Who’s in the Room? Part II: The Case for Women’s Voices in National Security

Businesswoman explaining new business strategy to coworkers sitting around table in conference room. Photo credit: Shutterstock/Jacob Lund

Over the last 40 years, women have gained greater representation across the United States national security establishment.[i] From 1992-2012, the proportion of men and women in the general scale of federal service came closer to approaching equality overall; yet, women still lag far behind in supervisory roles. This means that while there may be more women in government now than there were before, they are either still struggling with retention, or not being promoted as quickly as men.[ii] By 2015, women comprised 7.1% of all US military generals and admirals, showing that there is a path, narrow that it may be, toward greater participation in these traditionally male-dominated roles. However, even these marked improvements pale in comparison to the number of women graduating from national security programs each year, which means that despite being well-qualified, women still face an uphill recruitment battle.[iii]          

We know that progress in this area is not linear. Even female finalists from the Presidential Management Fellows Program—often considered one of the best pipelines into public service—have difficulty being placed in government jobs, essentially counting them out before their careers have even begun.[iv] One reason for this is veterans’ preference: an understandable loyalty to our armed forces typically accounts for about 50% of federal hires, which unintentionally skews male since women comprise only about 15% of active duty military members.[v] If women graduate from top national security schools, become PMF finalists, and yet still cannot fairly compete, this is an issue that cannot simply be overcome by just trying harder. Women are not broken; the system is.[vi] This article will draw upon precise data from the #NatSecGirlSquad survey and real life experiences from early- and mid-career national security professionals to examine where the pain points are for women in this field, why this issue matters, and what more can be done.

#NatSecGirlSquad is a community founded by Ms. Maggie Feldman-Piltch dedicated to promoting community for women in national security and promoting competent diversity across the different sectors that contribute to the national security apparatus. Women have been telling their stories for quite some time, but in today’s environment, data is king. In Ms. Feldman-Piltch’s own words, the #NSGS survey “‘clears the ‘under-brush’ and helps us to independently verify the challenges our community is facing in their professional lives.”[vii] One of the most shocking results from the survey showed 90% of respondents indicate an overwhelming need for more resources for underrepresented groups.[viii] According to Ms. Feldman-Piltch, “90% of people rarely agree on anything—particularly in national security—but on the need for competent diversity in this field, the results are clear.” Out of 841 respondents, 44% of women said it was difficult for people like them to make it through the application process; only 15% of men felt the same way.[x] 64% of men and 41% of women reported satisfaction with their salary, while 50% of women and 29% of men felt their salary did not accurately reflect their worth.[xi] Only 21% of women reported seeing someone like them serve in leadership roles compared to 65% of men.[xii] 89% of men felt respected as a leader themselves, while only 63% of women reported feeling the same way.[xiii] In fact, 54% of women indicated they felt they had to work twice as hard as others to get their position. Notably, only 12% of men responded in kind.[xiv] Perhaps most galling, 60% of women and 42% of men strongly disagreed or disagreed with the statement that national security careers are welcoming to women.[xv] The data make this quite plain: this is an issue that’s not going away. But if you’re not a woman paying the “pink tax” on a job in this field, why should you care?

For starters, women also tend to identify different problems than men do,[xvi] leading to more comprehensive reforms on systemic issues like racial injustice and discrimination,[xvii] human trafficking, and sexual violence.[xviii] For more evidence, recall the work of female analysts who tracked down Osama bin Laden, notably aided by their longer-term view of risks and motivated by an aggressive need to protect their own children and the children of others.[xix] When it comes to informed decision making in national security, having a diverse set of eyes on a problem means a bolstered ability to avoid groupthink, expose our biases and assumptions, and therefore foster more creative thinking.[xx] In fact, Ms. Feldman-Piltch writes, “This means we can use the tools and characteristics available to us to be as lethal, ready, agile, and resilient as possible. The United States will never have as many Chinese-American men in the Army as China does. We do, however, have more Black women in our Army than China does. We need to capitalize on this as the advantage that it is.” Furthermore, diversity also enables us to have greater strategic foresight. Part of national security is about anticipating what could happen next. If everyone has the same background, then we will not be able to objectively anticipate the range of possibilities because the reference points are all the same.

