May 31, 2022

The Danger of A Single Story For Policy

Why We Need Diversity and Inclusion in Think Tanks
The Danger of A Single Story For Policy

In the framework of the Think Tank Lab’s Diversity Challenge, a working group of practitioners from various German think tanks and foundations has addressed the question of how to foster diversity and inclusion in the German think tank sector. In this dossier, we argue why diversity in think tanks matters, we share what we know about the state of diversity in European think tanks, and we offer suggestions how think tanks and foundations can become more inclusive. We also share what we learned by approaching diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in think tanks through a five-month systemic design sprint.




Why Diversity in Think Tanks Matters

The Think Tank Lab’s Diversity Challenge



Introduction: The State of Diversity in Think Tanks

In her famous TED talk “The Danger of a Single Story”, Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says: “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story”. 

Think tank researchers are knowledge producers and storytellers. With our commentary and reports, we create narratives to make sense of the world around us. But one look at most think tanks’ websites and it becomes clear that we may be telling a story from a handful of narrow perspectives. 

In the United States, the #metoo and Black Lives Matter movements have led to a debate how to make think tanks more inclusive. Many US think tanks across the political spectrum have gone on to adopt institutional diversity policies and some have made demographic data on their staff publicly available.  A Think Tank Diversity Action Statement was published by a group of employees from across the US think tank community and signed by over 300 people. 

Statistics and stories

Until recently, think tanks in Europe haven’t had deep discussions on diversity. This is reflected in the fact that hard data on diversity in European think tanks is hard to come by. Recent studies try to close this gap on gender equality alone, showing that:

  • The number of women who speak at key policy-shaping conferences across Europe is far below that of their male peers. Looking at high-level policy conferences in Europe in the years 2012-2017, this report by the Open Society Foundations finds that 74 percent of speaking roles were given to men and only 26 percent to women.
  • The Covid-19 pandemic increased the gender gap in policy research and debate. A study carried out by volunteers at The Brussels Binder found that women account for only one third of total research authors in 33 European and national think tanks. Another Brussels Binder study compared the numbers of male and female speakers at in-person and online think tank events over a three-month period before the pandemic (March-May 2019) to those hosted during the first Covid-19 lockdown (March-May 2020). While still not reaching parity, the findings show that women’s representation in 2020 slightly increased.  However, the number of gender-balanced panels dropped.  
  • These findings are in line with gender imbalances in think tanks’ workforces. Reviewing the gender composition of 25 European think tanks, a study by the GMF reveals that while European think tanks employ men and women nearly equally, their leadership continues to be male-dominated. This is also the case for senior research and analysis positions, which are male-dominated.

However, as some of these studies have also pointed out, numbers on other dimensions of diversity such as education, age, socio-economic, cultural, or ethnic backgrounds of think tank staff, as well as more in-depth studies of roadblocks and good practices specific to the think tank sector, are missing. The gap in diversity data on any dimension other than gender means that intersectional approaches to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) targeting the think tank ecosystem currently lack a quantitative evidence base. Think tanks that want to go down this path need to develop their own benchmarks. 

While diversity statistics are rare, there are personal stories. Stories of people who didn’t apply for jobs they were qualified for because they felt discouraged by the wording of the job postings. Stories of colleagues who do not feel safe to speak up in staff meetings because of their working-class background and the fear not to sound ‘smart’ enough. Stories of colleagues who see their competence questioned based on their looks and age after every media statement. But also, stories of colleagues who with incredible dedication read up on DEI, mentor younger staff, and organize anti-bias trainings, often in their free time and without guidance or additional resources. 

Why Diversity in Think Tanks Matters

If we take the statistics on gender inequality and the stories from think-tankers of color, with international passports, and working-class background as an indicator, our industry fails to reflect the heterogeneity of our society, let alone the societies we work with, research, and advise on. The apparent demographic homogeneity of our organizations raises the question of whether we are doing enough to live up to the responsibility of influencing public policy and public opinion. In other words: Are we doing enough to counter the risk that a single story for policy emerges?

The political response to the Covid-19 pandemic has shown dramatically that different social groups have different needs and are affected by the same policies in different ways. It is plausible to assume that the under-representation of women and young voices in national Covid-19 taskforces and advisory councils contributed to the sidelining of these social groups’ needs in the political responses to the crisis. When the German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina’s Coronavirus working group advised the German government to keep kindergartens closed and enforce strong social distancing rules in schools, it turned out that there was no one under 50 years old in the working group and there were more men with the name Thomas than women involved. 

