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Topics / Nuclear Threats

Balancing for Better in Nuclear Security

Nuclear weapons remain the greatest existential threat to humanity. We won't be able to manage them without enlisting more women

Every year, evidence accumulates that diversity matters in organizational performance. According to a recent McKinsey report based on data from 222 companies, commitment to gender equality is at an all-time high but progress remains frustratingly slow, despite empirical evidence that “diversity leads to stronger business results.”

If diversity indeed leads to better outcomes, the nuclear security field has underperformed. For decades, the fields of nuclear arms control, nonproliferation, deterrence, and diplomacy have been dominated by (mostly white) men. A 2018 report by Women in International Security (WIIS) found that, at 22 security-focused think tanks in Washington, D.C., women made up only 27 percent of experts. Moreover, U.N. documents show that women comprised only 31 percent of the delegates negotiating the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. And there are other indicators of gender inequity in the field.

On problems this consequential, organizations working in the nuclear security space cannot afford to draw from only one part of our collective talent pool. Carnegie Corporation of New York has sought ways to reduce gender inequities within our grantee community, but without additional data inputs, we — along with others in philanthropy — have been flying blind. The McKinsey report notes that these blind spots are especially pernicious because “we can’t solve problems that we don’t see or understand clearly.”

In November, Corporation president Vartan Gregorian signed the Gender Champions in Nuclear Policy pledge alongside 34 other leaders in the field. The pledge commits heads of signatory organizations to “working towards gender equality in their spheres of influence.” Two of our initial commitments relate to gathering information on the current gender composition of our grantees, as well as the way they think about gender inclusion. International Women’s Day #BalanceforBetter campaign provides a great opportunity to reflect on our findings so far.

Based on a brief survey of sixty nuclear grantees, we learned that women make up about 51 percent of total project staff, and 42 percent of project leadership.


Women make up 51% of team members in nuclear security projects supported by Carnegie Corporation of New York.


Women represent 42% of project leaders in nuclear grants funded by Carnegie Corporation of New York.


While we are encouraged that relatively high numbers of women are engaged in the projects the Corporation supports, these numbers conceal significant variation across organizations and sectors. By digging deeper, we sought to draw out lessons to continue to close these gaps.

The overwhelming majority (82 percent) of respondents described specific efforts to attain or maintain parity of women in staff numbers, project cohorts, and public presentations. Some use informal “conscious efforts” while others have instituted specific policies. A few organizations reported having an internal gender awareness plan or committee established to address issues of gender equality. Sixteen pointed to reforms in human resources involving recruitment practices, family leave, and bias training. Other grantees, including CRDF Global and Chatham House, are developing best practices toolkits to share with the field.

We are glad to see that ten organizations are already participating in the Gender Champions initiative, and that most nonsignatories expressed interest in learning more.

While acknowledging the importance of gender balance, almost one in four respondents specified that they recruit based first and foremost on merit. “When acknowledgment of my expertise goes beyond my color, gender, or age,” stresses Beyza Unal of Chatham House, “those are the moments in which I feel most successful.” At the same time, grantees who emphasized the primacy of “merit” also noted the need to overcome unconscious biases and structural barriers.

Inequities continue to affect women’s experience after entering the field, according to those we surveyed. “It is still difficult to overcome the perception that the voice that counts the most in nuclear nonproliferation — or any international security field for that matter — is male,” observes Lovely Umayam of the Stimson Center. "There still exists an unspoken barrier to entry in terms of whose voice gets valued, and this can play out in subtle, unseen, and at times unintentional ways.”

Actively recognizing strong work and explicitly attributing credit can help counter these implicit biases. About fifteen percent of respondents highlighted their efforts to foster an inclusive organizational culture. Some women cited the value of opportunities to discuss professional challenges and engage in targeted network-building with fellow women.

Perhaps most important in securing better gender balance within the nuclear space is providing more women with leadership opportunities. Over a third of our grantees testified to how gender-balanced leadership, committees, and decision-making bodies organically led to more equitable environments. Yet the WIIS report confirms a deficit of women at the top, with women heading only 32 percent of the think tanks and 22 percent of the boards in their survey.

Correcting hierarchical imbalance depends on establishing and cultivating a healthy pipeline of talent. Thirteen grantees talked about providing early career fellowships, targeted workshops, media training, and ongoing professional development opportunities to support women in their careers. Long-term retention remains a challenge. “Women either have to live with the frustrations, which can impact the quality of their work, or they can leave,” says Alex Bell of the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation. “A quick glance around at the senior leadership inside and outside the government will demonstrate how leaky the nuclear policy pipeline still is for women.”

As one of the oldest philanthropic foundations in the country, we hope that our commitment to gender equality — and all forms of diversity — can help open a dialogue within the nuclear policy field and in the foreign policy community writ large. As Bell says, “Funders making sure that they are spurring and sustaining these conversations will be key.” We agree.