Around the Table is a three-question interview series from the Make Room email newsletter. Each edition features a conversation with a peer in the national security community to learn about their expertise and experience in the sector.
Cori Fleser is a senior specialist at Forge Group LLC and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the position of Forge Group or the Atlantic Council.
What first inspired you to pursue a career focused on women, peace, and security (WPS) policy?
Gender and security has fascinated me since college but it took me a few years to establish my WPS career within the Department of Defense (DoD)—the positions didn’t exist at the time I finished grad school in 2011. During my undergraduate and graduate school career, I focused my research on the different impacts of conflict on people based on their gender and specifically the disproportionate impact of conflict on women. I had also worked on domestic gender issues at local nonprofits in Florida and Texas during the four years between undergrad and grad school in an effort to start my career on these issues but was missing the international security connection. It wasn’t until the first time I was on the Joint Staff in 2015, that I saw a clearer path to pursue WPS as a career option within the DoD. I attended a presentation at the National Defense University by the first military gender advisor at NATO Allied Command Operations. Her brief effectively operationalized all the theory I’d learned in school with actions for defense and military institutions. She was truly working at the nexus of gender and international security—putting the theory into practice—and this was definitely an “if you can see it, you can be it” moment in my career.
What are the most pertinent issues facing WPS today?
From a national security perspective, there are three issues I’d highlight. The first is the gendered impact of kinetic military capabilities on civilian populations. This is something civil society organizations have highlighted for years, and the DoD has a real opportunity to address it as it implements its civilian harm mitigation action plan. The second is the relationship between gender and climate change–accelerated security threats. We know the effects of climate change impact people differently and are a threat to international security. I think the next step is scoping the role of defense and military institutions in addressing the gender-climate-security nexus. This scoping will be difficult given the DoD's unique authorities but it is necessary. Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t emphasize the important role of WPS in out-competing China and constraining Russia. WPS is a framework that links gender equality to security outcomes. Upholding WPS commitments is one key way the United States and our allies help create the international world order where democracy, human rights, and the rule of law prevail.
What advice do you have for someone who is early in their career?
First, I'd say there is no one “right” path to be successful in your national security career. I think the national security sector is transitioning away from careers being 20 years at one organization. Many of us are making career moves between government organizations, academia, think tanks, and the private sector, for example. This means there is no linear trajectory that you should follow or a series of sequential steps that you must take in the “right” order to be successful in your career. Whether you are in grad school, an internship, or making a mid-career change, what you’re doing right now is a step in the right direction for your national security career that you will be able to draw upon in the future—even if it doesn’t feel that way right now. It is okay to not know what your full career path will look like.
Second, I'd recommend establishing work-life harmonization boundaries early on in your career that you can build upon later as your career progresses. I use the word harmonization here because work-life balance implies work and other things in your life are of equal weight and importance. For me personally, I realized this was not an accurate characterization, particularly once I had children (currently a 7-week-old and a 2-year-old). Whether its partners, friends, pets, hobbies—whatever it is that is important to you outside of your professional life—consider how you can adapt your professional life as much as you may be inclined to make your personal life adapt to the tempo of your career. Ask for flexible work arrangements, new benefits, salary increases, or changes in your portfolio, etc., to help you make room for the other priorities in your life.
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