Over the last year, women in security have captured the public’s attention on the big screen as the lead characters in shows like Homeland and movies like Zero Dark Thirty. While the former is fictional and the latter is loosely based on the real hunt for bin Laden, both cull a sense of fascination with the intelligence community and place a spotlight on women protagonists. Clearly, portrayals on the screen are dramatized and may even misrepresent actual events, but the power of the media should not be lost – particularly at a time when the national security community is in dire need of more women in its ranks. Men and women may also bring different types of experiences and perspectives to understanding, identifying and ameliorating potential threats. In general, adding more women to the security workforce and making sure they advance to positions of leadership in the security community is critical – particularly in the realm of cybersecurity.
In a speech this fall, U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta warned of the potential for a “cyber Pearl Harbor.” The possibility of a large-scale cyberattack on American soil with physical ramifications and loss of American lives is a real one. Recently, the Pentagon released a report condemning the Chinese cyberattacks on a wide range of U.S. targets – both government and private. In his March 2013 Intelligence Community’s Worldwide Threat assessment, the Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, recently named the cyber threat as the number one threat to the United States. Just last week, U.S. officials also reported that cyberattacks on U.S. energy companies and infrastructure could be traced back to Iran. According to U.S. military officials, cyberattacks on critical U.S. infrastructure have increased 17-fold from 2007 to 2009. In 2011 alone, cyberattacks increased 40%. In the 2013 defense budget, cybersecurity is one of the few areas of defense spending projected to increase.
In response to the growing concerns over the cyber threat, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and other Washington, D.C. professional organizations and universities have ramped up recruiting and hiring for cybersecurity jobs. But to effectively fortify American cyberdefense, recruiters must focus also the efforts on recruiting more women for those positions. The U.S. can’t afford to neglect the talent and brain power of half its population if it expects to compete with populous countries with advanced cybersecurity capabilities, such as China and Russia. A homogenous workforce precludes the innovative and creative thinking that’s essential to the development of a new policy area, such as cybersecurity.
While women have made great strides in the realm of foreign policy, they remain underrepresented across the intelligence, defense, and security community. Women make up half the homeland, but they do not make up nearly half of the workforce responsible for protecting it. Even at the CIA, where the percentage of women is higher than at other agencies, a gap still exists at the more senior levels. For example, according to the CIA’s March 2013 Director’s Advisory Group Women in Leadership report, although women make up 46% of the CIA’s workforce, “as of October 2012, females constituted 31 percent of the Agency’s Senior Intelligence Service officers.” At other intelligence community agencies, the average is less than 30% in the senior executive positions.
Unfortunately, the cyber ceiling could widen this gap since there are generally fewer women in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. As a result, there are less women in the pipeline with the specialized skills required for certain cybersecurity jobs. Second, there are also significant misperceptions about careers in security and the backgrounds of value in this field. The field is not only in need of computer scientists, engineers or those interested in analyzing nuclear weapons and tanks. Cybersecurity work requires men and women from a variety of backgrounds such as international affairs, law, psychology and public policy. Awareness about the skills and backgrounds valuable in the cybersecurity realm might also help attract more women since women have been underrepresented in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. The numbers are quite alarming. In 2010, The National Center for Education Statistics reported only 18 percent of computer science undergraduates to be women. Karen Evans, the National Director of CyberChallenge, an organization whose mission is focused on the reducing the shortage of cyber professionals in the U.S., reported that only 22% of its participants in the Spring 2012 Cyberquests competition were women
Lastly, we need to work on expanding the base of female applicants with targeted social and cultural messages that change perceptions about women in national security and get younger women more interested in pursuing careers along this path. We need to change cultural and social perceptions and stereotypes about the types of individuals who are well equipped for these roles and alter the image of what it means to be a security professional in the 21st century. Dynamic and inspiring role models and mentors are critical.
Educational programs, government initiatives and scholarships designed to attract women to foreign policy and national security are extremely critical and must continue to serve as the pillars of strengthening the talent, expertise and diversity of our security workforce. However, we should not underestimate the role that less conventional approaches may be able to play in this effort. For example, television, magazines, books and public relations style campaigns can potentially play in inspiring women to pursue careers in national security. For example, back in 2004, the CIA employed Jennifer Garner, the star of Alias, in CIA ads and recruitment videos. Currently, each week almost 2 million people watch Homeland. Leveraging the recent popularity of shows like Homeland can also help spark interest in national security in the next generation.
Similarly, pulling together a bipartisan dream team of inspirational and high-profile women who have served in leadership positions in technology and foreign policy, to engage in a high-profile public relations campaign could help raise visibility to this issue. Featuring these women in profile pieces in media targeting young girls and teens, along with involving high-profile women who have portrayed national security professionals behind the cameras in an ad campaign or in in publications targeting women could help garner national attention to this issue. Lastly, simply getting more young women from these fields into classrooms around the nation and more visible in the media would go a long way in inspiring younger girls to be security leaders in the next generation.
In the nearer term, shattering the security ceiling requires the immediate mobilization of women into these careers and being committed to working on the various obstacles that have contributed the gender gap in security over the last few decades. Women should take the lead in this effort by both encouraging other women and stepping up to the plate to express interest in this area. Protecting the homeland requires that we tap not half of but all of the best and the brightest.
Tara Maller is a research fellow in the National Security Studies Program at the New America Foundation. Her current areas of focus include sanctions, diplomacy, intelligence, cybersecurity, terrorism and women in security. Previously, she worked at BrightWire Inc., a NY-based startup, where she served as the managing editor and managing director of Operations, Americas. In 2011, she received her Ph.D. in political science at MIT, where her dissertation focused on information collection, diplomacy and sanctions. During this time, she was an affiliate of MIT’s Security Studies Program and she served as research fellow in the International Security Program at the Belfer Center for Science & International Affairs at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Previously, Maller worked as a military analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency, focusing on the Iraq insurgency. She has published articles in The Washington Quarterly, Studies in Conflict and Terrorism and PS: Political Science and Politics. She has also written for foreignpolicy.com, CNN.com and The Huffington Post and has appeared on CNN’s Erin Burnett OutFront and Bloomberg’s Bottom Line. She graduated with a B.A. in government from Dartmouth College and received a M.A. in international relations from the University of Chicago. You can follow her on Twitter @TaraMaller.