Women in National Security Survey
“I’ve been waiting my whole career to be asked this.”
When the Center for a New American Security developed a survey seeking candid perspectives on working as a woman in national security, the response was both enthusiastic—nearly 100 women answered—and sobering. What we heard from women in the field is that their stories are not simple and cannot be generalized, and progress advancing women is real but can easily stall. Here are some of their responses.
1. We often hear “it doesn’t matter that you’re a girl/woman.” As a woman working in national security, when did it first matter to you?
Not until I joined the government. I worked abroad in male dominated societies and never had too much of a problem or was made too aware of the fact that I was a woman. Once I joined the State Department I found myself often the only woman in a room full of men, regularly interrupted, and very aware of being a woman. The flip side of this was when it mattered in a positive way. Anytime I sat in a high-level meeting with foreign officials abroad, there would always be a knowing glance with the usually fewer women on the other side of the table. I was able to build back channels with women advisors in other governments. And then when traveling with senior U.S. officials to places recovering from conflict, I would find women felt safer sharing their concerns with me than with my male colleagues.
For a long time, it seemed to matter to some of my male colleagues much more than it mattered to me. I got a smattering of the usual admonishments to wear more makeup to be taken seriously and commentary on the link between my attractiveness and my probability of professional success. With each dumb neolithic comment I rolled my eyes and kept moving. But being a woman in this field suddenly mattered when I had children. My female role models, always vital to me for non-gender-specific reasons, suddenly became essential advisors and defenders as I sorted out how to balance my professional reputation with my new priority and time constraints. I had to drop out of trips given my high-risk pregnancy, and evening events crashed head-on with bedtime. I look to the mothers who have gone before me to figure out how they keep up a professional reputation without stepping off their career path for too long. As my kids get older, I think the fact of me being the mother poses fewer unique demands on me in comparison to my husband, and that means I join the ranks of people who are just parents in national security. But pregnancy and those early years with kids really pull you away from the fast pace of this career field. I am so grateful for my, incidentally, female mentors who have looked out for me and helped me stay relevant even when I felt like I was drowning.
On one occasion, I was in a room with a very senior male defense policymaker and 3 other senior female policy advisors when the senior policymaker explicitly doubted our ability to make a recommendation that involved a counterterrorism operation because the entire room of advisors were female. When considering a military operation, the policymaker said he felt like he needed a man in the room because this was a decision that went beyond capacity building and might result in people getting killed.
SENIOR INTELLIGENCE OFFICER
When in a deployed environment, one of my subordinate team leaders was quoted as saying that he could never work for a woman, and actively worked to undermine my authority within the detachment I was leading.
I didn’t really notice being a “woman in national security” until I progressed further in my career. Bottom line: you just see fewer women in senior national security positions. Then you start to think about it more, which makes you self conscious about it. And then the vicious rot of self doubt and imposter syndrome begins to set in. “Do I belong here? Will anyone take me seriously?” This is when we start to get in our own way.
FORMER DEFENSE OFFICIAL
When a friend/mentor of mine berated me for not pursuing a career opportunity because I wasn’t sure I was qualified … “Men never do that!” she reminded me.
The first time I was invited—last minute—to join a meeting entirely because the organizers were conscious of there being too many men in the room.
When my very first female boss half-joked that she was only selected for her job to be a token female—which I think she believed, even if it wasn’t true.
When I realized I had gotten into the habit of not wearing my glasses to the DFAC (mess hall) while deployed because I didn’t want to be subjected to the stares that accompanied being one of few females out-forward.
I didn’t really notice being a “woman in national security” until I progressed further in I spent my formative years at West Point believing this – it doesn’t matter that I’m a woman. We’re all in the fight together. But it started to matter when I arrived in Iraq, a newly minted Second Lieutenant, and was handed a platoon of almost entirely male Engineer soldiers. With sideways glances and perceivable doubt throughout the remainder of the deployment, they eventually conceded I was fit to be their Platoon Leader – but it was a long, tiring road to establish their trust and a baseline of competency most male officers have upon showing up.
