September 15, 2017

The Power of Example

Voices from the Field

When I chose a career in foreign policy and national security, I never considered the fact that I was entering a historically male-dominated profession. In a purely abstract way I was keenly aware of the continued gender imbalance among decisionmakers who influence national security, but I never thought about my own gendered role in that field, or that anyone might see me as a woman in national security. I was simply a young, driven woman who entered the State Department in the good company of many other young, driven women.

Voices From the Field Series

The Voices from the Field series is designed to feature timely analysis gleaned from current or former U.S. government practitioners who have recently served either overseas in strategic areas of the world or who have participated in critical policy deliberations. This series also highlights observations and current assessments based on field research conducted across the globe by CNAS experts.

But I soon noticed a common response when I first met my male foreign counterparts, usually along the lines of: “You’re a woman, and you look so young – you must be very smart.”

Comments like these reflected that my male interlocutors were still not accustomed to encountering women in professional settings, especially ones dealing with foreign policy and national security. And of course, they thought they were paying me a compliment.

But such comments reflect several problematic undercurrents: 1) that it was remarkable for a woman to be holding the positions I occupied; 2) that it was remarkable for a woman in such positions to appear young and – might I say – stylish, neither wearing baggy suits nor having her hair in a matronly bun; and 3) that only by being unusually smart could a woman, who looks young, come to occupy such a position (or the more nefarious interpretation that some of my colleagues faced – that they must have been sleeping with someone to obtain their position).

Unfortunately, such remarks were a hallmark of my initial encounters with foreign counterparts during my 11 years of service at the State Department and National Security Council. I had some incredible opportunities – from participating in the Six-Party Talks on North Korea’s nuclear program, to being part of a small team negotiating a presidential joint statement for a state visit with China, to planning and joining summits between President Barack Obama and his South Korean and Chinese counterparts. With the championship of some great bosses and mentors, I moved relatively quickly up the ranks.

Those encounters with foreign counterparts made me aware that I was seen not only as a U.S. national security official, or as an expert on a specific issue, but also as a woman in that role.

In these roles, I spent a lot of time working with foreign diplomats, primarily Northeast Asian ones – many of whom continued to have a serious underrepresentation of women in their national security ranks. Good statistics are hard to come by (perhaps a sign in-and-of itself). However, using the percentage of women in cabinet positions as a measure, as of 2014, women made up just 6 percent of South Korea’s cabinet, 12 percent of China’s cabinet, and 22 percent of Japan’s cabinet. In a positive sign of progress, Seoul has just taken an important stride with the appointment of its first female foreign minister; Japan also recently had its second female defense minister.

Those encounters with foreign counterparts made me aware that I was seen not only as a U.S. national security official, or as an expert on a specific issue, but also as a woman in that role. Those comments made me instantly self-conscious that I was a woman, worried about whether or not I was dressed conservatively enough, and aware of how many other women were around me – or not. Such remarks made me feel added pressure, because I knew that perceptions of how well I did my job would reflect on other women. By simply doing my job, I was perceived as an ambassador for women in this field.

Normalizing Women’s Presence at the Table

What was most striking to me about those encounters was that, despite their initial reactions, my interlocutors nonetheless interacted with me based on my position and rank – quickly looking past the fact that I was a woman. In the formal and hierarchical world of diplomacy, the military, and national security, having defined ranks and roles means that titles are respected as carrying a certain authority, regardless of the incumbent. In the cognitive dissonance my interlocutors experienced, their reference point of the positions I held won out, and that was the rubric by which they interacted with me.

My participation as a young civil servant in the Six-Party Talks on North Korea’s nuclear program gave me an early window into this dynamic. Our six delegations – from the United States, Japan, South Korea, China, Russia, and North Korea – sat awkwardly around a hexagonal table the Chinese had constructed just for the occasion. Looking around that table, the gender balance (or imbalance) of the delegations was striking. Roughly half of the U.S. delegation was female, comprising a range of ranks, responsibilities, and expertise. The only other delegation that came close was China, which as the hosts had a larger delegation than the others. Others had a few women, though mostly as interpreters or support staff.

