Women push for greater role in the national security establishment

Leadership Council for Women in National Security is making it a campaign issue

Former Air Force secretary Heather A. Wilson introduces Air Force Gen. John Hyten, during his confirmation hearing Tuesday to be vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Wilson has advocated more diversity in the national security apparatus. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Former Air Force secretary Heather A. Wilson introduces Air Force Gen. John Hyten, during his confirmation hearing Tuesday to be vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Wilson has advocated more diversity in the national security apparatus. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted August 1, 2019 at 6:00am

Many women in the country’s emerging class of national security and foreign policy leaders came into their fields assuming the sexism that stifled careers in earlier generations was a thing of the past.

They quickly learned, however, that the upper ranks of the country’s national security apparatus was still very much a boys club.

In June, they decided to do something about it.

Emboldened by the number of women running for public office and a renewed focus in American politics on women’s rights and equality in the workplace, a group of veterans from the Defense Department, State Department and elsewhere asked every 2020 presidential candidate to pledge to strive for gender parity at top posts at the nation’s security agencies.

The hope, they say, is to tap into a deep, under-utilized bench of talent to create diverse teams that produce better results.

And the nascent group — the Leadership Council for Women in National Security — has vaulted the issue out of think-tank conference rooms and on to the campaign trail.

Fifteen Democratic presidential hopefuls — including former Vice President Joe Biden, as well as Sens. Kamala Harris of California, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bernie Sanders of Vermont — have signed on to the #5050in2020 initiative.

“Our national security institutions should reflect the diversity of the country they serve and represent. I was proud to sign the #5050in2020 Pledge for Gender Parity,” Warren tweeted July 1.

Of the 57 civilian positions at the Defense Department requiring Senate confirmation, five are currently filled by women. (Two others, including Air Force Secretary Heather A. Wilson, were confirmed but have since left their posts.)

The numbers are a little better at the State Department, where of the 57 non-ambassador positions, 15 are occupied by women (with another three who have resigned since being confirmed).

While many of the pledge’s supporters maintain that progress on achieving gender parity has largely been lost under President Donald Trump, the current administration’s record is roughly comparable to — and, in some areas, better than — its predecessors.

In fact, as of November 2018, the Trump administration fielded more women in top roles at the Pentagon (six) than the Obama administration did (five) at the end of its eight years in office.

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Political pressure

The diverse makeup of the 2020 presidential field, which has a record number of women running to be the next commander in chief, is a primary driver for the group, commonly referred to as LCWINS.

Those candidates “understand what it is to try to govern while female,” said Mieke Eoyang, vice president in charge of the national security program at the left-of-center think tank Third Way and a member of the LCWINS steering committee.

They have, she said, been interrupted in meetings, not given full credit for their ideas and had people assume they were assistants.

But it’s not just the candidates who are making women a central narrative of the 2020 election.

Daniel Drezner, a professor of international politics at Tufts University who is also a member of LCWINS’ steering committee, said fair treatment of women resonates widely with the electorate, particularly now.

“You can make the argument that it’s both good politics and good process to commit to this,” he said, adding that as long as Trump — whose attitudes toward women, including accusations of sexual assault and a recent racist Twitter tirade against four minority congresswomen, have long been in the spotlight — is president, these issues are going to be in the ether.

“Since Trump’s election, we’ve seen story after story of men in powerful positions exploiting that power at the expense of women,” he said. “Leveling the playing field, which is all LCWINS is calling for, is one way to address the problem.”

The military has grappled with its own sexual assault epidemic, which was on display Tuesday when Trump’s nominee to be the next vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. John Hyten, denied at a hearing that he had sexually assaulted a subordinate. Hyten’s accuser, Col. Kathryn A. Spletstoser, sat just feet away. An Air Force investigation did not substantiate Spletstoser’s allegations, and Hyten appears likely to be confirmed.

The issue is matched to this particular moment because people understand that the United States can’t afford to leave any national security talent untapped, said Heather Hurlburt, one of LCWINS’ six founders and the director of the New Models of Policy Change initiative at the New America think tank. Candidates are carefully courting the female vote, in part by embracing female voices and perspectives on national security.

“Every few [election] cycles, there is a cycle where the role of women in the American electorate is very clear. This is one of those cycles,” Hurlburt said.

A goal, not a quota

The group’s members are adamant that the push for parity is not about quotas. Rather, the idea is to get candidates to start thinking about building diverse teams now, long before the election.

“This is not diversity for diversity’s sake,” the Third Way’s Eoyang said. “All of us firmly believe that diversity leads to greater effectiveness.”

While the support has been exclusively from Democratic campaigns thus far, LCWINS’ organizers say they have contacted the Trump campaign, which has yet to respond. The campaign did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

Michèle Flournoy, who served as the Pentagon’s policy chief under President Barack Obama, said she, like other supporters of LCWINS, has made an effort to support and nurture the careers of younger women in national security, where one job can be a springboard for the next.

“Now that that generation is ready for the next level, qualified women should be competitive to have more of a 50-50 split,” Flournoy said. “The talent pipeline has matured, and there’s no excuse not to have highly qualified women candidates on every short list.”

Flournoy points to substantial research concluding the benefits of diversity.

“When you bring it into the public sector, there’s a moral dimension to it,” she said. “Don’t we want in a democracy a cadre that looks more like the country, and don’t we want to tap into the full talent pool?”

Wilson, who stepped down as Trump’s Air Force secretary in May, is not involved with LCWINS from her perch as incoming president of the University of Texas at El Paso. But she said she sees the value of “making sure that you reach out further than just the people that you golf or play poker with.”

A member of the third Air Force Academy class to admit women, Wilson spent seven years as an officer before her 1998 election to the House, where she represented New Mexico as a Republican. Throughout her career, Wilson has seen women underrepresented in the national security sector.

“Leaders today are pretty well aware that if they want to have success, if they want a high-performing team, it has to be a diverse team,” she said. “The biggest mistake that most senior leaders make is hiring people like them.”

In an unusual twist, Wilson returned to Capitol Hill this week to introduce Hyten, standing by the Air Force’s findings in the investigation. She called Spletstoser a “wounded soldier who believes that what she is saying is true, even if it is not” — a statement that was blasted by victims’ advocates.

Rep. Tom Malinowski, a New Jersey Democrat who spent time on President Bill Clinton’s National Security Council and later served as a senior State Department official during the Obama administration, said the lack of diversity now is obvious to anyone who has seen a photo of Trump surrounded by white men.

“That’s not who we are. It suggests we’re not actually getting the best talent in the room, and we’re certainly not putting forward the right image of America to the world,” said Malinowski, who is a member of LCWINS’ honorary advisory committee. The 2020 election is an opportunity to fix that, he said.

Rep. Elissa Slotkin, a former CIA analyst and Defense official who is also on the group’s committee, said the effort keeps gender parity in the forefront of voters’ minds.

Progress “hasn’t happened by accident. Almost none of the diversity issues we have get dealt with by doing nothing,” the Michigan Democrat said.