From my experiences as a CST, women brought a diversified skillset to the team. We could gather intelligence on the enemy terrain that the men could not. We built rapport and established relationships the men would not have had access to due to cultural limitations. We found mission critical items and information through our searches that the men would miss. We were even able to detect the male terrorists disguised as women, the ultimate evasion. Our effectiveness was obvious – the fact is we identified and detained more terrorists by having women on the team, than without.
2. Women often receive the question “how do you deal with/what’s it like to be a woman working in national security?” How do you answer this?
When I started out, I often felt that I had to prove myself. I thought a lot about what I wore, how I sounded, whether I seemed “serious” enough. I no longer feel that way. I expect to be treated like anyone else and I project that. What it’s like, however, is that women’s expertise is still valued and requested less; women are still treated differently in meetings; women’s assertiveness is often viewed less positively. I spend too much time and emotional energy deciding when to call these things out, and when to just put my head down and power through.
Like most complex questions it is a multipart answer: 1) I chose this profession because I love it and I don’t know how to do anything else and can’t imagine trying; 2) For all that there are tough moments, none of them have been impossible, and that is thanks to the women who came before me. I often find myself thinking of what it would have been like to be a woman in national security just one generation ahead of me. This exercise occasionally leaves me intensely angry and frustrated, but it always leaves me grateful; 3) I remind myself that issues of gender in national security are constantly evolving, and while I often do not have control over how I am treated, I have the ability to affect that evolution in a positive way, if only incrementally. I try to connect with and be helpful to younger woman in the field in hopes that they will find their own passions that they can’t not do. I think of one of my favorite lines from Hamilton– “Tomorrow there’ll be more of us” — and I actually believe it.
Be brave, be strong, be funny, be brilliant, be a good person, and never, never be afraid.
I find female allies across generations. I have benefitted tremendously from women in our field as bosses and mentors and friends who encouraged me to literally take a seat at the table and to be confident and make my voice heard. I now try to pay it forward to help younger women make the same leap from standing in the back to speaking up, loudly. We all benefit when there are more women out there publishing great pieces, making smart comments on TV, or providing insightful analysis on panels.
PROFESSIONAL STAFF MEMBER, CONGRESS
I do not change my behavior to accommodate my gender or any gender biases. I think being a woman in nat sec is often the same as being a man. We both strive to put forward the best policy ideas to advance the objectives of the United States and we both struggle to balance family/social lives.
FORMER SENIOR POLICY ADVISOR, DOD
I say you always have to be prepared. Even if you are in a new position and feel in over your head, be sure you know enough about each meeting before you go in so that you have at least one thing to contribute. That way people get used to hearing from you and know you will be a voice in the conversation. Once you become an expert in your field you can contribute more and more. If you don’t speak up from the beginning it can be harder and harder to break through.
It’s a tremendous privilege to work in national security (whether you’re a man or woman), and it’s tough as hell and often exhausting to be a (strong) woman working in it. In my experience, there’s a very fine and ever-changing line women in national security tread – if you’re too strong, you are deemed controlling, overly ambitious, micro-managerial, and bitchy (when strong peer male colleagues tend to be viewed as industrious and charismatic leaders), but if you’re not strong enough, you are deemed weak, overly deferential, and are often perceived as not contributing substance or value to issues of consequence, and are therefore ignored or dismissed. I have tremendous respect – and tried to practice at the end of my time the Obama administration – the strategy of “amplification”.
Work hard, be smart and credible, build strong relationships and partnerships with peers, subordinates, and supervisors. Call out bad behavior when you see it. But also recognize that there are going to be times when you may want to recalibrate and throttle back in your career to create room for other priorities – like family, friends, health, education, hobbies, and travel – and allow yourself to do that, free of guilt. It is possible to throttle up again, if you decide to do so. Throttling back up can be tough, and it’s not without tradeoffs, but it can be done.
Choose bosses and mentors that value and empower these principles and perspectives. Create teams that exemplify them. Always be a resource and mentor for other women – but also for men. It’s as important for men to see women as leaders and mentors, to change perceptions and assumptions about women, as it is for women to have female role models.