Greater diversity in think tanks is a question of innovation, relevance, legitimacy, and impact. Our personal experiences and upbringings influence our perspectives on socio-political issues. And when the people around us share a similar educational background and upbringing, we tend to mutually confirm our own assumptions and reinforce the status quo. 

Research shows that homogeneity and group dynamics within the policy expert bubble leads to ‘groupthink’ or confirmation bias. When think tanks act as echo chambers, the likelihood that we will think ‘outside the box’ when it comes to solving complex policy problems is diminished compared to in more diverse group settings. 

In today’s hyper-connected world, policy challenges overlap, transcend national boundaries and academic disciplines, and require an approach that breaks up silos and brings multiple perspectives together to create synergies. This can only happen with greater disciplinary and demographic diversity in the room and with formats designed to enable authentic dialogue between different voices. In an industry that exists to be ahead of the policy curve, it’s essential that think tanks strive for diversity and facilitate inclusive policy dialogue.

Unequal representation in terms of gender, education, age, socio-economic, cultural, or ethnic backgrounds in our workforce, events, and publications, influences our perspectives, and ultimately our recommendations. It’s a slippery slope where the policies recommended are less likely to respond to the realities of a diverse society and may thus re-embed the status quo, including the precise inequalities that diversity and inclusion efforts aim to level out. If think tanks want to be a force of political innovation rather than of preserving the status quo, there is no way around investing in inclusive organizational culture.

Think tanks aspire to shape the future of society and claim a role in the policy-making process that is not legitimized by democratic vote. Since think tanks are key influencers of public policy – and are often directly or indirectly funded by public money – we bear responsibility to show that we serve society at large rather than the select few and that we are worthy of the public attention and public money we seek. When our organizations do not reflect the diversity of the society we are part of, we run the risk of being seen as elitist and out of touch. In a democracy, this can erode the legitimacy of think tanks in the eyes of the public. 


There is mounting evidence that more diverse workplaces have higher employee satisfaction and better-quality output. Having a greater diversity of staff across all levels of our organizations brings a greater diversity of thought in policy research and in how think tanks operate. Since organizations like foreign policy think tanks work with and write about people in other countries, bringing in diversity of thought, cultural backgrounds, and life experiences, through targeted measures for diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) should be an organizational priority to make sure our research and policy advice resonates, is culturally sensitive and of high quality.

While think tanks have a long way to go, there is a generational shift underway in German politics with a marked rejuvenation of the German Bundestag with the latest elections. Think tanks would be well-advised to ask ourselves whether we are prepared to reach and address this new generation of decision-makers who will only become more culturally diverse  over time. Think tanks must now speak to a generation that does not only have different information consumption habits but also different attitudes on central foreign policy questions and an alarming frustration with political representation in general. 

For think tanks to become more inclusive, it is not enough to ensure gender balance in panel discussions and leadership positions, or to reduce biases against international candidates in hiring processes. We need to rethink our organizational culture through an intersectional lens, including who gets to speak up in meetings, whether the timing of events allows people with childcare responsibilities to participate, whether our websites and publications are accessible for people with disabilities, whether our salaries and contract durations allow for a decent life in European capitals, like Berlin or Brussels, and whether the language we use speaks to the wider public beyond these capitals. 

The Think Tank Lab’s Diversity Challenge

The wish to address the lack of diversity and inclusion in the German think tank sector was voiced repeatedly in the focus group workshops with representatives of various German think tanks organized by the Think Tank Lab in spring 2021. In response, the Think Tank Lab initiated an open call for participation to bring together think-tankers from across the community to address the question of how to foster diversity in German think tanks. 

From September 2021 to January 2022, a working group of eight practitioners (two men and six women) with affiliations to various German policy research institutes and foundations  engaged in policy work met on a monthly basis to address the state of diversity and inclusion in the industry and develop practical solutions based on this analysis. All members of the working group had already been involved in DEI initiatives within their organizations or had done research on diversity and identified with different nationalities, socio-economic backgrounds, ethnicities, and sexual orientations. The working group was chaired by myself (Claire Luzia Leifert) together with Maria Prahl, a DEI professional and founding partner of Working Between Cultures – a social enterprise that helps research organizations develop more inclusive cultures. 

