The (Mostly) Good News on Women in Combat

Three years ago this month, 19 women from across the Army made history by reporting to Fort Benning, Georgia, to become the first women to attend U.S. Army Ranger School. As the women entered the school and made their way through the initial phase of training, they were closely monitored by Army leaders and the Department of Defense. In many ways, these women represented a trial balloon for DoD leaders who were at the time considering a change to department policies which prevented women from serving in combat arms roles. As one of the most mentally and physically grueling courses in the U.S. military, training and testing soldiers’ ability to lead and perform under combat conditions, Ranger School seemed like the ideal place to cautiously test the integration of women into these roles. Facing identical standards for evaluation as the men in the school, the women passed the test. Though only three women from the initial group made it past the first phase – and only after several attempts – all three went on to graduate from the course: two in August and one in October 2015.

Just months after these first women were awarded the coveted Ranger tab, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter ordered the opening of all combat roles to women in December 2015, following a policy review by the military services. The following year, the services began removing all exclusions on women’s participation in combat arms occupations. In the ensuing months the military had mixed success implementing female integration, though numerous women met the standards in the face of enormous pressure to measure up. Now that the military has had ample time to implement the policy and adjust training and recruitment, it is vital to ask where gender integration stands and what have been the challenges to successful integration.

Read the full report.

A Woman? No Way!

Who would have known that my commissioning in the U.S. Army would lead me to such an unthinkable assignment? I arrived in the Middle East as a country engagement officer. Although my rank was captain, I soon realized I was expected to perform on a higher level and act as one of the top advisors for a three-star command. Despite this unanticipated pressure, acclimating to the position was seamless, and I felt competent doing the work. But being the only female on the team was a frequent concern.

Before this assignment, I had preconceived notions that women were unable to succeed in an all-male environment in the Middle East, and, worse, that it was a mistake to give an assignment of this caliber to a woman. Although my team considered me integral and valued my contributions, the perception of me outside the mission was markedly different. My tasks ranged from engaging in U.S. Central Command exercises to advising Iraqi Security Forces during their Tikrit liberation against ISIS to attending high-level covert meetings with U.S. ambassadors. I originally believed a woman like me – still fairly young and a woman of color – would be incapable of building long-term relationships with high-level Arab male security forces. In the end, though, it was evident to all – perhaps most importantly to me – that women could make a difference in the operational theater environment and that their roles in and contributions to U.S. national security should be more recognized.

Read the full report.

Women are the Most Visible Servicemembers, and the Most Invisible Veterans

One of the questions I’m most frequently asked when people find out I’m a veteran is, “But you didn’t go in harm’s way, did you?”

I’ve been asked this question since I first joined the Navy. After nearly a decade of people asking me some version of this question, I have come to understand its implicit assumptions: that the only “real” military service is in combat; that a “front line” exists; and that women aren’t on it. None of these are true, and these assumptions overlook the fact that the military is fraught with hazardous and psychologically taxing assignments that don’t involve direct combat.

Female veterans often find themselves caught in a double bind when discussing their service due to the assumption that women are not combat veterans: disbelief if they are, and devaluation of their service, written off as not “real” veterans, if they are not. While the glorification of combat service as the only “real” service is problematic for many reasons – and most male veterans did not serve in direct combat – characterizing service in this way poses a particular challenge for female veterans. These women already face the obstacle that many, including male veterans from previous generations, do not think of women as veterans at all.

Over the course of the last year, I engaged with over 100 servicewomen and female veterans to understand how experiences on active duty affect women’s identities as veterans. Some were women I had served with and close friends; some were strangers who responded to social media postings. They spanned four decades of service and came from every walk of life, ethnicity, sexual orientation, service branch, and military occupational specialty. If there is any universality to the findings, it’s that being a woman in the military is a uniquely lonely experience. Servicewomen are promised they are joining a brotherhood at enlistment or commission, only to find that women are constant outsiders.

Read the full report.

MENtors: Men Must Continue to Step Up and Mentor the Women in Their Ranks

What do Joan of Arc and Eleanor Roosevelt have in common?

They represent two of only 10 statues depicting women among the hundreds that grace the parks and squares of our nation’s capital. For little girls visiting Washington, this suggests that the values, struggles, and triumphs of America originated mainly in these men memorialized in stone.

Women’s experience in today’s military is similar: Women look up to and model themselves after their leaders, the vast majority of whom are male. At U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) – the busiest operational command, currently running the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria – there are 121 female field grade officers and one female general officer in comparison to the 807 male field grades and 21 male generals. These statistics are similar to those of the military as a whole, where male officers outnumber women 5-to-1. It is human nature for people to be most comfortable advising those who have similar backgrounds or experiences; thus, men will be more inclined to reach out to mentor other men. However, because men will likely always outnumber women in the military, it is critical that they strive to be effective and inspiring mentors to the women in their ranks.

