Women in National Security: Underrepresented or Just Unappreciated?

Career Advice

The defense and security sector has traditionally been dominated by men, and for a number of reasons, there is still a long way to go before women are equal participants. There are women in leadership roles in the field of national security, and within the past decade, in particular, even more women taking part in the public dialogue on security issues. As a brief survey, I want to highlight a handful of them – women who are working and participating in the field in a variety of ways: government positions, academia, think tanks, media, blogs, and social media.

There are organizations with missions dedicated to improving the participation of women in the security sphere. These include the Hunt Alternatives Fund’s Institute for Inclusive Security (Inclusive Security), and Women in International Security (WIIS) at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). Inclusive Security has several programs dedicated to empowering women. They have research and documentation programs designed to increase awareness and acknowledgment of the peace-making work that women are already doing. In addition, they have partnerships with organizations such as the UN, NATO, and the World Bank; they provide training to governments and civil society organizations; and they house the Women Waging Peace network, which brings together women from all over the world who work to build peace. 

WIIS, originally at the University of Maryland, then Georgetown University and now housed at CSIS, is an international network dedicated to promoting women’s leadership in international peace and security. They produce research on the subject and help connect women with leadership development and mentoring opportunities. The WIIS Director, Jolynn Shoemaker, worked in various policy and legal positions in the government, as well as at Inclusive Security, before being tapped to head WIIS.

Women have been reaching more prominent roles in the security sector in government in recent years. Condoleezza Rice broke ground as President Bush’s National Security Advisor, and went on to be Secretary of State, a role currently filled by Hillary Clinton. Under the current administration, Susan Rice is serving as the US Ambassador to the UN at a time when we have had to weigh involvement in a series of major international issues. Just recently, Michele Flournoy stepped down as Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, the highest post ever held by a woman in the Pentagon. Before serving in that post, Ms. Flournoy was one of the founders of progressive think tank Center for a New American Security (CNAS), and she has frequently been cited as having the potential to be the first ever female Secretary of Defense.

CNAS still has a number of women in leadership roles. Dr. Kristin Lord, in her role as Director of Studies, sets the research agenda for the organization, and has written numerous books, book chapters, and policy papers on global security issues. Women are still underrepresented in leadership in security think tanks, but not totally absent. The Institute for the Study of War, for example, is headed by conservative analyst and military historian Kim Kagan, who has consulted with the Bush and Obama administrations on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

There are a number of women who have held positions in government, and continued to have a strong voice on security issues in other fields. Fran Townsend was a Homeland Security Advisor to the Bush Administration, a post she took after years of service in the Justice Department. She is now a security analyst for CNN. 

Another former official who continues to maintain a public profile in the security field is Anne-Marie Slaughter. Slaughter was the Director of Policy Planning in the State Department from 2009-2011. In addition to teaching at Princeton University, she has been a prominent public voice in recent years, writing for the New York Times, the Atlantic and other outlets, particularly on the controversial ‘Responsibility to Protect’ doctrine, heavily discussed around the Libyan intervention and currently a frequent topic in talks about Syria. 

Juliette Kayyem served as an Assistant Secretary for Intergovernmental Affairs at the Department of Homeland Security for the Obama administration. Now a lecturer at Harvard, she is also a columnist for the Boston Globe on national security and foreign policy. Michelle Shephard is an accomplished writer and reporter, and the National Security reporter for the Toronto Star. Also reporting on natsec issues is Katie Drummond of Wired’s Danger Room, one of the most widely read national security blogs. 

In academia, Georgetown’s C. Christine Fair, at the Center for Peace and Security Studies, is a South Asia specialist whose portfolio includes security and counterterror issues. In the non profit world, Carie LeMack founded and runs Global Survivors Network, an international coalition of survivors of terrorism who work to prevent future attacks. 

There are numerous women blogging on security issues, including Diana Wueger of Gunpowder & Lead, who also writes for the Atlantic and UN Dispatch, and specializes in small arms; Torie Rose DeGhett of the Political Notebook, who has been covering everything from women in combat to the Occupy movement; and Natalie Sambhi of Security Scholar, who in addition to being a prolific analyst has been a strong public voice in Australia for women’s equal opportunity. The Australian security sector has many interesting parallels (and overlaps) with the American, and it can be quite instructive to see how similar issues are approached from a different perspective. Leah Farrall is also a great source of this perspective, a writer, analyst, and counter terrorism expert.

Many of these women can also be found on Twitter, a medium that has a way of leveling the playing field for those who are willing to engage. Of the women and organizations I have highlighted here, Inclusive Security, WIIS, Susan Rice, Fran Townsend, Anne-Marie Slaughter, Michelle Shephard, Katie DrummondChristine FairDiana Wueger, Torie Rose DeGhett, Natalie Sambhi, and Leah Farrall are all active on Twitter. Twitter is a great place to find women engaged in public dialogue on national security, everyone from undergraduates to ambassadors. 

Women still do not have an equal voice on national security issues, but I hope that anyone looking to hear that voice will find these women a good place to start. 

Caitlin Fitz Gerald writes about security, civil-military relations, and international affairs at Gunpowder & Lead, and is currently turning Carl von Clausewitz’s On War into an illustrated children’s book. Her work has also appeared on CNN.com/GPS, Blogs of War, and various other outlets. You can find her on Twitter as caidid.

More in Career Advice