Category: CNAS Reports

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 cnas.org.

From College to Cabinet: Women in National Security

On January 20, 2017, a new administration took the helm in the United States. The new president faces a vast set of threats to U.S. national security, including potential challenges from China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, and dispersed forms of terrorism around the globe.

Thus, the president faces both the challenge and the opportunity of building his national security team from the top down. Individuals in positions such as those of Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, National Security Advisor, Director of National Intelligence, and Secretary of Homeland Security will play critical roles in the provision of U.S. national security. Equally important are key staff roles that support these positions throughout the national security apparatus. The new president will be well advised to think creatively about the most effective individuals to fill these roles. 

Throughout history, the talent pool of women has been underutilized in the national security sector. Trends over the past 40 years—since the first classes of women were accepted to the nation’s military academies—show an increase in the representation of women in the military and throughout national security departments and agencies, including in the Department of Defense, the Department of State, the Central Intelligence Agency, and, more recently, the Department of Homeland Security—but not necessarily at the top. In the post-9/11 world, women have made up a larger and more visible portion of the national security establishment, yet they remain in the minority of leadership positions. 

There have been institutional challenges in recruiting and retaining women. Some on-ramps to the national security sector, such as the veterans’ preference policy for federal employment, may unintentionally skew opportunities away from women. The pace of national security careers, particularly those for political appointees, may not be conducive to the challenges of work-life balance or parenthood, at least as the structure of workflow and schedules currently exist. Further, the government is in competition with the private sector for talent.

However, opportunities exist to increase women’s representation and leadership throughout the national security sector. First, while issues of gender equality merit their own exploration, the discussion about the role of women in national security should focus on the effectiveness of diverse teams with clear, measurable metrics and outcomes. Second, in order to fully demonstrate the value of women in the national security apparatus, the departments, agencies, and the National Security Council staff must begin to keep better data on individual, team, and department performance, through which they can evaluate the impact of a variety of team compositions. Third, the national security apparatus can follow the lead of corporate America in finding workforce management practices such as job sharing and scheduling flexibility, which can mitigate retention issues—particularly for parents, though certainly not limited to them. Fourth, the creation of policies that enable more women to succeed in the national security sector does not mean that the national security sector is a zero-sum game in which women can only succeed at the expense of men. In fact, such policies should increase the quality of life—as well as the quality of employees—for everyone. And finally, the concept of mentorship and advocacy needs to be rethought in terms that make sense for career success in the national security field first, while also accounting for the role of gender.

Never has the exigency for placing the right talent in the right positions been more critical. It will require a national security workforce with a diverse set of skills and experiences. In order to access personnel of this caliber, more attention needs to be paid to the role of women in national security. 

Read the full report on the CNAS website.

Dr. Nora Bensahel, LTG David W. Barno, USA (Ret.), Katherine Kidder, and Kelley Sayler examine the career paths of professional women through the ranks of the U.S. military and private sector. In the report, the authors argue that women at all levels of the military and the private sector share a number of challenges related to retention and promotion, parenthood and family, compensation and negotiation, mentorship and career advancement, and workplace climate. These challenges need to be addressed in order for the military services and private sector employers to benefit from the full range of the nation’s talent.

Read the full report on the CNAS website.

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Women in National Security

Women in National Security | Center for a New American Security