By our very composition, and by showing women were engaged by their counterparts just as our male colleagues were, the U.S. delegation was demonstrating to other countries that women could capably serve in these roles.

Over time, I realized this was a pattern.

When Iranian officials sat at the table to negotiate one of the most important diplomatic agreements of the past decade, they found themselves facing foreign counterparts with whom their customs precluded even a handshake. Senior female officials from the United States and EU played a key role in negotiating the Iran nuclear deal – U.S. lead negotiator Wendy Sherman; EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Lady Catherine Ashton and her successor Federica Mogherini; and deputy EU negotiator Helga Schmid were some of the highest-ranking foreign policy officials in their governments.

The Iranian negotiators had no choice but to interact with Sherman, Ashton, Mogherini, and Schmid based on their positions. These women were empowered by their governments to lead their delegations, and their teams showed them the respect that they deserved. Whatever reservations about their gender the Iranians may have had, they quickly learned that such gendered views would not help them and had no place at the table.

Sec. John Kerry, joined by Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, sits with EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Federica Mogherini, left, and British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, right, on July 9, 2015, in Vienna as the P5+1 member countries and the EU meet amid negotiations with Iranian officials about the future of their country's nuclear program.

U.S. Department of State

This is not something that happened overnight. Madeleine Albright, the first female U.S. secretary of state, frequently notes that one reason some people urged former President Bill Clinton not to nominate her for the position was the belief that Arab officials would not deal with her. History proved those critics wrong. Among many achievements during her tenure was securing Egyptian and Saudi support in 1997 for the Clinton administration’s Middle East peace efforts. In announcing the move that surprised many, then-Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah said, “This is what we always look for in an [American] administration – a Secretary of State who is brave and frank at the same time.” Reporters at the time noted that “her Saudi hosts made it clear that her gender was no impediment to their working with Washington’s chief diplomat.”

As women in these jobs, we have opportunities for teachable moments. Demonstrating sheer competence challenges perceptions, especially in countries where women have not been given the same opportunities. We break down stereotypes by normalizing the presence of women in these roles. While cognitive dissonance might still exist at first, eventually women’s presence just becomes a normal occurrence.

The Role of Others

But it’s not just women's titles or demonstrating competence that leads to our otherwise skeptical foreign counterparts accepting us. The actions of those around us – our bosses and our peers – have an important impact as well.

Bill Clinton ignored skeptics (listening in part to his spouse, Hillary Clinton, who championed Albright’s candidacy) and appointed Madeleine Albright as secretary of state, and she accepted his call. George W. Bush and Barack Obama followed suit and went further by also appointing female national security advisers. Because they did, women’s service in these positions became the rule, not the exception. Madeleine Albright highlights the significance of this in a story about her granddaughter, who at the age of seven asked her mother, “So what's the big deal about Grandma Maddy having been secretary of state? Only girls are secretaries of state.” As Albright observes, “[For] most of her lifetime, it's true. But at the time it really was a big deal.”

In my case, my success rested in part with the people who helped ensure that I had the opportunity to be in those situations in the first place – my bosses, mentors, and champions. In the formal world of government and national security, officials take their cues from those at the top – and that includes the top of foreign delegations. So my counterparts observed how my bosses engaged with me, trusted me, empowered me, gave me responsibilities – and hired me for those jobs in the first place.

And our foreign counterparts watched how my colleagues – my male colleagues in particular – engaged my female colleagues and me. They saw that we were part of the team. We weren’t serving coffee or assisting others; we were involved in the same way as our male colleagues were.

These conscious decisions to put women in meaningful, substantive roles and to empower them there – even at a junior level – play a crucial role in making clear that we belong.

In 2011, I was part of a small American team – and the only woman on it – that negotiated the presidential joint statement for Chinese President Hu Jintao’s state visit. Such documents encompass a wide breadth of issues, some very technical, and I worked with colleagues across the U.S. government to ensure that the language we pursued reflected our interests. I assembled binders of all previous such statements and key supporting documents. And at the table, even as the junior member of our team, the lead negotiator and the other members of our team consistently turned to or huddled with me for my input as we worked through these issues, knowing I had become an expert on them. Our Chinese counterparts no doubt took note.

