Avoiding “Manels”: Reflections on Gender and Non-proliferation

Sarah Bidgood • 4 July 2017

Image removed.This problem has many underlying causes.  The first of these relates to perceptions about disarmament and nonproliferation: as expressed in a 2016 UNIDIR study on the gendered aspects of nuclear weapons, security issues generally are viewed as men’s territory. We know this because, in UN bodies dealing with humanitarian issues and development, there is near gender parity.[3]  The second relates to education and training: the importance of nonproliferation and disarmament education in advancing the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons is being recognized more widely by the international community.[4]  Nevertheless, opportunities to build capacity on these issues—learning how to think and not what to think about nuclear weapons—are still too few to meet our needs.[5]  As a result, women who might be interested in these topics are not sufficiently exposed to them; those who are may lack the resources to develop an expertise. These and other challenges must be addressed if we want to fix this systemic problem.

Why should this be our objective? There are a multitude of motivations, each of which should resonate with any state regardless of its security concerns or priorities. I will highlight only two: First, women and girls are disproportionately more affected by nuclear explosions from a biological standpoint.  Ionizing radiation that is emitted by a nuclear blast has profoundly more severe stochastic effects on women’s bodies than men’s. This has been demonstrated by numerous scientific studies, including one which found that the rate of death from solid cancer for women survivors of the nuclear weapons attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was nearly twice as high as that of men.[6]  In this respect, women and girls must have an equal say in determining the future of these weapons.  While men can, and should, factor gender into the disarmament and nonproliferation agendas, women themselves must be a part of these conversations.  Without adequate representation, this is not achievable.

Second, and in some ways more urgent, the problems of nonproliferation and disarmament are proving to be enduring. While US President John F. Kennedy’s nightmare of a world with twenty nuclear armed states by 1964[7] was averted in no small part by effective diplomacy, the international community continues to grapple with realizing the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons.  In this respect, we cannot afford to exclude any creative voices from conversations about these issues.  All people who can contribute to resolving this challenge must be empowered to do so irrespective of gender or, for that matter, nationality, race, sexual orientation, or any of the plethora of intersecting human identities. We are setting ourselves up for failure if discussions around nuclear weapons remain the purview of a select few.

With this as background, I have been very encouraged by the deliberate way in which the CTBTO has approached gender at its 2017 Science and Technology Conference.  For example, the conference planners have made a conscious effort to avoid “manels,” a portmanteau of the words “men” and “panels” that describes presentations delivered entirely by male participants.  This commitment was strikingly evident on the first day of the conference when six women experts from the scientific and commercial spheres discussed challenges to the IMS regime before a packed room.  Similarly, the opening ceremony of the conference featured exclusively women keynoters. This conference policy is valuable because it makes the remarkable women authorities in our field more visible. It also provides tangible evidence of the Organization’s commitment to reaching gender parity.  These optics are not lost on the many women members of the CTBTO Youth Group attending this year’s conference either, who can be confident that there is room for them to lead in this space.

The CTBTO’s approach to gender at SNT2017 is no accident. It is part of a larger commitment that the Organization has made to increasing the role of women in Treaty issues. Earlier this month, Dr. Lassina Zerbo, the Executive Secretary of the CTBTO, became a Gender Champion under the International Gender Champions initiative.  In doing so, he became part of a network of senior leaders who have pledged to advance gender equality at their organizations.  Upon joining, Dr. Zerbo instituted three new policies: First, to make working hours more flexible for new parents at the CTBTO; second, to create a shadowing program for students at a 4:1 ratio of women to men; and third, to involve more women in science-based diplomacy through the CTBTO Youth Group.[8]  These steps will help to address the two issues I identified at the outset. By creating workplace policies that make the CTBTO more friendly to women, the Organization makes it possible for them to rise to leadership positions. By providing channels for young women to become engaged with these topics, the CTBTO is helping to build a next generation of experts that is more balanced. By elevating women in concrete and visible ways, the CTBTO is addressing the existing gender disbalance in our field.  It is also helping to establishing a new standard to which other international organizations and negotiating bodies dealing with nonproliferation and disarmament should aspire. As both a woman and a member of this next generation, I appreciate these efforts.  It is changes like these will let me make my most valuable contribution to securing our collective futures.

Image removed.Sarah Bidgood is one of the original members of the CTBTO Youth Group. She is also a research associate at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, California and a graduate of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies’ Nonproliferation and Terrorism Studies MA programme. The views expressed in this article are her own.


[1] See, for example, UNODA. “Gender Perspectives on Disarmament and Arms Control.” Fact Sheet, April 2017. UNODA

[2] For example, a CTBTO Youth Group side event at the 2017 NPT PrepCom highlighted this issue CTBTO.org

[3] UNIDIR.org, p. 23

[4] See UN.org and the reference to disarmament and nonproliferation education in the Chair’s Factual Summary of the 2017 NPT PrepCom: UNDOCS.org

[5] Richard Sabatini, et al. “Undergraduate Nonproliferation Education in the United States.” The Nonproliferation Review Vol. 18, 2011.

[6] UNIDIR.org, p. 12

[7] John F. Kennedy, Third Nixon-Kennedy Presidential Debate, October 13, 1960  Carnegie Endowment

[8] “Zerbo Joins Gender Champions Initiative,” CTBTO Press Release, June 14, 2017  CTBTO.org