Women in International Affairs: Breaking the Glass Ceiling

by Amy Calfas, MSFS '19

On Thursday, February 1, MSFS Director Ambassador Nancy McEldowney and Global Politics and Security Concentration Chair Nicole Bibbins Sedaca gathered more than twenty first and second-year students for a dynamic lunchtime discussion about women’s empowerment and leadership in international affairs. 

In the wake of the growing #MeToo movement—which has electrified female activists around the country to mobilize for greater gender equity—the dialogue was particularly timely. In her introduction to the group, Ambassador McEldowney highlighted the need for discourse on the unique challenges that women face in the international affairs industry, including the critical deficit that remains when it comes to equal pay in the workplace. According to a study she cited by the National Women’s Law Center, white women should expect to earn $400,000 less over the course of their careers than men, while most women of color are shorted close to $1 million.  Similarly, a Yale University study found that within the private sector, men take up 75% of the conversation during conference meetings, leaving their female counterparts to speak only one quarter of the time. Men who tended to be outspoken were judged to be twice as competent as the men who didn’t speak, while the inverse is perceived of women who spoke up in professional settings. These findings suggest that while great work has been done to make a dent in the “glass ceiling” women face in the workplace, more must be done to achieve full gender equality. 

Despite recognizing these challenges, the tone of the event remained optimistic as each speaker encouraged students by providing a list of key lessons learned from their own professional experiences in the policy community.

“Know the circumstances you’re dealing with, understand the expectations and corporate culture, and learn how to navigate it successfully so that each step along the way you can not only bolster your own success but effect positive change in the circumstances you find yourself in,” advised Ambassador McEldowney. She also encouraged women to reflect on their own values and principles and how they will inform their work. Similarly, Professor Bibbins Sedaca encouraged students to embrace self-advocacy, prioritize network building, and learn how to push past fears that might impede them from reaching their full potential. 

During the discussion, both MSFS leaders spoke to the need for students to cultivate a culture of mutual support and trust within the program, embrace and learn from failure, and address solutions to deal with conflict, including workplace harassment. They also spoke to the daily habits of successful female leaders, challenging students in the room to consider: “How do you feed your body and mind? What practices will you incorporate into our life to allow time to re-center? And, most importantly, how are you setting aside unstructured time to think—to be creative, to conceptualize, and to assess what key areas of your life you will prioritize?”

Ultimately, the event was received with widespread praise from student attendees, many of which have since sought to continue informal dialogues outside of the classroom about their own professional experiences and how they can support other women in the program.

Lindsay Swisher, a first-year student in the MSFS program, highlighted the need to continue such dialogues.

"This event really opened my eyes to the extensive ways that women must work harder and smarter to overcome barriers and stereotypes in the workplace. I am enrolled in a class this semester titled, ‘Women, Peace, and Security’ where we analyze foreign policy with a gender lens. Through this course, it’s evidently clear that there is still much progress to be made in the field of international affairs as it relates to not just the inclusion of women, but also the breaking down of patriarchal language that has become a norm in the field. The field must offer more events and courses that encourage both women and men to understand how the security of women and women's involvement in international affairs leads to a more stable and secure world overall," Swisher said.

Martha Guerrero Ble, a first-year MSFS candidate and Student Representative also attended the event.

“As women we all experience the same problems and we have to stand together to fight them. I am convinced that only by supporting and understanding other women, both within the program and in our daily life, we will be able to overcome the obstacles ahead. Women are powerful alone, but together, we are unstoppable,” Guerrero Ble said.  

Georgetown Women in International Affairs (GWIA), a student-led group to advance the visibility of women in the international affairs community, plans to continue these dialogues throughout the year with a series of skills-based workshops and informal discussions to further equip women within the School of Foreign Service for active leadership roles.