Has the Lack of Women at the Top Helped Cripple America's Response to the Pandemic? | Opinion

In the midst of a national crisis unlike anything we've ever seen, my family—like so many others—has been trying to get used to our new normal. As someone who built a career researching nuclear weapons proliferation and the U.S. defense budget, learning to homeschool a 13, 4, and 1-year-old is a new one for me. Books, even more so than before, have become our best friends. Right now, the favorite—the one we're reading again and again, and again—is called, "Military Ships."

"Look, look, look! That's an aircraft carrier," says the 4-year-old as baby brother grunts in agreement. "But my favorite is the destroyer. It has missiles."

As I kiss my boys goodnight, their love for those weapons, and my own struggle to understand that love, suddenly seems much more urgent. COVID-19 has now killed more Americans than died on 9/11, and many more will die. But, unlike on 9/11, there is no enemy to hunt, no terrorist to kill, and no country to bomb. In our "fight" against this enemy, the weapons we've so diligently stockpiled cannot help us. Walking downstairs, I can't shake a nagging fear that one reason America isn't prepared for this pandemic has to do with our nation's far too real gender divide.

America's severe lack of gender diversity is well documented and extends across government. Today, there are more women in Congress than ever before, but that isn't saying much. Only 26 of 100 Members of the US Senate and 127 of 435 Members in the House are women—record numbers, but still woefully low. Despite representing more than half of the US population, women hold just 25.5 percent of state senate seats and 29.7 percent of state house or assembly seats. Even fewer state governorships. President Trump's cabinet includes just 4 women in a long list of men. And there has never been a female secretary of defense.

Resolving this gender disparity is not just a matter of equality, but a matter of national security. Its very existence colors the choices we make at the highest levels, including the things we choose to invest in: say, stockpiling weapons vs. stockpiling ventilators.

While gender cannot explain away every decision, nor account for every discrepancy, there is some evidence to suggest that men and women bring different tools to the table. Research, for example, has identified a connection between cultures with strong masculine honor beliefs—such as the idea that "a man should protect his wife," or his country— and the support for violence as a means of protection. This connection extends to support for war and more aggressive security policies over peacebuilding and diplomacy. Further evidence suggests that our values influence support for defense spending. Given the large proportion of men in government, predominantly masculine values color much of what we actually do.

Conversely, research has shown that peace agreements negotiated by women are more sustainable, and that women's participation is crucial to the inclusion of provisions that address social and gender inequalities. Bringing more women to the table will not automatically change our government's behavior. But evidence does suggest that our values influence support for higher or lower levels of defense spending. This evidence shows that gender impacts our attitudes toward war, and indirectly lowers support for defense spending among women. These data points indicate that excluding a diversity of lived experience, values, and thought leads to gendered decisionmaking and that having more women at the table could, indeed, lead us to reconsider our investments. (The question of what creates these differences in behavior occupies researchers from a plethora of fields—social psychology, gender studies, sociology, neurology and many more—and goes beyond the remit of this piece.)

At least some parts of the business world have begun to realize that diversity in the room results in better product, but our government still hasn't caught up. A 2019 study by the New America Foundation found that women's perspectives are welcomed more readily outside of government institutions, and that a lack of female perspective inside the government leads to something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Interviewees in the study, which included former Under Secretary of Defense Michele Flournoy, identified an "insulated, hierarchical structure [leading] to narrow thinking that in turn limited policy outcomes and invited groupthink."

To understand the results of this groupthink, look no further than our federal budget. Like a doomsday prepper, sitting smugly in its bunker in the midst of a long-awaited crisis, the US has been stockpiling for years. What it forgot, because perspective is too often in the eye of the beholder (and that beholder is mostly white and male) is that crisis comes not only in the form of a blitz or burning tower.

More than half of our annual discretionary spending goes to the military, while less than 15 percent of our total budget pays for "softer" priorities such as education, infrastructure, environmental protection, food safety, science and space programs, public housing, federal law enforcement, disaster assistance, and more.

This preference for greater military spending at the expense of other needs is less surprising if you consider that some professions, such as those in human resources, nursing and childcare, have also traditionally been seen as "soft," and thereby devalued. Once women begin to dominate a profession, the overall salary within that field begins to decline. Conversely, men's entrée into a field tends to boost that field's perceived value, rather than that of the women who've owned the work for years.

And, the tradeoffs are very real. At the end of last year, President Trump formally approved a $1.4 trillion budget for 2020. Of that sum, $738 billion went to the Department of Defense. Consider that some estimates put the annual cost of eradicating homelessness in the United States at about $20 billion, and the cost of eradicating hunger in America at about $26 billion. And consider, in the midst of an outbreak, that we could buy 2,200 ventilators for the price of one F-35, and one year of spending on nuclear weapons could provide 300,000 ICU (intensive care unit) beds, 35,000 ventilators and 75,000 doctors' salaries.

It is no accident that the US was not prepared for a global pandemic. We made our choice. But, we don't have to keep making the same one. When this is over, we should reconsider our national priorities, along with the makeup of the institutions that craft them.

Laicie Heeley is founder and CEO of the publishing platform Inkstick Media and host of the PRX podcast Things That Go Boom.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​