Meet gender, peace & security expert Jillian Foster


Jillian Foster has founded multiple women-focused organizations, including the consultancy Global Insight, the think tank and feminist collective Continuum, and the Women in Conflict project. She’s a PhD student in political science at Yale.

Stephanie Newman: You’ve started multiple companies and are currently on the PhD track. How do you describe what you do?

Jillian Foster: I tend to be someone who has a lot of things going on at once. It’s always how I’ve done personal and professional life. It’s what I naturally gravitate towards. Timelines have to be adjusted, but every projects relates. Essentially, I do consulting and academic research on gender, peace, and security, which sits within political science. It’s the study of political violence and gender. I add a lot of quant to it also, doing work with NGOs in conflict zones.

I’m also interested in the chronology of your career. What led you from Global Insight to Continuum to Yale and Women in Conflict?

Global Insight has always come first in terms of urgency, because it’s the way I make money. I’ve done consulting my whole career: research, data, and evaluation for NGOs. I started first as a solo consultant, and then I organized into an actual firm in 2011. At about that same time, I started hosting little brunches with friends in my home, and that informal gathering grew into theHive, which is Continuum’s mother event. Continuum grew out of that, and was officially started in 2014. The Women in Conflict project is related to my consulting work, but also to my academic research.

What’s a sample project you’ve worked on for an NGO in a conflict zone?

All of my work orients around my function as a researcher. Sometimes a project involves program evaluation, or one-off questions that NGOs want answered, like: How does a particular program interact with child marriage in a certain region? Is it improving the situation or not? Or maybe an NGO wants to do a scoping study into a particular topic around gender-based violence. We’ll build out what is essentially a research design, and then I do desk research and go in-country to collect data. The fieldwork phase lasts for 2-6 weeks. After I leave, my team and I analyze the data, and write a report or create infographics -- whatever is right for the project.

Global Insight seems to place a lot of emphasis on data-driven analysis and gender-sensitive methodologies. How do you leverage data as part of your research, and have you always done this?

I’ve always been into math. I have an undergrad degree in economics. I’ve always been really interested in quantitative analysis, and data science fits into that. What I find most interesting is mixed methods, where you have to know both quantitative and qualitative methods. It requires a great degree of creativity: you piece together the story of what’s happening, using different data sources and styles of analysis. So the quantitative piece might be results from a survey, where qualitative would be long answers to interview questions. Did your interview subjects mention the same word a lot? Are their responses scared, happy, indicative of the same sentiment?

As a community, as a culture, as a world, we’re very comfortable defining women as nurturing, peace-building, and caregiving. But that’s only part of the equation.

And what are “gender-sensitive methodologies,” and why are they important?

It means that gender is used as a foundational lens. I think gender matters always, because it affects the way we navigate the world and make decisions. In economics, we have something called choice sets. A choice set is a social construct that gives you a set of options. Those sets of options can change here or there depending on where you live, your culture, your religion, your age, and your gender. These are intersecting factors. Gender and race are two easy ones to understand, because they’re often visible.

In your website description of Women in Conflict, you mention that sometimes women’s roles in conflict zones adhere to stereotypes of caregiving, and other times they defy them. It reminded me a lot of a conversation I had with a feminist scholar named Andrea Pető. She was talking about the immigration crisis in Hungary in 2015, and how Muslim-Hungarian women played a role in organizing refugee housing. But she also studied the women in the Holocaust, and specifically the horrible war crimes women committed against each other. What do you hope to reveal by showing all sides of how women participate in conflict?

My main objective is to really crack open the way that we define women. As a community, as a culture, as a world, we’re very comfortable defining women as nurturing, peace-building, and caregiving. But that’s only part of the equation of what it is to be a woman in the world. I say this as a woman. We do things that are good and bad. Conflict tends to amplify the different roles that people play. It opens up gender roles. Men are dying, people are moving, there’s a lack of humans around that would traditionally fill public leadership roles. You’ll see women taking on leadership roles in places where they might not normally do that. I’d like to show women as complex and multifaceted, and as very active in conflict.

How do you think the podcasting format of Women in Conflict helps people to become more open-minded about gender?