The working group was furthermore advised by a wider circle of supporters, who contributed additional expertise, international perspectives, and feedback at several points throughout the work process. 

We were aware that fostering diversity in institutions is a long-term challenge that we would not be able to solve once and for all within a few months. But we were curious to see what contribution we could make if we brought together colleagues from different think tanks and with different backgrounds for a DEI sprint.

Methodology: Taking a systemic design approach to diversity management

Our analysis of DEI in think tanks focused on four questions:

•    Roadblocks: What stands in the way of more diversity in German think tanks?

•    Good practices: What good practices are out there?

•    Needs: What do think tanks need to become more inclusive?

•    Leverage points: What can be done to move ahead on this – and by whom? 

Taking a qualitative approach, we reviewed existing research, practical resources, and strategies developed by different think tanks for internal use. Then we interviewed think tankers with functional insights, minority backgrounds, and experiences of discrimination. Our approach was furthermore informed by methods from systemic design and diversity management. This meant that we combined analysis of our industry and the internal structures of our organizations with experiential learning which included reflecting on our own biases.


Frame, Explore, and Visualize the System

Think Tanks as Nested Systems

When analyzing think tanks and roadblocks to DEI according to systemic organizational development theory, it is important to acknowledge that think tanks – like all organizations – are not unified black boxes. Instead, they are consisting of cultural, social, and technical subsystems. The practices in all three subsystems influence how inclusive an organization is.

More than that, think tanks are embedded in a wider ecosystem that is defined by their funding models, audience, and membership base, among other things. All these factors influence the composition of our workforce and organizational cultures. We therefore took a systemic approach that took these players and their leverage into account, viewing think tanks as “nested systems”. 

Seven Core Dimensions of Diversity

Diversity is a complex topic with many layers and potential definitions. As a starting point for our work, we chose the seven core diversity dimensions as defined by Charta der Vielfalt.  These are: age, ethnic background and nationality, gender and gender identity, physical and mental abilities, religion and worldview, sexual orientation, and social background. 


Identify Leverage Points

Based on our analysis, we identified two + one stakeholder groups within think tanks whose actions impact the DEI record of an organization as a whole: 

1. Staff in charge of hiring processes, and

2. Diversity Officers.

Addressing the problems faced by these two groups and strengthening their capacity to act on DEI promises high leverage for change.

Staff in Charge of Hiring

Many think tanks, especially smaller ones, do not have a dedicated human resources department. In these contexts, recruiting and hiring new staff is done by senior researchers and project managers, who often have very little time, HR expertise, and many applications to go through. Moreover, our interviews showed that hiring international (especially non-EU) staff comes with considerable administrative hurdles for both the candidate and the hiring organization. Finally, international hires often find it harder to develop a feeling of belonging in their organizations. 

Diversity Officers 

Several German think tanks and foundations have recently created the role of a Gender and Diversity Officer or an internal Diversity Working Group and started developing institutional diversity policies.  This shows a heightened awareness and willingness for a more structured approach to DEI and is a laudable development. However, our interviews and own experience showed that such Diversity Officers often work in isolation. Given that there is no prior experience with these roles in their organizations and little to no support structure in the wider ecosystem, the assignment often comes without a clear mandate or set of goals. Consequently, newly assigned Diversity Officers often find themselves faced with a complex task and high (and sometimes conflicting) expectations by colleagues and superiors, despite lacking a clear mandate, advice, or additional resources to succeed in their role. This makes it hard for the person filling that role to get started, set priorities, and lead sustainable organizational change. 

In addition to these two internal stakeholder groups, taking a systemic approach to organizational change allowed us to identify a third stakeholder group in the think tank ecosystem that has strong leverage over think tanks’ organizational practices and could use this influence for change towards diversity:

Think Tank Funders

Firstly, the insufficient diversity record of the think tank sector is a systemic challenge rather than a problem of one organization alone. For example, if third-party project funding is a common financing model for European think tanks, this often leads to short-term contracts which in turn make it particularly hard for non-EU candidates who need a working visa to join a German think tank (but also for everyone else wanting to rent a flat in Berlin). When we addressed the problem with either representatives of think tanks or funders alone, each of them sees responsibility for this outcome with the other party. 

