Women In National Security For years, women have fought for inclusion in the national security sector. Now, there's a movement to organize those efforts and to show the risks involved when women are left out.

Women In National Security

Women In National Security

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For years, women have fought for inclusion in the national security sector. Now, there's a movement to organize those efforts and to show the risks involved when women are left out.


Women are making some progress in a field where progress has been slow - national security, an area long dominated by men. Here's NPR's Hannah Allam.

HANNAH ALLAM, BYLINE: Picture a national security expert talking about sanctions against Iran or cyberattacks from China. Mieke Eoyang has a pretty good idea of the image that comes to mind.

MIEKE EOYANG: White, male and wearing Brooks Brothers.

ALLAM: In other words, not her. Eoyang is an Asian American woman who leads the national security program at the Third Way think tank. And like just about every woman in her field, she knows what it's like to be overlooked in rooms where high-stakes decisions are made about how to keep the country safe.

EOYANG: It's everything from showing up at the meeting where you're the principal and people assuming that you're there to make the coffee, to having your junior male colleague assumed to be the person who is actually in charge.

ALLAM: A couple years ago, a group of women began meeting to share those frustrations.

TAMARA COFMAN WITTES: We said, look; all of us have achieved a certain degree of professional success. How can we use the platforms we have to boost more women into senior roles?

ALLAM: That's Tamara Cofman Wittes, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. The talks led to last week's launch of the Leadership Council for Women in National Security. Their first move was asking every 2020 presidential candidate to pledge gender parity in national security posts if elected. So far, 15 - all Democrats - have committed.

COFMAN WITTES: It's not about the idea that women bring a specific set of policy ideas. It's about the idea that when your problem-solving team is of all one type, then you're not going to get the diversity of ideas you need to make the best decisions.

ALLAM: The absence of women is most glaring in the top-tier posts. There's never been a female secretary of defense. CIA director Gina Haspel is the first woman in that role. In a rare public speech, Haspel said her career shows there's space for women at the CIA.


GINA HASPEL: The head of operations is a woman. The head of analysis is a woman. The head of science and technology is a woman. You might sense a conspiracy here, but...


HASPEL: Our general counsel's a woman.

ALLAM: Women still face many obstacles. For one, they're only now starting to see the payoff from being allowed into combat roles, earning battlefield experience that could help them advance to defense leadership. Eoyang again.

EOYANG: What we're starting to see now are the first generation of women who entered national security after those bans were lifted being old enough to be senior in this field. This is an inflection moment.

ALLAM: Perhaps nobody has harnessed the moment like Maggie Feldman-Piltch. With her trademark purple hair and long, decorated nails, she stands out in Washington's buttoned-up national security circles. And she's paid a price for that, like the day she wore a bright pink pantsuit to a Senate confirmation hearing. Capitol police mistook her for a Code Pink protester and hauled her out.

MAGGIE FELDMAN-PILTCH: I was mortified. It was in front of people that I have spent my whole young life idolizing - generals, former secretaries of defense.

ALLAM: Experiences like that are why she founded a company that supports women in national security. It's called NatSecGirlSquad. She makes no apologies for using girl in the name.

FELDMAN-PILTCH: Beyonce says it, so it's fine.

ALLAM: She, along with other groups, built a brain trust of thousands that defies the old excuse of, there's no pool of qualified women candidates.

FELDMAN-PILTCH: These are women who know what they signed up for, and we're not looking for anybody to give us more than we are due. But we want what's ours.

ALLAM: An old demand now backed up by a squad.

Hannah Allam, NPR News, Washington.

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