Foreign Policy Interrupted: An Interview with Lauren Bohn

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A 2013 Fortune Global Forum on integrating educated women in BRIC and UAE countries into male-led industries. Foreign Policy Interrupted works to encourage women in foreign policy to make their voices heard in international media.

“A woman over 65 is less likely to be cited as an expert in the media as a boy in the 13 to 18 age group.”

Lauren Bohn is the co-founder of Foreign Policy Interrupted (FPI). A journalist by training, she is also The GroundTruth Project’s Middle East correspondent based in Istanbul and a columnist for Foreign Policy magazine.

Bohn is also the co-founder of SchoolCycle, a United Nations Foundation campaign in Malawi to provide bikes for adolescent girls to get to school. She is the founding assistant editor of the Cairo Review of Global Affairs in Egypt, where she was a Fulbright fellow and Pulitzer Center grantee.

What is FPI? What are the problems and issues this project aims to address in the political and journalism worlds?

So, about two years ago or so, a very good friend, journalist Elmira Bayrasli and I came together, and we were like, “Where are all the women in foreign policy?” When conferences are held it’s the same old dudes on the panels, not to mention the same old white dudes.

I was like, “Why are there so many men, not just in my colleague’s stories, but my stories?” I found myself trying to call upon women experts to give me their opinion so I could quote them in my pieces, not just because they were women, but because I knew that they had the expertise in whatever area I needed a quote on. And, I started noticing a trend whereby I would call women asking, “What do you think about Netanyahu’s last comment or what do you think about the Muslim Brotherhood’s position on this?” And women generally would respond, “This isn’t necessarily my area of expertise,” or “It’s a very busy week, can we talk next week or the week after?” And conversely, whenever I would call a man, he could literally be on the tarmac taking off for a flight, and he’s rambling his opinion about what just happened 10 minutes ago as though he’s ready to submit a book proposal to Random House about what just happened.

Those that are willing to give a speedy response, whether or not it’s noteworthy, are the ones who get published. And this disparity then kind of gets worse. The divide gets even wider.

What we’re trying to do with FPI is harness this conversational momentum and the moment we’re at right now, asking all of these important questions and saying, “Okay, well this disparity exists in foreign policy. Yes, it’s complicated. It’s not just because women need to lean in. It’s not just because of internal barriers. On the other side, it’s not just external barriers. It’s not just the fault of editors and producers. There are a lot of problems here, but let’s try to design something that combats both, and that actually changes the ratio we talk about changing.”

What we’ve been doing in the past years: we have a twitter account, we have a Facebook account, we put out a weekly newsletter that goes out to a few thousand people now.

We want to interrupt people’s in-boxes and show them here is what the world is like this week, or here is the opinion of the world this week as told, or seen, by women.

What is the Interrupter Series about? And what is its significance as part of FPI?

An interrupter is anyone who knows what they’re talking about, has something to say, owns their expertise, and feels that he or she by sharing their opinion, they know their voice has value and has a place in the foreign policy conversation. Not just for diversity’s sake, but because when you have more voices, we believe you have a greater chance or you’re creating a space whereby solutions, or at least interesting ideas for solutions, can be better incubated, can be better cultivated, to some of the greatest foreign policy challenges in our day.

The series is simply about giving women a mic. They already have a voice. I’m not giving them the voice, I’m just giving them the mic—the platform—to be like, “Hey this is what I know. What I have to say has value; it should be in the conversation.”

Then we tweet it out and people share it to the end of people learning something new about the world through a different voice that might not have had that mic. And also because, when a producer or an editor wants to book somebody to talk about Iraq or Syria, they’d be like, “That person actually has something interesting to say that should be taken into question,” and if they’re wondering what her opinions are they can just look at our Q&A series. It can be a shortcut to know that she’s an expert in this field.

What does your book club focus on, and how do you believe it promotes the message of FPI?

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Magharebia
Tunisian female journalists hold a workshop on the need to support women’s participation.

A lot of books are written by men, and the books that get reviews are written by men. The book club was an extension of the Q&A series, as a way to say this woman, not only does she really know her stuff, but she wrote a whole book on her stuff.

Our ideal audience for the book club series is for the same editors, producers, different places who might be like, “Let’s have her on to discuss her book” or “Let’s use her as an expert in this piece.”

It’s diversifying the content for readers, for an audience who’s interested in the world, and might want to take that interest to the next level of actually reading something that’s more than 140 characters.

We think it’s really easy, when you talk about foreign policy and international relations, to focus on the Middle East because the US foreign policy conversation is so Middle East driven. But, it’s perhaps really willful that we don’t have opinions coming out, or stories coming out, of Brazil or Uruguay or Venezuela.

It’s really important for us to make sure that we’re not just interrupting the Middle East foreign policy conversation; that we’re also showing people that there are interrupters on a whole wide range of issues that need to be read, that need to be considered.

What is the Fellowship Program? Who qualifies for it and what does it aim to achieve? What is the impact that the Fellowship Program has had so far?

Our fellowship program, an all-girl fellowship program, is going to take around three women, and we’re going to customize the fellowship program individually to each fellow we bring on. The fellowship is open, and we feel very strongly about this, to non-US citizens. The requirement, though, is English fluency. But, because it’s open to women, quite frankly, all around the world, the fellowship is going to be done mostly online. So the media training is going to be done via Google Hangout.

Throughout the summer they’ll be given customized media training. We’ll set them up with mentors in the field, and have experts, men and women, through Google Hangout talk to our fellows and to mentor them along.

In academia, or in any space where they have foreign policy expertise, a lot of these women don’t know how to write in a way that resonates with not just the ‘regular Joe’ reading the opinion space, but the people outside that academic echo chamber.

Once it’s done—I think it will be about five weeks or so—we link them to an editor at a major publication for an editorial mentorship. So it’s kind of like an externship, because they’re not going to be in the office. We have the Daily Beast on board, Foreign Affairs, CNN, and Financial Times. We’ll link them to an editor there, and that editor will work with the fellow on, again, shaping her expertise and delivering interesting op-eds. They’ll be working together for a time, that’ll be decided between the fellow and the publication, on developing her expertise in these op-ed pieces and literally, then, changing the ratio of getting more women published.

What are some of your approaches to get more women interested? And have you, if at all, targeted men in any way to help support the objectives of FPI? Do you think it is important to incorporate them, or not?

So, we want women to get more involved. But I think the question we always try to ask ourselves is, “How do we get more men involved, and how do we get men supporting the cause?”

So, how do you recruit them? It’s kind of like you need a ‘He for She’ campaign. Men are often in the editorial positions deciding what goes into the paper. They’re the ones who are anchors, they’re the ones who are running the business side of the papers and the magazines. So, what Elmira and I have done, in focusing on women in the short term, we’ve reached out to men at think tanks, male journalists, men who are making decisions, men from the editorial side of a magazine, but also from the business [side], and we request to talk to them. We give them presentations about our mission in hopes that they join this male brain trust that we have with men.

Getting them to do something action based is difficult, but I think you have to convince men that this only makes their publication better as well, that it’s not just for diversity’s sake. It’s that, in having these different voices amplified in their publications or in their conversation is actually making the conversation better. So it’s a business interest almost. It’s an economic interest.

Editors, producers, gate-keepers, not calling upon women, is also women’s boring Sheryl Sandberg mantra, which I think is problematic if it’s sort of the only tool we use in our arsenals. You can’t wait around to be called upon, you have to raise your hand and interrupt as well. If you know something, the onus is on you to own your expertise and to share it. Because you know by sharing your opinion on something, you’re helping to shape a conversation. You’re helping to, again, perhaps create more foreign policy solutions.