within their own companies to enable women and people of all genders to be able to be fully engaged in decision-making on these issues. This initiative and others like it are relatively new, but I can see that they have already resulted in tangible change and are ensuring that more attention is being paid to gender diversity at high levels.


How can the situation be improved at the middle level? How can professors, experts, MFA workers personally help gender to take its place in the nonproliferation sphere?

Every organization is a little bit different, so I think it depends on what organization we are talking about.

As a person who works in an academic institution, I can say that I’m really interested in what professors and faculty can do to increase gender diversity. Some of what we can do entails showing students that there are women experts who work in the nonproliferation field. We know from research that if you are in a field where you know no people who look like you or relate to your experience, you’re less likely to see a space for yourself there professionally, which can affect your career aspirations. With that in mind, when professors put together their syllabi, I think it is really important to feature research by women experts because this shows students that there are women who are speaking authoritatively about these issues, which they might not be exposed to otherwise.

The same thing applies for professors who are bringing guest speakers into their classes. Bring equal numbers of men and women. Bring in women speakers who can show students that women are active in this field. If you are a young woman and think you might want to pursue a career in nonproliferation, it’s really important to know that there are people who came before you who can help you to do that.

Not unrelated, I also think mentorship is a really important tool to help people who have typically been excluded from this field to engage more.  Having a woman who is more senior show young women the path to becoming a part of our community, for instance, or help them navigate the challenges that they might face, help promote them, highlight their voices, encourage them network and be introduced to the right people—these are all things that are mid and senior-level folks can do to give more diverse junior experts a leg up and make sure that they have the support that they need to succeed.


So one current endeavor is trying to make gender mainstream?

That’s right, and doing so requires deliberate thought and action. It gets back to the very first question you asked. I think there is a really dangerous misconception that if you are very good and you are very talented—regardless of gender—you will be able to find your way to the top echelon of our field. We know that’s not true, though, because there are systemic barriers that make it more difficult for women to climb this ladder. These include the fact that, in the US, women get paid less than men who are performing exactly the same job they are. American women typically make 82 cents to the dollar that men make. If a family decides they are going to have kids and one person needs to stay home to take care of them, it often ends up being the woman who gives up her career because her salary is less than the man’s. It doesn’t matter if you are talented, or gifted, or really excellent at your job. If you are looking at your bank account, and you are the parent who makes less money, then you are the person who steps back professionally. So part of what some of the organizations I mentioned before are trying to do—and part of what I think needs to happen in our field—is that we need to understand what these barriers are and how to lower them. Let’s get away from this idea that if you are smart and driven then nothing will stand in your way, because that is just not true for the vast majority of people even if they are really good.


So, this glass ceiling still exists…

Absolutely, and we have to figure out the unique ways in which it manifests in our field.  It is worth to take close look at where the leaks appear in the nonproliferation career pipeline and where women tend to drop out so we can identify specific actions we can take to remedy them. That is what I hope people are doing, and it seems like more and more groups are starting to understand why addressing this issue will result in better outcomes in our work, which I’m happy about.


Do we have examples when women have had a positive impact on the NPT sphere or in a near sphere?

That is hard to say, because we definitely have not achieved anything close to gender equity in our sphere. At the last NPT Review Conference in 2015, for instance, only about 26,5 % of the registered delegates were women. So we actually do not yet have a lot of concrete examples we can point to where we can say, “here is a place where gender parity directly resulted in better outcomes.” What we do have, though, is evidence from the private sector and other industries that shows that better gender diversity and diversity in general results in a better product. In the US, for example, companies whose boards are more gender diverse tend to generate higher returns than those with more homogeneous boards. In scientific publishing, articles written by more diverse author groups tend to be cited more than articles written by homogeneous authors. There have been a lot of social science experiments that help to explain why this might be. They show that, when groups of people who are different from one another come together to work on a project, they expect to be challenged and to have to explain their thinking because they do not automatically assume that the person sitting across from them shares their same viewpoint. We tend to not do such a good job of this when we are working with a group of people who look and sound like us, or come from exactly the same background, because we just assume that those people think like us, too. That’s not a recipe for innovative or creative thinking. Diversity forces you to do a better job because you have to question your own preconceptions, and that kind of rigor and clarity of thinking leads to a better outcome. This is what we want in the nuclear policy space, and it seems silly to not take advantage of any tool that could potentially help us do our jobs better when we are dealing with issues that are as important as the ones that we work on.   


Yaderny Kontrol, №6 (524), July 2020