But while it’s true that women have made significant progress at the CIA, the glass ceiling is still firmly in place for many women, particularly in the clandestine service and at the top levels of leadership. Then-CIA Director David H. Petraeus was troubled to discover that of all the officers promoted to the Senior Intelligence Service last year, only 19 percent were women. He called for a serious review of internal CIA work culture to find out why.
That report, “CIA Women in Leadership,” headed by former secretary of state Madeleine Albright and released without fanfare on the CIA Web site this spring, called for “significant reforms.” It found that the CIA culture failed to sponsor and promote female officers, which “directly and negatively impacts the mission” of the CIA. Michele Flournoy, former undersecretary of defense for policy and an adviser to the task force that produced the report, said that far from a simple “work-life” debate, the CIA’s failure to promote or fully exploit the skills of female officers is a national security issue.
“This is a strategic issue,” she said. “If you’re routinely investing all kinds of resources and training up your workforce, and then, because we can’t figure out how to manage the work-life balance issues more effectively, we end up losing some percentage of that trained talent, that’s just a waste.“It’s going to hurt our standing in the world, our competitiveness and our ability to be a leader.”
Nada Bakos is a case in point.
Bakos spearheaded the CIA’s team that targeted and killed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the brutal al-Qaeda leader in Iraq. In her career, she’d worked long and hard to steadily move up the ranks of the spy agency’s Counterterrorism Center and the male-dominated clandestine service. But then she left. “I didn’t have a lot of options at the time to make it work for me and my family,” Bakos said of one of the reasons for her departure. “I would love to see a shift from the way assignments are traditionally handled to accommodate the needs of both working spouses.”
Recent popular movies such as “Zero Dark Thirty” and the HBO documentary “Manhunt” have highlighted the crucial role that female intelligence analysts — dubbed “The Sisterhood” — played in finding and capturing Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders. Michael Scheuer, who headed Alec Station, the CIA’s first unit dedicated to finding bin Laden and unraveling the tangled network of al-Qaeda, said that of about 23 analysts working for him, the vast majority were women.
Although he worked with many skilled analysts, he said, the women “were extraordinarily adept at both mastering the kind of detailed information that’s key to counterterrorism, but also very, very insightful in mapping out relationships,” he said. They also were focused and worked long and hard, he said. “I would have been happy to put up a sign outside my office that read, ‘No men need apply,’ ’’ added Scheuer, who resigned from the agency in 2004. “It’s flip. But there’s a large, large grain of truth to it.”
A common problem
In many ways, the dearth of women at the top levels of leadership at the CIA is not unlike the dearth of women at the top of any federal agency. Women make up 31 percent of the CIA’s Senior Intelligence Service and 33 percent of the entire federal government’s Senior Executive Service. In business and politics, women make up 14 percent of the executive officers at Fortune 500 companies and 18 percent of Congress.
Despite former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton’s efforts to shed light on gender inequity and the lack of female leaders at the State Department, little progress has been made. Women make up about 27 percent of the Senior Foreign Service. “We’re stuck,” said Susan Johnson, president of the American Foreign Service Association. “There’s long been a joke that the best Foreign Service officer is a single orphan with no pets and no possessions — in other words, someone who’s cheap to move around the world at the drop of a hat.”
Carol Evans, president of Working Mother Media, who has convened an annual conference for women in intelligence for four years, said the issues that women face in intelligence or the corporate world are largely the same. “I did notice one difference,” Evans said. “There seemed to be more women in higher positions in intelligence who didn’t ever have children.”
Calls for change
Female officers at the CIA assert that the agency’s prestigious National Clandestine Service has changed little since the 1940s, when spies were either single or had someone else to take care of home responsibilities. The Albright report found that since Sept. 11, 2001, a growing number of jobs at the agency come with the expectation that officers will work 60 or more hours a week, putting women and other CIA officers with responsibilities outside the office at a disadvantage.
The report’s 10 recommendations include a call to open up informal Old Boy networks that are often the best sources of information about job openings, career advice and mentoring. They suggest that the agency not only actively groom women and other talented officers for leadership but clarify the criteria for promotions. Ultimately, the report urges the CIA, like many hidebound workplaces, to begin to recognize that the best workers are not necessarily the ones that work until they drop and that the path to the top need not be straight and narrow without leaves of absence to take care of children or parents, lateral moves or flexible arrangements.
In public remarks to staff members, CIA Director John O. Brennan said he fully supports the recommendations and has named a senior female officer in the clandestine service to oversee their implementation. Changing the agency culture may take years, Brennan said, but doing so would “ensure all employees have the opportunity to reach their full professional potential” and enable the agency to better meet its mission.
In focus groups and surveys of CIA officers, Albright said, she was surprised to find that men also contemplated leaving because of the demanding work culture. “There are clearly some Old Boys and an Old Boy system there,” Albright said. “But some of the younger boys didn’t want to be stuck in it. That, to me, was a real eye-opener.These recommendations are really a way of unlocking talent,” she added. Officers at the CIA “are completely dedicated to the mission. But they don’t have to become so single-minded about work that they don’t have a life.”