Sexual Harassment In National Security Wendy Anderson, who worked in the Pentagon during the Obama administration, tells NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro why she signed an open letter about sexual harassment in the national security community.

Sexual Harassment In National Security

Sexual Harassment In National Security

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Wendy Anderson, who worked in the Pentagon during the Obama administration, tells NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro why she signed an open letter about sexual harassment in the national security community.


The #MeToo movement got a new hashtag this week - #metoonatsec - which is short for Me Too National Security. Over 200 women, from ambassadors to current and former members of the military, used social media to share an open letter written to spread awareness of sexual harassment and assault of women in the national security community. They say that sexual misconduct has created an atmosphere where they're held back or driven from their jobs. Among those who signed their name is Wendy Anderson. She was deputy chief of staff in the Department of Defense in the Obama administration. And she joins us from her home in Austin, Texas. Good morning.

WENDY ANDERSON: Good morning.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The letter says the culture in national security silences demeans belittles or neglects women, which is, I think, what you are speaking to. How pervasive is it, and how does it affect women's careers?

ANDERSON: It's pervasive and that doesn't mean that things haven't gotten better. But there's a full spectrum of behaviors. And we say this very clearly in the letter. On one spectrum, you have the harassment, the assault - god forbid - situations of rape. But there's also this other side of the spectrum - right? - where we say men in positions of power are often perpetrating, sometimes unconsciously, environments that do silence, demean, belittle or neglect women.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Can you give me an example?

ANDERSON: Jokes about women's appearances, about, you know, strippers or strip clubs, you know, all kinds of inappropriate comments, situations where you'd be in a room with very senior people, as I have been over the case of, you know, my many years at the Pentagon - and it was almost as if I became one of the guys. And I think that I tried to do that, to be honest with you, because it was a way of me feeling like I could level out a power dynamic. And it was always awkward. And it was always terribly uncomfortable. And to be honest with you, as strong as I think I am and as much of a dedicated and committed feminist as I have been for the entirety of my career, I was always surprised at how I chose not to address it in those set of circumstances.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And why do you think that was?

ANDERSON: Well, I think it's complicated, to be honest with you. I think part of it is that I wanted to appear strong. I wanted to appear as if I could suck it up and take whatever came my way with a sense of humor. I wanted to be taken seriously and not, you know, is one of those women who somehow was overly emotional or naggy or, you know, to complain about, you know, the things that were often said to me or in my presence about other women. And so for me, that was constantly an inner conflict that I was trying to manage. And frankly, there was a lot of productivity probably that went into having to manage that kind of thing that really is real.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Do you think that culture drove out women from the national security environment? I mean, women working in that sect are vastly outnumbered by men?

ANDERSON: There's no doubt. We all have our own red lines and our own saturation points that we get to with us. But there's absolutely no doubt. And I say that on the basis of - you know, of data because of women coming to me over time. And sometimes their reasons for leaving were cloaked in other things. But I think that very clearly for a lot of them who were willing to, you know, be a bit more forthright in why they were choosing to leave was the exhaustion.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What is the impact in your view when you don't have women in senior leadership positions? What do women bring to the table?

ANDERSON: There tends to be more inclusivity. There tends to be more transparency, you know, just a different kind of thinking about what security is that's just wider, you know? And this is more, you know, from the perspective of me having been in situations to literally see how the dynamic does shift when women are involved in conversations.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Was it hard to put your name to this publicly? Was it hard to talk about?

ANDERSON: You know, I love that you asked me that. I was thinking about that this morning. Yeah. It makes me feel vulnerable. It makes me feel also empowered - you know? - I think simultaneously. I want to be one of those people who says, hey, we've made some progress. But progress doesn't equal success here. I want to be one of those women who says, hey, this whole conversation is really hard. And I don't want to be read as somebody who's whining or, you know, can't quite keep it together and, you know, is now sort of just joining onto the bandwagon of other voices. But yet, I do want to be one of those women who's standing up and standing out and risking whatever future reprisals. Hopefully, there won't be any - but taking a risk. And it's a risk.

I've spent my entire career feeling very grateful to have it, you know, and being really proud of that and not wanting to somehow feel that, you know, at the end of all of this now what I'm doing is a sort of narrating the discomfort and all the challenges that I had pretty much on a daily basis as I was going through it, you know? So it's awkward. And I frankly couldn't have imagined that we would be at this stage in a set of conversations.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Wendy Anderson. She was deputy chief of staff in the Department of Defense during the Obama administration. Thank you very much for talking to me.

ANDERSON: Thank you.

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