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How Many Jeffs Do You Need? Calling Out Foreign Affairs on its Definition of “Expert”

 

In June 2017, Foreign Affairs published a piece entitled “Will Economic Globalization End? Foreign Affairs Asks the Experts.” In it, the editors explained that they had decided to ask a “broad pool of experts” for their take and so, as with previous surveys, they approached “dozens of authorities,” some with deep specialized expertise relevant to the question at hand, together with a few leading generalists in the field.

Foreign Affairs then proceeded to give the views of 30 experts. I have no criticism of these experts. I know a number of them and think highly of them. But I am critical of the extraordinary lack of diversity in this list. If this is a “broad pool,” I have no idea what a “narrow” one would look like. Seriously, Foreign Affairs, #its2017. If you want to understand the world today, you need to burst this bubble and redefine your approach to “expertise.”

Of the 30 experts featured by Foreign Affairs, 29 were men and only one was a woman. I tweeted in exasperation:

 

The geographic and racial diversity did not fare much better. Most of the experts appeared to be white. The vast majority were based in the U.S. One appeared to be based in Paris, another in Germany, one in London, and two in Singapore. Most were older, though there was more age diversity than other types of diversity. 

As a Western woman who works in international economic law, I am used to operating in a strongly male, and Western-dominated field. International commercial and investment treaty arbitration, for example, are criticised for being dominated by arbitrators who are “male, pale and stale.” I am pale, I am not male, and (at least so far) I am not stale. There are efforts underway to change this lack of diversity, such as the Pledge, which seeks to address gender diversity in international arbitral appointments. Some progress is being made, but it is slow and uneven.

For the most part, I tend not to speak much about gender issues in my field. I feel that one of the most important things that I can do is just to operate within the field as a woman without remarking on that fact — because it should be unremarkable. But I was moved to write about the Foreign Affairs piece because I simply could not believe that in 2017, a magazine could feel that it was legitimate to say that they were presenting the views of a broad pool of experts and then so strongly correlate “expertise” with the views of white, Western men.

Foreign Affairs bills itself as “The leading magazine for analysis and debate of foreign policy, economics and global affairs.” It seeks to be the place where readers go not just for commentary, but also for capital-E “Expertise.” With this ambition should come the recognition that its choice of experts plays an educative function in shaping readers’ ideas of who is an “Expert.” To call these sorts of panels “Brains Trusts,” as Foreign Affairs likes to do, does not help the cause of diversity. Nor does it help the pursuit of knowledge. Instead, it represents an extremely worrying example of sampling bias that perpetuates out-dated notions of expertise.

The gender inequality in the Foreign Affairs piece simply cannot be justified, though it is something that shows up elsewhere too, such as in op-ed columns and think tank panels about foreign policy. Beyond gender, the lack of geographic diversity was also troubling. The specific debate prompt asked whether the populist surge in advanced industrial democracies would bring economic globalization to a halt. Can only experts from advanced industrial democracies opine on this point? This seems like a questionable assumption. If the question had been about the effect of China’s rise on economic globalization, would only opinions from Chinese experts be appropriate?

Although the pushback against globalization has largely come from within developed Western states, economic globalization is a global phenomenon. Current world politics is seeing a shift from Western (U.S.) hegemony to greater multipolarity. Some of the rising non-Western states, like China, are ramping up their support for economic globalization, partly because globalisation has produced different winners and losers. If one wants to understand whether economic globalization is going to end, wouldn’t it be worth seeking the views of some experts from those other states as well?

I received a number of humorous responses to my tweet. One person answered my question with “Because ‘Jeff’ is a silly name for a woman?” Indeed. Another suggested that a possible solution was to institute a “One-Geoff policy.” Interesting approach. @WomenAlsoKnowStuff asked “Is there a #GeoffsAlsoKnowStuff account we haven’t come across yet?” Another person made a plea for Jeff Diversity: Geoffrey, Jeff, Jeffry, Jeffy, Jefrey, Jeffery, Jeffeory, Jefferson. “That would be Jefftastic,” I replied. I found all of this very amusing.

But the underlying issue is serious. Lack of representation is a pattern that shows up in other Foreign Affairs expert panels, despite previous criticism on Twitter. It sends the message that “expertise” on foreign policy, economics and global affairs is largely confined to white, Western, mostly American, mostly older men. It implicitly gives expertise a race, nationality, age and gender.

It is 2017 and this is not acceptable. We need to change our out-dated images of what it means to be an expert. We need to seek expert views from different ages, genders and geographical locations. We need to do this so that we can better understand the world in which we live.

Image: Getty

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About the Author

Associate Professor at RegNet School of Regulation and Global Governance at the Australian National University, Visiting Professor on the Masters of International Dispute Settlement at the Graduate Institute and the University of Geneva Follow her on Twitter (@AntheaERoberts).