The podcast is part of this research. It was a project I started because I felt so passionate about it. Our current narrative is that women are hurt the most in conflict. It’s always women as victims. But actually, women are running the fucking show half the time, even women that you don’t expect. It just depends on the way you define it. We could define a woman by depicting her fleeing across the border, or we could define her as an active participant in a conflict setting. She’s not necessarily holding a gun or bombing a hotel, but she is actively carrying her belongings and her family across the border, which is a major task in and of itself. I like the podcast formats, and and women have really vibrant stories. It’s nice to hear their voices. Ones of the most rewarding parts is giving them the opportunity to reflect publicly.

Your Continuum Collective forum seems to give a lot women space to do that, too. I’ve noticed people are willing to share pretty personal stories. What do you think makes an online community successful in that way, with people sharing and learning and being vulnerable?

It takes a lot of work, I have to say. The forum as it sits now is relatively unmoderated. But that’s because we’re getting ready to change platforms. It was previously heavily moderated, by me and a team of other people. We set a tone by modeling behavior. A lot of my posts are very personal and vulnerable. I don’t mind sharing articles, but I want to interact with real humans on a really personal level. I want people other people to feel comfortable doing that. Feminism is so personal, and it affects everyday choices. The forum is a space where you don’t have to have all the answers. Feminism is about asking deeply personal questions, that are largely unanswerable half the time. Continuum is about weeding through those intricacies and grappling with questions in a collective community.

Feminism is so personal, and it affects everyday choices. The forum is a space where you don’t have to have all the answers.

I saw you recently posted on Facebook that you’re creating a virtual course for Continuum. Can you talk about your plans?

Yes! I’m planning to teach a gender studies course online, on the new Continuum platform that’ll be launching soon. I’m positioning it as a gender studies course for people who always wanted to take that kind of class, but never did. So they’ll pay a fraction of the price, get community access (like a forum), and get access to the course including live conversations. In the course, we’ll pepper in some other experts. It's like a perpetual workshop, and I will show up frequently, and other people can too. It’s not going to be uber academic, but more like gender studies 101. Maybe there will be a 201 if it goes well.

Who do you think your students will be for the course?

Our main base seems to be women between 18-35ish, but we also get a cohort of middle-aged women, often stay-at-home moms because they can actually go online during the day. Also, being a mom can be isolating when you stay at home, so it’s nice to have a community like that. College students and young professionals within 5 years of graduation, are people realizing, “Everything I’ve heard about sexism is real!” People go through different stages, and so they have different kinds of questions, but they’re all feminist. Either they’re dealing with sexual harassment at work, whether to get married or not, whether to have kids and who stays home, whether they should breastfeed or not. Again, these questions are largely unanswerable. We have to make the best of the shitty situation we’re in with patriarchy. The only way to navigate it is to rely on other people, their support and advice.

In addition to community support, I also think that books and reading can be a huge source of support in grappling with these questions. If you had to recommend one book about feminism, what would it be?

Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay is really good. It tends to be something you can consume fairly readily. Let’s see… there’s another book that I love. It was one of the first feminist books I read, called “What Makes a Man: 22 Writers Imagine the Future.” It’s a compilation of different essays, edited by Rebecca Walker, on masculinity. I find it really lovely. It’s an easy one to put down and pick back up again.

And do you have any other feminist role models, more broadly speaking?

There are two I adore: I really like bell hooks. And I really love Audre Lorde. Her writing is so beautiful. I really like the way Lorde speaks about complex topics, and her writing about the intersection of gender, race, and class. I often think about white women playing into white supremacy when we don’t even realize it. It’s detrimental to white women and women of color. There’s this multi-faceted disgustingness to it all.

What’s one specific thing that you think other white women can do better, in terms of being more aware and inclusive?

Start caring about other people’s issues. This applies strongly to a particular set of white, young, affluent women -- and I remember myself at this time in my life. You might have your own inner circle of people, your online group. You might want to talk about one issue that’s so important to you. But maybe your one thing is only marginally important to other people, and there are many reasons why. So care about your one topic, but care about those others subjects, too. Let people know you want to learn more about them.

How can we support you?

Join our Continuum Facebook group, and follow @JillianJFoster or @WeRContinuum on Twitter. If you join our Continuum newsletter list, you’ll get an announcement when we launch the new platform.

For Women in Conflict, we’ll be creating a newsletter list soon. If you have contacts for women to interview, that’s always helpful. And if you know an organization or private donor interested in becoming a sponsor, let me know!