Secondly, we found that funders often have the same discussions within their organizations as think tanks do and we can learn a lot from each other. This is also the reason why our Hiring Guide explicitly targets both think tanks and foundations. 


Thirdly, funders have a lot of leverage over think tanks’ organizational practices through their funding priorities. They can nudge them towards more diversity and reward inclusive practices. For instance, we will most likely see more and more European think tanks develop Gender Equality Plans following the decision by the European Commission to make having a Gender Equality Plan an eligibility criterion for accessing the popular Horizon Europe research funds as of 2022. Thus, if we want to improve the diversity record of think tanks, we should involve funders in the discussion early on. 

Outcomes: Guides and Resources for Think Tanks

The goal of the Diversity Challenge was to move beyond analysis, to prototype and test approaches that can contribute to a more inclusive think tank landscape. We developed practical interventions meant to help the two identified stakeholder groups make organizational practices more inclusive. In the process of developing these interventions, we invited think tank colleagues, as well as HR and DEI professionals to give feedback and contribute their own experiences. What form our interventions would take was deliberately left open to allow us to respond to what would turn out to be most useful.

For Diversity Officers in think tanks, we created a concise 7-step guide to help newly appointed Diversity Officers build their own knowledge on DEI matters, map their think tank’s current efforts, set targets, and monitor progress. 

For the staff in charge of hiring, we developed a diverse hiring guide that offers detailed recommendations how to make every step of the hiring process more inclusive. Because German think tanks are increasingly interested in hiring international researchers, the guide puts particular focus on how to attract and retain international staff and first-generation migrants wanting to work in a German think tank in an entry-level position. Accounting for the similarities in think tanks and foundations when it comes to the challenge of inclusive hiring, the hiring guide addresses both think tanks and foundations. While it puts the burden of change on the organizations, it also includes a couple of tips for candidates with migratory background who want to start a career at a German think tank or foundation.

We also compiled a list of further resources for anyone interested in diversity, equity, and inclusion in think tanks. This list of resources focuses on programs, publications, and initiatives in Germany and Europe. The list contains networks and initiatives, good practices, and toolkits, as well as data and studies on the topic. 

Finally, to enable continuous peer learning across the think tank sector and address joint challenges, we will organize regular network meetings for Diversity Officers and others interested in DEI in think tanks, starting with an event on May 31st 2022 (German Diversity Day). Get in touch with Andre Weisser ( if you would like to join our meetings. 

Implement and Evaluate Our Guides

We understand our work as contribution to a wider debate and hope to help make German think tanks more diverse, equitable, and inclusive. We invite everyone to send us their comments and feedback: 

  • Does our analysis resonate with your own observations and experiences in the think tank sector? 
  • Have you implemented or adapted our recommendations and would like to share your experiences? 
  • Have you come across additional resources that would merit inclusion in our list of further resources? 

Moreover, we look forward to two workshops to discuss our guides with fellow think-tankers. We also offer the opportunity to have us present and discuss our guides to your think tank. 

Conclusion: Lessons Learned, Limitations & Next Steps for Think Tanks

Many important recommendations have been issued before on how to put an end to ‘manels’ (panels with male speakers only) at policy conferences or improve diversity in leadership positions. 

Based on our work in the Think Tank Lab Diversity Challenge, here are additional suggestions to advance knowledge and action on diversity, equity, and inclusion in European think tanks and policy foundations:

1. Intersectional justice beyond gender: Where diversity measures exist in European think tanks, they often focus on equal representation of binary genders (men/women) only. While efforts to create gender equality in policy are important, gender is only one of many intersecting dimensions of diversity. Broadening our lens by taking an intersectional approach to combating discrimination and fostering inclusion will serve all marginalized social groups, including women. 

2. Close the data gap: Data on the intersectional diversity of European think tank staff including their nationalities, age, ethnicities, or socio-economic backgrounds is missing. This includes both quantitative data that would allow us to assess the representation of think tankers from non-majority and historically marginalized backgrounds, as well as qualitative studies of their experiences, and on roadblocks and good practices specific to the think tank sector. We hope to have contributed to the latter with the Diversity Challenge, albeit within limited scope. An EU-wide state of the sector report would allow to create industry-wide benchmarks and strengthen the evidence base for DEI initiatives. 