Effective mentorship is important in the military to ensure junior leaders are prepared to handle the rigors of combat, think critically in an unpredictable world, and successfully guide their troops. The military is a 24/7, whole-person commitment for which no military school or training program is sufficient. However, gender-focused mentorship is an awkward topic for both men and women to discuss. Like many of my female colleagues, I often deliberately set gender aside in the execution of my military duties. We don’t need or want special treatment or consideration because we are women. On the contrary, we’ve tried very hard to just be “soldiers” so we will, hopefully, be judged on our individual competence alone.

The reality I have learned in 18 years of service is that gender does matter, and our differences should be both celebrated and sought after because inclusive teams are more effective, efficient, and successful. Forbes’ 2011 survey of 321 executives, titled “Fostering Innovation Through a Diverse Workforce,” found that diversity is a key driver of innovation, crucial for attracting and maintaining talent, and a critical component for success on a global scale. Our military’s success rests on its ability to recruit, train, and promote talented, creative, and dedicated personnel, and effective mentorship programs are critical to this endeavor. Gender is absolutely a factor in mentorship – gender stereotypes, historical social roles for men and women, and perceptions surrounding male and female interactions all affect the mentoring relationship. Male leaders should approach mentoring women with the seriousness, preparation, and dedication with which they approach any other mission.

Read the full report.

Ending Gender Shunning

Something is seriously wrong with U.S. national security. In this case, I am not talking about the policy itself but about how we develop and discuss policy. Despite the advances that women in national security have made in recent decades, men continue to dominate the national security field. That means that America’s foreign and defense policies are not benefitting from a diverse set of perspectives and views. It also means, as some studies have shown, that the male-dominated environments in which national security policies are developed are prone to groupthink and in some cases, blatant sexism and sexual harassment.

Read the full report here.

Maternity and Paternity Leave: Implications for the National Security Workforce

One month into parenting our newborn, my wife and I, both national security officials, had an epiphany: No doubt some of the worst foreign policy decisions made by the United States must have been the result of key staff’s sleep deprivation brought on by watching over their newly arrived infants at the same time they were advising the president and his cabinet. Though we were first-time parents, we were not strangers to the anxieties of working on stressful and complex dilemmas, having spent years in the national security field. We had each spent time working through headquarters and bureaucracies on time-sensitive issues, and both of us had deployed to unforgiving and dangerous environments where we worked for weeks and months on little sleep. We understood how this sort of stress had impacted our decisionmaking abilities and, after a few years of marriage, knew how grumpy we could be with each other on little sleep. Still, none of this fully prepared us for the exhaustion of taking care of a baby.

Working in the national security environment is an honorable and rewarding profession, but also demanding and stressful – even more so for those raising families. We have worked for managers who placed duty to the job over duty to the family, but we have also had managers who stressed a work-life balance. Even with enlightened managers, however, the “system” tends to discount employees who seek a work-life balance, particularly women. This is not unique to the public sector and is perhaps a function of high-pressure jobs. Making matters worse is that many of us in the national security arena are self-selecting, type-A, or ENTJ personalities and place an inordinate amount of pressure on ourselves to do it all, without worrying about overextending ourselves or the longer-term consequences to our health and happiness. Working at the Departments of State or Defense, at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), or in the intelligence community is a calling, not just a job, and sitting on the sidelines or taking yourself out of the game to pursue another path can prove extraordinarily frustrating or even feel humiliating. There is no getting around the reality that national security professions may require frequent or long tours overseas away from family. Even while stateside, the ability to create a better work-life balance is limited due to security requirements that make it extraordinarily difficult, if not impossible, to work from home. Good managers can only do so much to overcome a bad system. In the end, my wife and I had a very limited amount of leave, and our desire to ensure the well-being of our child was a priority, but couldn’t change this reality.

While these challenges and dynamics are, in part, the result of a bureaucratic system that is cumbersome, inconsistent, and haphazard, department secretaries and senior leaders have a considerable amount of authority over their personnel and how they are managed. Not only can good leaders make bad systems more palatable, but they can set the example in terms of work-life balance (even in the national security arena) and set expectations for managers in terms of the importance of taking care of people. Finally, these senior officials have some ability to change policies to advance work-life balance, including making it easier to take family leave. While there are some legal and policy changes that require congressional intervention, on the whole, the executive branch has not pushed existing authorities to their limits.

Read the full report here.

The Power of Example

When I chose a career in foreign policy and national security, I never considered the fact that I was entering a historically male-dominated profession. In a purely abstract way I was keenly aware of the continued gender imbalance among decisionmakers who influence national security, but I never thought about my own gendered role in that field, or that anyone might see me as a woman in national security. I was simply a young, driven woman who entered the State Department in the good company of many other young, driven women.

But I soon noticed a common response when I first met my male foreign counterparts, usually along the lines of: “You’re a woman, and you look so young – you must be very smart.”

Comments like these reflected that my male interlocutors were still not accustomed to encountering women in professional settings, especially ones dealing with foreign policy and national security. And of course, they thought they were paying me a compliment.

