On Mentorship and Diversity: A Favorite Voice in the Room

12 June 2020, 0946 EDT

The lead photograph captures a panel of experts discussing the results of the Dutch general election in March 2017, at the American Enterprise Institute. Kate McNamara is the woman speaking.  

I’d like you to imagine Kate’s voice. She has a clear, eloquent, and unhurried way of speaking. 

Its clarity delivers unconventional ideas that can fundamentally change how we understand the world. For instance, it is now impossible for any serious analyst of the European Union to not take the power of ideas and culture seriously, thanks to Kate’s pathbreaking scholarship. The eloquence of her voice also expresses complex arguments effectively. We owe to Kate, an ability to recognize and articulate the ways by which the everyday practices of ordinary people at once shape and sustain the EU’s authority, giving it a profound yet banal nature. And the measured tempo of Kate’s voice reminds others that what is being said is not to be rushed because it is important. You can hear it, most recently, as she gives us the big picture on the future of Europe in the shadow of COVID-19

Kate’s has always been my favorite voice in any room. In our current moment especially, it is a voice that has become vitally important for women in the profession as well as so many others marginalized in the academy. 

Our professional worlds have changed radically due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It has simultaneously laid bare gross inequalitiesof gender, age, class, race and ethnicity, as well as divides between public-private institutions, while also silencing those who experience such inequalities. For we are acutely aware of an extraordinary crisis at hand and an urgent need for exceptional measures that require sacrifices. We also accept a lack of clarity about how long such measures will last as we accept reasonable uncertainty about the sheer scope of the crisis and what its future shape will look like. 

In this process, a peculiar culture of not-asking has emerged. It becomes easy to excuse deferred commitments to improving diversity in hiring (because asking for inclusiveness can feel like a luxury at a time when people are dying). It becomes easy to be apologetic about asking for help from friends, colleagues, and the administration (because we know that there are others worse off). Indeed, it becomes easy to self-censor our own imagination about what a more inclusive institution, a more just profession entails (because we wonder how much our input actually matters during such dire times). 

During moments like this, a clear voice that speaks eloquently and unhurriedly about issues of diversity and inclusion is invaluable. Indeed, such voices are imperative. They are not only unapologetic about breaking silences, but also effective at conveying the complicated sentiments and conflicting rationales behind why we temporarily retreat from hard-won concessions to equity at a time when they are most needed. 

And these are also the voices that most people in a room will listen to. 

This piece is part of a short forum on mentoring in academic careers in international affairs, written to honor Kathleen R. McNamara, Professor of Government and Foreign Service at Georgetown University, as recipient of the Society for Women in International Political Economy (SWIPE) 2020 Mentor Award. The first post can be viewed here.
–The BtG editors.