These conscious decisions to put women in meaningful, substantive roles and to empower them there – even at a junior level – play a crucial role in making clear that we belong.

Pulling Each Other Up

Throughout my career, my female peers have also been an incredible source of strength and support. And we, too, have a role to play in normalizing the presence of women. In fact, in the best cases, female counterparts and colleagues build career-lasting bonds that help pull each other up.

Ask a woman in any profession about the most irritating gendered dynamic she experiences. Being interrupted or talked over by men, or having a man take credit for her ideas, will be consistently near the top of the list. This matters because recognition for contributions is critical for upward mobility.

My favorite example of women banding together to address these dynamics is a widely reported “amplification” technique that women at the National Security Council under President Obama employed. Women there deliberately echoed one another at the table, ensuring that their female peers were heard, and that their contributions were recognized.

President Barack Obama convenes an update on Ebola in the Situation Room of the White House on October 18, 2014.

Pete Souza/White House

Women in these positions often serve as role models to their female counterparts. Some women recount exchanging knowing looks or establishing backchannels with women on foreign delegations. In the presidential joint statement negotiations with the Chinese, my counterpart was a woman, and also the only woman on their delegation. As the experts on our respective delegations, we worked one-on-one through technical pieces of the language, which constituted large portions of the document, before returning to the table with agreed language for official approval. As the only two women in the negotiations, it felt like we had a particular interest in showing the men surrounding us what we could achieve.

Progress Report

So how is the United States doing at promoting women up the national security ranks? Let’s use the U.S. foreign service as an example. According to the American Foreign Service Association, as of March 2016, 40 percent of foreign service officers were women, and women made up 35 percent of foreign service positions across all agencies. However, according to the same study, women fall off at senior ranks, holding only one-third of chief-of-mission positions, for example, and only 31 percent of senior State Department positions; in both cases, a number of women occupying those positions are also appointed, meaning career women make up an even lower percentage.

The study also found that men and women had the same attrition rates. This indicates a disparity of promotion in higher ranks, which means fewer women are moved into senior positions. I worked for four Secretaries of State and two national security advisors, and in both cases, half were women. They were incredible role models, and they also made strides with filling appointed positions beneath them with equal numbers of men and women. But we need to ensure that career women have the same opportunity as their male colleagues to work their way up the chain.

Women have also made progress in the defense realm, but we still have further to go. Several women have served as under secretary of defense for policy – a critical role in the interagency policymaking process – and have served in other confirmed positions in increasing numbers. And there are some tremendous women coming up the ranks on both the civilian and uniformed sides. Opening all military positions to women who qualify will continue to ensure that female servicemembers have the same kinds of promotion opportunities to senior ranks as their male counterparts. But still, as of FY 2015, women made up just 16.8 percent of the total military force, an only marginal increase from 15.4 percent in 2000.

The intelligence community has also made significant strides, particularly in recent years, with women having served as deputy director of the CIA and deputy director of National Intelligence, and with women making up nearly one-third of the CIA’s Senior Intelligence Service. On the law enforcement and counterterrorism side, however, women continue to lag behind.

To date, beyond U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, the current administration has yet to nominate a single woman for a Senate-confirmed national security position. Many positions remain vacant, and there are many qualified women who could fill these roles. It would be a huge step backward if women were overlooked for these important jobs. And cutting programs that recruit women and minorities into the government’s ranks, as the State Department flirted with doing with the Rangel and Pickering programs, risk undoing much of the good work that has been done in recruiting and retaining a work force reflective of the country these officials serve.

These numbers matter because they set an example – for girls considering this field as a career, for men and women in the U.S. national security ranks, and for other governments’ national security officials. They matter for continuing the normalization of women in these roles. When we ensure that women are in the room and in meaningful, substantive positions, the United States is demonstrating its commitment to gender equality. And that is critical to backing up our rhetorical support for gender equality. When we advocate on behalf of women’s rights, it’s critical that we demonstrate our own commitment to it in tangible and visible ways.

