Foreign Policy Blogs

A Game of Hide and Seek?

The WIIS Switzerland Board plus speakers at the 2011 launch event

The WIIS Switzerland Board plus speakers at the 2011 launch event

The field of foreign policy has been described as a ‘city of men’- but as can be imagined, it is not the only discipline where a gender imbalance has been noticed. I asked Patricia Moser, President and one of the founders of WIIS Switzerland, about the situation with respect to international security and security studies.


1. A few months back, there was an article on foreignpolicy.com which called the foreign policy sphere, ” A City of Men“. I’m going to hazard that the field of international security is similarly populated?

The reality described in the article is also true for the field of international security. Women who made it to the top leadership positions in organizations in the security policy field – be it in  government, academia or the private sector – are still regarded and celebrated as exceptions. If we look at Swiss-based organizations working in the security policy sector and the Swiss government for example, women are in the minority on management boards or in leadership positions. The Federal Council is a rare exception as women are currently in the majority – leading to the Council often being cited as an example of equal representation. However, one exception should not be confused with balanced representation more broadly: women are still a minority in parliament.   

2. You are President and one of the founders of Women in International Security (WIIS) Switzerland – what prompted you to take action?

The idea of founding a branch of WIIS in Switzerland is actually a few years old. It came up after one of my WIIS colleagues met a representative of WIIS Germany at a conference. The motivation to found WIIS Switzerland this year is mainly based on personal experience gained from years working in a security policy environment. The field is male-dominated, not only when it comes to those with influential voices but also in a day-to-day work environment. Only a few outstanding women have been able to establish themselves in Switzerland – Barbara Haering, Micheline Calmy-Rey or Heidi Tagliavini for example.

There are, however,  many other capable and enthusiastic women outside of this prominent circle. So last year we joined forces with interested colleagues from Geneva in order to build up a Swiss affiliate of WIIS with the express aim of connecting and promoting women (and men supporting our cause) in the field. A network holds immense power and can help effect change. We aim to attract and also promote younger experts in the field, allowing them to break into the established circle and improve the environment. Being a female expert in the security field should not be viewed as a rarity anymore.

3. Is the underrepresentation of women in Switzerland tied up with ignorance do you think (on both sides), or does it go deeper than that? (and why?)

In this respect, my arguments are very much in line with the reasons explaining the gender gap outlined in the article City of Men. We at WIIS Switzerland strongly believe that underrepresentation cannot and should not be blamed on either men or women. And it definitively goes deeper than ignorance. The situation could be characterized as a combination of, in order of priority: a close-knit network of well-established men; a still-traditional allocation of roles in Swiss families and, potentially, a certain reluctance on the part of women to immerse themselves in the field of security studies. The work of WIIS Switzerland (and the WIIS network more generally) hopes to alter this (im)balance, encouraging and supporting women in their chosen career path.  

4. Are women congregating in specific areas of (international) security policy and practice?

This is very difficult to determine, as this has not been reliably assessed as of yet. My initial reaction would be to suggest that women tend to predominantly work in the ‘softer‘ areas of security policy like development or human rights. This suspicion is based on the belief that the social and cultural system is steering women to the more  “female” areas of security. It could, however, very well be that the talented women tend to go unnoticed in more male-dominated fields like homeland security, as Heather Hulbert argues in her reply to ‘City of Men’. I am convinced that if we took a closer and unbiased look at women working in the security field, we would reach surprising conclusions.

6. WIIS Switzerland is one branch of the transnational WIIS network; can these informal setting really hope to effect change in the field?

Certainly. I honestly think that it is a necessity for initiating change in the field of security – and policy and academia can only gain by also including women’s’ voices. As mentioned, networks can hold a lot of power and bring lasting changes. WIIS Germany is currently working on connecting the international affiliates more closely; new affiliates are continually being founded in various countries (Israel, Sweden). While the work of each affiliate is country-specific due to cultural and political reasons, the international network helps transfer knowledge and lessons learned. It is then the task of the national WIIS organization to adapt them to local circumstances. The transnational nature of the global organization combined with the freedom given to national affiliates is of key importance to its success.

7. In one to two sentences, how would you like the field of international security to change in the next ten years?

I personally would hope for the field to shift towards a balanced representation of men and women in leadership positions, at conferences, as voices in the media etc. On the other hand, I would also wish for the field to become more interdisciplinary and interconnected so that findings and recommendations from related social sciences – as well as less related but still relevant areas such as neuroscience – are acknowledged and used to improve policy and academic work.

8. Do you have any advice to women hoping to “break into” international security?

If we had a handbook providing a step-by-step guide, an organization like WIIS would not be needed. My advice would be to be open-minded, learn from one’s own experience as well as from colleagues and superiors, and grow based on these lessons and from knowledge gained. Of equal importance is not being afraid of taking risks, being open to taking on responsibilities, and believing in one’s own capabilities. Being a young manager myself, one key lesson I learned a few years ago is to be always true to myself and remain focused on my goals, which is especially difficult for a woman in a male-dominated field. Finally, to ‘break into’ international security, as you term it, people have to become engaged and take action. A first step towards establishing oneself is connecting with like-minded people in organizations such as WIIS.


Patricia Moser is the Deputy Head of the International Relations and Security Network (ISN), based at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH Zurich). She founded the Swiss affiliate of Women in International Security (WIIS) with three colleagues in May 2011 and acts as the association’s president. Patricia holds a master’s degree in sociology, international relations and economic and social history from the University of Zurich.