But such comments reflect several problematic undercurrents: 1) that it was remarkable for a woman to be holding the positions I occupied; 2) that it was remarkable for a woman in such positions to appear young and – might I say – stylish, neither wearing baggy suits nor having her hair in a matronly bun; and 3) that only by being unusually smart could a woman, who looks young, come to occupy such a position (or the more nefarious interpretation that some of my colleagues faced – that they must have been sleeping with someone to obtain their position).

Unfortunately, such remarks were a hallmark of my initial encounters with foreign counterparts during my 11 years of service at the State Department and National Security Council. I had some incredible opportunities – from participating in the Six-Party Talks on North Korea’s nuclear program, to being part of a small team negotiating a presidential joint statement for a state visit with China, to planning and joining summits between President Barack Obama and his South Korean and Chinese counterparts. With the championship of some great bosses and mentors, I moved relatively quickly up the ranks.

Read the full report here.

Gender Equality as a National Security Priority

The Obama administration made efforts to advance gender equality around the world one of its core national security and foreign policy priorities, based on the premise that countries are more stable, secure, and prosperous when women enjoy the same rights as men, participate fully in their countries’ political systems and economies, and live free from violence. A growing body of research makes a compelling case about these links. Former Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues Cathy Russell and former National Security Advisor Tom Donilon sum up much of the evidence in this Medium piece, noting that advancing gender equality around the world helps grow global gross domestic product, decreases hunger, strengthens the prospects for peace agreements to succeed, and counters violent extremism.

Despite this evidence, in a survey earlier this year of 500 foreign policy leaders working in and out of the government shows a mere 13 percent believe gender inequality internationally is a vital threat to U.S. interests. Less than one-third of respondents thought women’s and girls’ full participation is an important foreign policy goal. This data demonstrates we still have a long way to go in changing the way foreign policymakers think about gender and truly integrating such considerations into policy debates on the most pressing national security challenges.

I had a front row seat for many such deliberations, having worked as an intelligence analyst covering the Middle East during the Arab Spring, as the Director for Egypt at the National Security Council (NSC) during 2012–2014, and as a senior advisor in the Secretary of State’s Office of Global Women’s Issues during the final 18 months of the Obama administration. Based on this somewhat unique combination of experience working on both “hard” security issues and in the office charged with integrating gender considerations into U.S. foreign policy, I offer the following assessment of what the Obama administration got right when it came to integrating gender into U.S. foreign policymaking, and where it fell short.

Read the full report at

Send the Breast Pump With the Defense Attaché

I held the syringe up to the light above the bathroom mirror and flicked it a few times with my finger to make sure I had the exact dose of Lupron. I checked my watch to calculate the time in Washington. I pulled the waistline of my pants below my belly button, steadied my feet, wiped my abdomen with an alcohol swab and took a deep breath.

As I pulled my arm back to thrust the syringe into my belly, the plane hit turbulence, nearly causing me to plunge the needle into my left arm. I waited for the plane to stabilize and repeated the steps, this time managing to inject myself with the drugs that I hoped would lead to my becoming pregnant. I packed my supplies and walked casually back into the main cabin of the 10-seat Gulfstream that was taking me and my boss, the under secretary of defense for policy, to Afghanistan.

That moment in my two-year journey to having my first son in 2010 came to mind recently during a visit to the University of Texas, Austin. “It is so inspiring to see a woman up on that stage talking about national security,” one young woman said after my talk. Another asked how she could become someone like me.

Moments like those always leave me with mixed emotions. Yes, I am proud of the years I spent working on security issues at senior levels of government. But I never mention the trials and tribulations of trying — often desperately — to have children in your 40s. Nor do I talk about the days and nights that I missed with my first son while I worked at the White House and the Pentagon.

Read the full article in The New York Times.

How Men Should Help More Women Lead

There is a lack of women’s leadership in this country.

In companiesCongressHollywoodtech and certainly in our field of national security, relatively few women have made it to the top. Just as President Obama couldn’t erase racial bias, recent women Secretaries of State haven’t nearly evened the odds for women leaders. Just watch the Sunday talk shows and prime-time cable news panels, which showcase the utter domination of men in foreign affairs and policy more broadly. But it is also true in media, on the Hill, at the State, Defense, and Homeland Security Departments, as well as in the intelligence community, military and with contractors. Women occupy 30% of top leadership positions, at best. The Trump Administration is moving backwardon this issue, if anywhere. The situation is demoralizing for senior women as well as the next generation.

Yet research shows that more diverse leadership groups are more creative, innovative and more likely to avoid “groupthink.” Corporations with more women managers and board members are measurably more profitable. Female members of Congress are judged to be as or more effective than their male colleagues. And if there were no barriers, eventually the people with the most potential for excellence would rise, regardless of their gender or race. So while the lack of women especially women of color in top decision-making spots is a problem of fairness, it is also about making our institutions as successful as they can be.

Read the full article in TIME.

Scroll to top
Women in National Security

Women in National Security | Center for a New American Security

Thank you! Your subscription has been confirmed. You'll hear from us soon.
Women in National Security
Subscribe to our mailing list below.