3. “Women and national security” has had a lot of policy and press attention in recent years. Military maternity leave, combat integration, the no-manel pledge, attention to sexual harassment at DOD, advocacy for flexible work schedules, more women in senior roles; etc.: are these real progress, lip service, or the wrong fights for women in national security?
Real progress, no question about it. The thing we cannot do, however, is allow ourselves to “check boxes” on any of these things. The fact that there were a significant number of (extraordinary) women in senior national security roles from 2009-2016 does not mean there will be now; military sexual assault is clearly not solved; manels still abound, often despite great intentions to make them otherwise. Progress is slow, incremental, and fraught with setbacks, so one of the most important tasks for a group like this to take on is to think through how to coordinate the press for continued progress on multiple fronts and mitigate the impact of failures when then occur. We could really use an “agenda” of sorts, given the number of issues, the fact that each advances with different forms of authority and advocacy, and because it is very easy to get dispirited when we see cataclysmic failure in one particular area.
A win is women on a panel talking about national security issues as the experts in their field, not simply speaking about their experiences as women. Men speaking out about flexible work schedules and against sexual harassment is also progress.
Women and men can benefit from flexibility in work schedules, increased family leave, etc. And the whole national security community benefits from enhanced diversity at senior levels — not just for the sake of improving gender statistics, but also because diversity of thought and experience often illuminates new approaches to old challenges.
I believe one of the most valuable end goals for women and national security is to see more women in senior leadership roles in this field in order to ensure more robust, strategic, and resilient national security decisions. Many of these policy targets are the functional obstacles to why women in national security have not received command posts or senior leadership positions in national security–i.e. they have gaps in their resume due to childcare, they don’t have combat experience, they aren’t a well-known public figure on [blank] particular national security issue (they haven’t spoken on many panels on the topic), etc. These aren’t lip service initiatives, but we should also be working to ensure that our policies and strategies are not simply mimicry of our male counterparts given in a female staff form.
Lip service and wrong fights. I see leaders and decision makers respond to these issues with good intent and promising initial steps, but then there’s no follow through. That could just be a function of government bureaucracy, but I want to see more political will to execute. And women should not have to be their own advocates. These are human issues that affect males and the effectiveness of our entire U.S. national security apparatus. Women shouldn’t have to make the case for not being sexually harassed or getting maternity leave when they should be focusing on their actual role and responsibilities.
Any fight that will help real women get rights and resources and fair treatment is the right one. To anyone who says he doesn’t want to have to spend time on things like combat integration and sexual assault I respond that I don’t, either! But these are real issues that aren’t going away that eat into our ability to achieve our national security goals and treat fellow Americans fairly. The sooner we are healthy at home, the sooner we can be effective abroad. The fact that we haven’t meaningfully solved the problem of predatory attitudes against women in the services, for example, shows that we still have a lot of work to do. I think there are genuine efforts at reform going on in DoD and elsewhere, but changing culture takes a long time.
This is a multi front war. We need to take on these issues but we also need the narrative to stress the negative impact discriminatory actions have on our national security not just on women who are subjected to the discriminatory actions (which should be enough but we all know isn’t). As someone currently taking on DOD for wage discrimination, hostile work environment, and retaliation, headlines on these issues bring me strength and probably played a role in my determination to seek accountability. They are a visible sign that we will not tolerate business as usual just because that is “how it is” (what I was told by more than one male in my chain of command when I raised overt discrimination). It also sends a message to discriminators that they can be held accountable in a court of public opinion as well as a court of law putting extra weight on those seeking promotion to not look the other way. Having said that, the headlines also put extra pressure on those who want to keep it “how it is” to defend their turf, which they still have the ability to do so it might actually lead to an exacerbation of discrimination on the path toward more equitable treatment. But I don’t think we can back off of any of these topics. Call out discrimination where it exists and build alliances to get to a better outcome because it will allow us all to better achieve our mission.
Very little progress has been made. There is a substantial disconnect between senior leaders and middle managers, many of whom perpetuate toxic environments. To the credit of senior leaders (most, anyways), they are actively trying to change the situation, however, they reach obstacles at the middle manager level. Unfortunately, unless critical mass quotas are mandated, I do not anticipate any future developments.