Numbers Aren’t Enough

Creating a critical mass of women in this field also contributes to shifting cultural and structural barriers. I’ve experienced these dynamics myself. There was the time that a well-intending female boss told me I needed to be more careful about my attire after taking my suit jacket off late on a 100-plus degree July evening after the State Department air conditioning had been turned off. Or, early in my career, when I was debating whether to pursue the foreign service, I was counseled by colleagues on the poor dating options for women overseas. And I would occasionally find myself in a conversation punctuated by “locker room talk,” and would suddenly become aware that I was the only woman (and often the most junior person) in the room. (Following those conversations I often had to Google some of the crude jokes to find out what they meant – only to quickly regret doing so from a government computer.)

Or there are the simple logistical considerations that women face far more often than men. My favorite was when I was the only woman – on either delegation – who was part of a presidential summit where the dress code was defined as “jacket, no-tie.” As the notetaker and most junior-person, I wanted to ensure I hit the right mark, but struggled to interpret that male-defined dress code as I packed my suitcase. (I landed on a dress with a jacket, but to this day still don’t know the official female equivalent of a “jacket, no-tie” dress code.) When women travel to war zones, they need to take different footwear (heels can be dangerous, for example, if your convoy hits an IED and you need to evacuate a vehicle quickly), and they struggle to find body armor that fits them.

While the United States has made progress, many other countries have a long way to go. Some governments don’t allow women to serve in “hardship” posts – usually positions in dangerous locations – yet consider service in such positions as a factor in promotions and placement in top jobs, thereby structurally disadvantaging women. Seeing American women ably serving in these positions can help demonstrate that such rules against doing so are unnecessary. The powerful example of women serving in U.S. national security positions does more to shift stereotypes and provide models for both men and women in other countries than any démarche on gender equality ever could.

The Commander-in-Chief Test

But women’s full participation in national security matters on a broader level as well. Experience on national security has long been considered important for those seeking elected office; it’s a box that needs to be checked for potential presidential candidates in the United States.

In fact, while the United States fell short of electing a woman to its highest office of the land last year, we did successfully shatter the idea that a woman could not pass the commander-in-chief test. In both CNN and Fox News exit polls from the 2016 presidential election, Hillary Clinton won on the questions of both who would be a better commander-in-chief (49-46 over Donald Trump) and on who would better handle foreign policy (53-42 over Donald Trump). Clinton’s strength on these issues was bolstered by her time and effectiveness on the Senate Armed Services Committee and as secretary of state.

If we mean it when we tell little girls that they can be anything they want to be – including president – we must ensure that women are able to get the necessary experience to so – and that includes experience in national security. The good news is that the United States has a tremendous pool of talented women in national security. It’s important that, both inside and outside of government, we lift up women’s expertise in this field and ensure that they are represented in key positions – whether on panels, television, or senior government positions. Doing so is not only important for individual women’s careers, it’s critical for changing attitudes on women’s role in national security across the globe, and for ensuring that here in the United States, we will one day break that highest, hardest glass ceiling.

  1. World Economic Forum, “The Global Gender Gap Report,”;;
  2. Norman Kempster, “Arab Leaders Endorse Albright's Approach to Peace,” LA Times, September 14, 1997,
  3. Sarah Haight, “Madeleine Albright on diplomacy, her pins & Vegas,” W Magazine, September 30, 2009,
  4. Juliet Eilperin, “White House Women Want to Be in the Room Where it Happens,” The Washington Post, September 13, 2016,
  5. Loren D. Shulman (LorenRaeDeJ), "I was able to build back channels with women advisors in other governments. #natsecwomen 3C,” March 29, 2017, 6:34 a.m. Twitter.
  6. Andrea Strano, American Foreign Service Association, “Foreign Service Women Today: The Palmer Case and Beyond,”
  7. DoD, “2015 Demographics: Profile of the Military Community,”
  8. CIA, “Director’s Advisory Group on Women in Leadership,” 2013,
  9. Josh Rogin, “The State Department just broke a promise to minority and female recruits,” The Washington Post, June 18, 2017,


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