Melissa HanhamThe F-Bomb

I’m deviating from my original plan to blog primarily on open source resources to talk about an issue I usually shy away from. It’s easy to be pigeonholed as the WOMAN rather than the expert. I also like to compartmentalize my work and home life. In a venue where I’m teaching people to use open source analysis, I don’t want to invite attention to my family. Too many women get their lives ruined on the Internet these days.

Last, I hope nobody thinks these comments are meant to undermine friends and colleagues. There’s just a hot pink elephant in the room. Let’s talk about it.

5:30am: wake up and luxuriate in the fact that I have slept in. (Jeffrey knows what I am talking about). I’m a new mom. This quickly turns to guilt because my new twin boys are at home with my husband and I am not. I’m in DC on my first big trip away from them. I haven’t traveled until now because I am a clingy first time mom, and more pragmatically because I was breastfeeding. There’s no place to plug a cellphone in at a big conference, let alone a breast pump. That’s not to say I stopped breastfeeding to come to this conference, just that I couldn’t have attended until now when I naturally had to wean off.

6:45am: arrive at conference venue to start up computers on our table display. We’re promoting the 3D modeling work that I am a big part of. It’s great to show off the work, but I am disappointed that almost no other staff members have signed up to take a turn at the table during the breaks. I complained to a colleague a few days ago that I thought she would have at least signed up for a turn. We are close friends! She delicately explained that she didn’t want to sign up until at least one of the men attending the conference signed up.

7:30am: attend the Women of Mass Destruction session. Two years ago, I sat next to Cheryl Rofer and struck up what I hope will be a life long friendship. She was a chemist at Los Alamos, and in her “retirement” runs the ¬†Nuclear Diner¬†blog. We’re facebook friends now. Sometimes she gives me technical analysis and sometimes she mails hand knit caps for the babies.

Cheryl is now my ally, and I can talk to her about stuff that still can not be said out loud at the W(oman)MD session. Even though it’s a safe space, in the age of Twitter, it’s still on the record. Nobody, particularly the younger crowd, wants to be perceived as a “problem.” Problems are not very employable.

So predominantly, the questions surround non specifics. How do I respond when men interrupt me? How do I find a job? How do I get access? How do I get taken seriously?

11:00am: get mistaken for an intern while standing behind the display table.

3:00pm: try standing in front of the display table with more success.

4:30pm: engage in a Twitter discussion about the gender of the speakers and moderators on the conference’s panels. #manels is a hot hashtag these days. It’s an easy metric to throw around and a hard one to do something about.

The conference has had a great deal more women on the stage this year, but as a percentage it’s still low. One colleague pointed out that it’s the highest its been at 30%, however others argue the number is really lower due to the fact that many of the female speakers are in the optional side meetings and some speak on more than one panel. There could be a lot of reasons for low participation. Perhaps women are still rising through the ranks, they don’t feel confident in their expertise, or they have a tough time leaving their second job as caretaker behind.

One of my colleagues thought the organizers should do more. She argued that even 30% representation was not enough for congratulations. The next day, I was approached in person and chastised by someone who thought her comments were offensive and inappropriate for Twitter. Also, he told me, three female speakers cancelled last week. I wish I had thought to tell him that there would probably be less tweeting if there was a better way to participate in the conference, but I didn’t. I passed on the message.

10:00pm: sing Baby Beluga into a cellphone.

Women are different — from each other and from men. This is a tough conversation to have, but without women’s opinions we are losing half the stakeholders, and half the potential solutions.


  1. Alicia (History)

    Gender equity is like nuclear disarmament in that its a terminus we’re not achieving in our lifetime. Which is discouraging for those who measure self-worth by boxes ticked. The nonproliferation regime is survivable with the current demographics in leadership only because we have perfected Mao Zedong’s meditation on sinking. That is, we’ve cheated death by lying to ourselves. Perhaps we should aspire to more than holding a tune for a few decades longer.

  2. shaheen (History)

    Has there ever been a quantitative study on gender balance in international security policy studies? On nuclear issues?

    • Melissa (History)

      Not that I know of. I wish LinkedIn wasn’t so tight fisted with their API, or it would be pretty easy to do.

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      I am not sure what the best keywords would be for a Google search on gender balance (Google-Scholar is best for finding academic studies). My first attempt did not yield useful results.

      If you are looking for data points relevant to the Carnegie nuclear conference, you might also look into the gender of attendees. One can look up names of attendees listed in the program (available for many past conferences as well). One can also look at photos or videos of conference attendees, if available, to estimate gender percentages.

  3. anon (History)

    Melissa (and Alicia),

    Please don’t take my comments as a critique or an effort to belittle your concerns. I’ve been at this for nearly 30 years, so I’ve been witness to the gender equality issues for a long time. I know it is frustrating to see men with little knowledge and less tact sit on a panel and spout dribble, when far more knowledgeable women are just a few rows away in the audience. I’ve seen that for years, and I still see that almost every time I’m in the audience. Although I think my revulsion at it is more related to the drivel of talking points spouted by most panelists than the sex of those panelists.

    But one does need a sense of context here. Things really are improving, not because men are more open to putting women on their panels, but because there are more young (and aging) women with a depth of knowledge and expertise (along with great public speaking skills) available to sit on panels. The more panels we sit on, the more we are invited to sit on panels because conference organizers want good speakers, and we meet that requirement. So part of the solution to your problem is time and exposure, not some sense of statistics and balance. The most amusing (frustrating) part of my career has been my ability to know I am in the right place because I recognize all the aging white men (and the few aging women) in the room.