3. Take a systemic approach I: Join forces across the think tank community: The insufficient diversity record of the think tank sector is a systemic challenge rather than a problem of one organization alone. Bringing colleagues across the think tank community together not only allowed us to learn about internal discussions, and hidden diversity champions, and thus to paint a more accurate picture of the status quo. It also built trust and a strong bond among those previously fighting for the same goals in isolation from one another. We hope to continue the discussion and welcome new colleagues to #teamDiversity at our launch event and network meetings in the upcoming months. A potential next step to bring our efforts to the next level could be a European Think Tank Diversity Action Statement following the US example mentioned in the introduction.

4. Take a systemic approach II: Involve funders: Taking a systemic approach to organizational change added greatly to our analysis as it allowed us to see think tanks as nested in a broader ecosystem that influences their diversity record. We found that not only do funders often have the same discussions and challenges within their organizations as think tanks do and we can learn a lot from each other. But also, that funders have a lot of leverage through their funding priorities which they could potentially (and already do) use to nudge think tanks towards more diversity and reward inclusive practices. Thus, if we want to improve the diversity record of think tanks, it is worth reaching out beyond the think tank community itself to involve funders in the discussion early on. 


I would like to sincerely thank all contributors. The responsibility for the final publications lies exclusively with the authors.   

Firstly, I would like to thank all members of the working group on Diversity in Think Tanks for their dedication and expertise, their openness for the methodology, and the considerable time and work they invested:

Susan Bergner, PhD researcher, Cluster of Excellence “Contestations of the Liberal Script” (SCRIPTS), Free University Berlin

Pradnya Bivalkar, PhD, Senior Project Manager, Robert Bosch Stiftung

Sarah Bressan, Research Fellow, Global Public Policy Institute (GPPi) and Co-Founder, Better Think Tanking

Santiago Cuervo Escobar, Project Manager (Participation and Cohesion), Stiftung Mercator

Barbara Pongratz, Associate Analyst, Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS)

Andre Weisser, Head of Press and Public Relations, Stiftung Neue Verantwortung (SNV)

Maria Prahl, Founding Partner, Working Between Cultures

Marie-Thérèse Schreiber, Project Assistant, Think Tank Lab, German Council on Foreign Relations

Ayse Yürekli, Senior Expert TÜSIAD and Coordinator, Berlin Bosphorus Initiative

We are standing on the shoulders of those who did important work on DEI in think tanks before us. I would like to thank the following people for actively supporting the Think Tank Lab Community Challenge “How To Foster Diversity In German Think Tanks?” with their vast expertise and experience in DEI matters. As members of our Ally Circle and as editors they gave feedback on our work at various points in the process:


Mariam Ahmed, Project Manager (Participation and Cohesion), Stiftung Mercator 

Robin Cammarota, Program Director and Digital Strategist, American Council on Germany 

Marissa Conway, Chief Executive Officer, United Nations Association United Kingdom, Co-Founder, Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy and Co-Author Toolbox “Gender, International Affairs and Think Tanks” 

Gareth A. Davies, Freelance Editor

Laura Dunkley, Consultant, International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) and Co-Author Toolbox “Gender, International Affairs and Think Tanks” 

Jennifer Hecht, Project Manager (Europe in the World), Stiftung MERCATOR 

Reena James, Alumni Manager, Stiftung MERCATOR 

Dr. Angela Langenkamp, Gender Commissioner, Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) 

Theresa Luetkefend, Non-Resident Fellow, Global Public Policy Institute (GPPi) and Co-Founder, Better Think Tanking  

Marion Messmer, Co-Director, British American Security Information Council (BASIC) and Co-Author Toolbox “Gender, International Affairs and Think Tanks” 

Dr. Ferdinand Mirbach, Senior Project Manager (Immigration Society, Global Issues), Robert Bosch Stiftung 

Scarlett Varga, Head of Development, Bruegel and Co-Founder, The Brussels Binder 

Bibliographic data

Leifert, Claire Luzia. “The Danger of A Single Story For Policy.” May 2022.

These articles were developed in the framework of the Think Tank Lab’s Diversity Challenge “How to foster diversity in German think tanks?”