The #NatSecGirlSquad conference is taking place at the Marriott Wardman Park in Washington, D.C. this week, and women and men across the national security community are gathering to talk foreign policy, inclusivity, and how to open the doors to the SCIF to competent workers in the national security space.
During a live recording of War on the Rocks’ Bombshell podcast, panelists Dr. Erin Simpson, Northrop Grumman, Dr. Radha Iyengar Plumb, Facebook, Amb. Anne Patterson (ret.), Yale Jackson Institute, Dana Stroul, Shelly and Michael Kassen Fellow at the Washington Institute, Dr. Kim Kagan, Institute for the Study of War, and Dr. Mara Karlin, director, Strategic Studies Program at JHU SAIS, gave both honest advice and serious professional feedback based on their roles as researchers, executives, and female leaders in national security. Here are just a few key takeaways from their live podcast recording, for all the #NatSecGirls:
1. Be Honest.
Dana Stroul outlined how she had a baby early in the process of developing a research study with fellow panelists. Having a new baby while conducting serious research was a chance to live out the notion of ‘balance’ in a national security career. Stroul noted multiple examples of how supportive her colleagues were in everything from baby-holding to pumping breast milk. And while the support was there, it also required her to ask for it.
“I got the support I needed when I was honest,” said Stroul.
Promoting a diverse workforce won’t happen if women just try to act like men – and it doesn’t create the thought diversity government is looking for. Be honest about what you need, and also be willing to ask for help.
2. Don’t pigeonhole yourself.
It’s great to be an expert – that’s what national security agencies and contracting employers are looking for. But don’t allow yourself to be stuck into a specific role.
“Find the right place to start,” advised Stroul, “Where your employer values you.” There are companies who value the diversity of their workforce, and are making promotion opportunities available. If a company isn’t supportive of you as an intern or entry-level employee, don’t expect them to dedicate any time to your professional development after you’ve ‘paid your dues.’
3. You’re better than you think.
Imposter syndrome came up multiple times, with some panelists noting the female propensity to discount their efforts. Iyengar Plumb encouraged attendees to own their effort, and also who they are. In the world of national security, where you disclose the most personal details on a 100-page security clearance form – there is an obvious expectation of authenticity.
“You do have to be yourself, and you kind of have to be the best version of yourself,” said Iyengar Plumb.
4. It’s okay to be a pain in the ass.
Not all women are created equally, and while the stereotype may be that women shy away from confrontation, that’s not everyone’s reality, noted Simpson.
“Own that in terms of your own personality, but also think about how you can use your willingness to Koolaid man into the wall,” said Simpson. “You might be able to use your zero force mindset to clear the way for some folks. You’re willing to be the first person through the wall, and that may pave the way for some other folks.”
Competent diversity takes many forms – it means men and women, it means diversity of experiences, it takes imposters and human tornadoes. If you have an ‘out there’ personality, be aware of that – but remember that your willingness to break the glass ceiling may be someone else’s chance to rise to the top without a scratch.
5. It takes a squad.
At the core of many conversations was the desire for professionals to see leaders at the top, in the positions where they want to be. How does that happen? Process improvements and hiring reform are obviously critical. But so are collaboration and community – and recognizing those who are ‘building and breaking’ to make national security careers more accessible, as #NatSecGirlSquad founder Maggie Feldman-Piltch noted.
The issue isn’t opportunities, and it certainly isn’t attraction – but to move the needle on hiring and retention, it will take women supporting women. If you don’t have a squad, or a mentor, find them. And don’t be afraid to ask for what you want.