    I think I have a greater concern about the lack of youth in the nuclear world than I have about the lack of women. And its worth remembering that a lot of the first and second generation of arms control and nonproliferation expertise came out of physics, chemistry, and military backgrounds, which, back in the day, were even more male dominated than the current panels at big conferences. So, time, and the advancement of the younger generation of policy (in addition to scientific) experts, will add balance. And panels at conferences will reflect that. Besides, I’d rather see the panels change because the face of the experts is changing then have a concerted effort to add women, many of whom, at Carnegie, seemed to have been generalists or reporters added to panels as moderators rather than real experts added as speakers.

    Not saying time will heal all wounds, but time will help. Not saying you have to be patient (you still have to bang down doors), but patience will pay off. Things have changed a lot in the last 20-30 years, I suspect that will continue.

  4. krepon (History)

    Points well taken.
    The more you find your voice, the more you will be heard.
    This blog is a good vehicle for finding your voice.

  5. Andrew (History)

    Great (though frustrating) post, Melissa.

    I can never guess what ideological demographic the nonproliferation/arms control crowd seems to take its cues from. On the one hand there’s ostensibly some sense of idealism shared by its practitioners, along with the desire to make the world a safer, more equitable place – hopefully the hippies would tilt the scales in favor of feminism. But on the other hand, the international security institution has roots that are more white and wrinkly than an albino bloodhound. In a larger sense, I think this dichotomy is one reason that any conversation in IR that deals with social issues drawd such interesting and varied reactions.

    In any case, I think you’re owed much more of a response than “be patient”.

  6. Cheryl Rofer (History)

    Thanks for your kind words, Melissa. I hope we can be lifelong friends, too.

    Here are some of my thoughts on the issue and the conference.

  7. Jasmin (History)

    If only there weren’t so many experiences like Melissa’s ‘intern’ experience, mirrored by the sentiments of two speakers at the WiN global conference last year: ” it is *so* nice to be at a conference where you’re not mistaken for being your colleague’s wife!”

    They’re not anomalies, the experiences ranging from the inane reality that one-size-fits-all PPE doesn’t seem to ever accommodate women (eg a chest) & having to take a ‘chaperone’ to your whole body monitor, to the undue attention given to both your successes and your mistakes that annoys not just you but your colleagues, right up to full-scale sexual harassment. I’ve seen and heard it all from female colleagues around the world & unfortunately experienced enough of my fair share to know they’re not alone, that they’re not exceptions.

    So what makes a difference? Networks (like WiN), having good mentors & advocates, high profile male and female role-models and great managers who care about your ability & performance & actively work to ensure all members of their team are supported.

    Don’t get me wrong, things have undoubtedly improved & are getting better but denying issues exist doesn’t do our field or its members any favours & ignores the contribution to industry fatigue that sees very talented colleagues leave our industry or fail to return after pregnancy.

  8. Ferenc Dalnoki-Veress (History)

    The top 3 think tanks (you know who they are) have 18-20% women. Don’t believe me do the analysis yourself, and then do it for all the other think tanks and NGO’s as well. Then don’t stop there, do it for all the institutions (universities organizations) that those Think Tanks belong to, and don’t stop there do it for different fields.

    Now do it for CNS where I work and find that we are in the upper 40%’s. No wonder CNS has such brilliant ideas!

  9. Melissa (History)

    A couple of thoughts:

    1) In the last 48 hours I have received a flood of email, Facebook messages and Twitter DMs from women (and men), who have sad (and sometimes horrific) stories to tell. I realize that my own experience is somewhat mundane. This is far more than a problem at a conference.

    2) Because the Carnegie conference is the banner event of our community, it is the perfect venue to affect change. There is already a great deal of influential women in our field. Enough women for parity at a conference — and not just in side meetings or as moderators. I can tell the conference organizers want to adopt innovation into the format. This could easily be their goal for 2017.

  10. Anya L (History)

    It’s worth giving the CEIP folks credit where it’s due on this issue. To give one good example, the discussion on the “Restoring Focus on the Nuclear Mission” panel was fantastic precisely because of the gender balance. I, for one, was amazed at how many of these narratives still held true:

    On anon’s point… For me, this conference was particularly fun because the attendance has finally begun to reflect the investment over the last 5-10 years into the next generation. Queue eye roll, but it’s true…

    Between the Monterey Mafia, PPNT, CSIS PONI, and many many other programs, including those focused on academia, these efforts are finally bearing fruit. There is good gender diversity in this younger community. However, the key challenge now is getting these younger folks–especially the women–into stable non-NGO jobs in the nuclear policy field.

  11. Stephen Young (History)

    Melissa, thanks for sharing. A deeply personal and thoughtful post and, as you note in your comments, there are so many horrific stories about internet about that I am deeply troubled about how much progress is really happening, despite my overhall inherent optimism.

    I wanted to push back again Anon’s post above, which basically argues things are getting better and will continue to. That _may_ be true, but if so it is because people continue to push for change, and demand better, and make it happen. Positive change does not happen in a vacuum, random change does. Positive force causes positive change.

    So, keep being a force!

  12. Paul (History)

    FYI. I posted your piece with Cheryl’s response to the Physics Today Facebook page.

  13. gunboat_d (History)

    amen. lord knows we need more women in every field, but particularly in defense and security industries. I know it gets said a lot, but something about “the moral curve of the universe” is applicable.

    as an aside: Women of Mass Destruction would be an excellent roller derby team name.