With these reference points in mind, it would seem that recruiting and retaining more women into this career field should be considered a top national security priority. But what does this look like in everyday life? The author of this article is working on a Master’s in Security Studies from Georgetown University (SSP), for which this publication is named. Unfortunately, SSP is only #11 out of 15 top national security graduate programs when accounting for female enrollment.[xxi] But diversity is about more than education. Part of the bargain is empowering women and allies to advocate for us. As Kimberly Shaw, a national security professional who works at the Department of Defense Office of Inspector General claims,[xxii] “We have to reach out early and equip them with the information and skills to navigate the workplace and their careers. We need to encourage other women to take risks—whether it is applying for jobs, publishing written works, or pursuing speaking opportunities. We should advocate for each other and support each other as we take those risks.” Another key element she names is being realistic about expectations: “I hope that every individual will have a fulfilling career and never experience a bad situation.  However, instances where you are disrespected, ignored, talked over, or disregarded may happen, intentional or not, and you should think about how you might react.  Remember to respect yourself and others. It is important to identify mentors, build relationships and networks, learn from every opportunity, and pick yourself up and keep going. Learn how to be resilient.” She writes that being resilient can even extend to being comfortable wearing multiple hats in high-demanding jobs. It means challenging your assumptions and consistently thinking about how you can evolve in your career. Finally, Ms. Shaw reminds us to be “comfortable highlighting and discussing our accomplishments, why we can do things, and therefore why people want to hire us. We should not short-change ourselves. Present yourself as how you truly want to be seen. Because if you do not, you cannot assume others will see it. They will not.”

If we are to truly make a difference, the first step is with data. Doing better means framing the narrative around how diverse teams are more effective, flexible, and productive, rethinking how we approach mentoring, and realizing that diversity benefits everyone—it’s not a zero-sum game.[xxiii] Ms. Feldman-Piltch poignantly adds that increasing diversity and inclusion “is not about replacing anyone; this is about building the most capable force in the world.” This conversation must include men and other allies. Men should be mentors to women as well.[xxiv] In many cases they are the only predecessors for roles women aspire to: not only President or Vice President, but Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Chief of Staff to POTUS, Senate Majority Leader, Director of National Intelligence, Secretary of Defense, Secretary of the Treasury, even the NASA Administrator…these are just a few of the many high-level jobs never held by a woman.[xxv] It’s time for that to change.

Some of this change will rightly require administrative and legislative policies. For example, the military loses twice as many women at the 6-12-year(s) mark of service because many women choose to resign so they can focus on their families.[xxvi] Indeed, this is a trend across all national security roles.[xxvii] The military piloted the career intermission program to offer active duty service members three years off to pursue higher education, have a baby, etc. and then return. The pilot worked and retention increased.[xxviii] More programs like this, coupled with greater paid maternity and paternity leave,[xxix] better workplace flexibility, timely feedback and real-time performance reviews,[xxx] and fiercer financial competition with the private sector are all strong recommendations to increase retention of women in national security.[xxxi] Alone, however, these policies are insufficient. Sustainably strengthening inclusion of women in national security will require a mindset shift among public servants at all levels.

Ms. Feldman-Piltch says that moving beyond hiring and keeping employees means changing language conventions like “female Marines” and “Marines,” implying that “Marines” is a gendered term. It will require the FBI to test Special Agent candidates on guns with grips designed for male and female hands. For the federal government, this will look like a drastic overhaul of application processes and norms. She adds that expecting candidates to reapply if they don’t get in on the first, second, or third try actually homogenizes the applicant pool because a “no” from the government is easily read as “not now” by white men and a “firm no” by most other demographic sub-groups. This is not to say that other races, ethnicities, or genders are not as perseverant or resilient as white men, but that the lack of transparency in the federal hiring process advantages those with the networks and insider knowledge to understand that “no” doesn’t always mean “no forever.” To her point, if applicants need to be coached through the hiring process, that is symptomatic of a larger issue. Having a diverse set of applicants is not the same as a diverse set of successful new employees. Including women in hiring panels and reviewing resumes is one piece of the puzzle; publishing metrics of hiring outcomes to hold managers accountable is the other.

Finally, managers can enhance retention by ensuring women’s voices are regularly heard and valued in the workplace. According to a Princeton study, when women are outnumbered in a group, they speak less. If a woman is alone in a group, she speaks the least, if at all. Men are not similarly encumbered.[xxxii] Women are also more likely to be interrupted, and the fewer women there are in a group, the more negative those interruptions tend to be. These interruptions “sap the authority of the speaker,” and when coupled with lower speaking time overall, the group will perceive a woman as having less influence.[xxxiii] Conversely, the study also found that when women are in the majority of a group, the group members tend to be happier with their decision and women speak more. They suggest that when women hold the majority, to make decisions by majority rule; when women are in the minority, making decisions by unanimous rule can nearly even the playing field for women in terms of influence.[xxxiv] Changing the group dynamics sounds like the simplest thing to do of the recommendations posited in this article, but it may be the hardest barrier to overcome in practice. Women need to speak up. Men need to listen more. Sometimes men need to provide positive support, inviting someone to speak or finish her thought if she’s been interrupted. Sometimes this means soliciting the female perspective on issues that are traditionally viewed as masculine, which can apply to practically all national security priorities.[xxxv] If we create a world where women can speak up, they will. We just need to cultivate that space “where women can be seen as influential as their authentic selves,” and not as the “other” trying to break through a glass ceiling.[xxxvi]

Up until now, this two-part series has focused on getting diverse voices in the room where decisions are made to cultivate American diversity as a national security asset. What the author has now realized, however, is that being in the room is not enough. The Princeton study and anecdotal experiences of the women writing and interviewed for this piece agree: “having a seat at the table does not mean having a voice.”[xxxvii] In the 21st century, the United States needs to capitalize on what women bring to the table and who they are as a key national security priority.


[i] Katherine Kidder, Amy Schafer, Phillip Carter, and Andrew Swick, “From College to Cabinet: Women in National Security,” Center for a New American Security, February 2017, pp. 2.

[ii] Ibid, pp. 8.

[iii] Ibid, pp. 3.

[iv] Ibid, pp. 13.

[v] Ibid, pp.  12.

[vi] Brittany Karford. Rogers, “When Women Don’t Speak: BYU Shows How Women Get Shut Out,” Spring 2020 Issue of BYU Magazine, accessed July 25, 2020. https://magazine.byu.edu/article/when-women-dont-speak/, pp. 14.

[vii] The survey was administered in partnership with Guidehouse and Dr. Natalie Todak of the University of Alabama. It aims to “inform #NSGS’s work and empower institutional change by providing ‘proof’ of what our community has known for years.” (Quote from Ms. Maggie Feldman-Piltch).

[viii] “What It Looks Like vs. What It Is: Building Competent Diversity in National Security,” Survey by Guidehouse and #NatSecGirlSquad, available at https://www.natsecgirlsquad.com/survey, pp. 17.

[ix] “What It Looks Like vs. What It Is,” pp. 4.

[x] Ibid, pp. 8.

[xi] Ibid, pp. 14.

[xii] Ibid, pp. 20.

[xiii] Ibid, pp. 21.

[xiv] Ibid, pp. 22.

[xv] Ibid, pp. 15.

[xvi] “When Women Don’t Speak,” pp. 6.

[xvii] Ambassador Steven McGann (ret’d) and Dharmapuri, “Canaries in the Coal Mine: Women, Racism, and International Security,” UNA-NCA Sahana on Medium, July 13, 2020, https://medium.com/una-nca-snapshots/canaries-in-the-coal-mine-women-racism-and-national-security-81820bc16a15.

[xviii] Kidder et al, pp. 4.

[xix] Ibid, pp. 9.

[xx] David Marchik, “Breaking into a Male-Dominated National Security Arena,” Transition Lab Podcast, July 27, 2020, https://presidentialtransition.org/where-are-all-the-women-leaders-breaking-into-a-male-dominated-national-security-arena/.

[xxi] Kidder et al, pp. 7.

[xxii] The views expressed by Ms. Kimberly Shaw are her own and do not represent the views of her agency.

[xxiii] Kidder et al, pp. 2.

[xxiv] Ibid, pp. 19.

[xxv] Paul Hitlin, “Positions in the Federal Government Never Held by Women,” Partnership for Public Service: Center for Presidential Transition Blog, July 27, 2020, https://presidentialtransition.org/positions-in-the-federal-government-never-held-by-women/?fbclid=IwAR1NlvfN-tjyz1kDApouTFGu52s89Ada86o3v7O6raRJlEYYFDy809EP96M.

[xxvi] Kidder et al, pp. 17.

[xxvii] Ibid, pp. 14.

[xxviii] Ibid, pp. 12.

[xxix] Ibid, pp. 17.

[xxx] Ibid, pp. 16.

[xxxi] Ibid, pp. 15.

[xxxii] “When Women Don’t Speak,” pp. 9.

[xxxiii] Ibid, pp. 9.

[xxxiv] Ibid, pp. 10-11.

[xxxv] Ibid, pp. 12.

[xxxvi] Ibid, pp. 16-17.

[xxxvii] Ibid, pp. 3.

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