Kathleen Hicks, deputy under secretary of defense for strategy, plans, and forces, has served at the Pentagon off and on since 1993. But it was not until last February that she walked into a Defense Department office and found herself in a meeting in which all of the attendees were women. "It was the under secretary, a deputy, a military officer, and some career civilians. And, to a person, everyone around the table was female," says Hicks. After 15-plus years in the defense field, "It was absolutely stunning."
The ranks of American women in defense have grown over the years. Michele Flournoy, the under secretary of defense for policy, is the No. 3 civilian in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, outranking, in the Pentagon's complex organizational tree, all of the U.S. military combatant commanders, including Gen. David Petraeus. Women now make up 37 percent of the Defense Department's civil labor force and about 12 percent of its active-duty military ranks.
It has been a gradual shift, and many of the women in the building today have stories to tell about their early Pentagon years. In 1997, Hicks, then 27, recalls landing at a Marine base on Okinawa in Japan as part of a Pentagon delegation. "We got off the plane, and a Marine general officer shook our hands. Then someone stepped up to me and said, 'We have a car waiting for you, Ms. Hicks. You're going on a shopping trip with the spouses.' I stood there thinking, protocol-wise, what do I do in this situation?"
Hicks adds that it's possible that even though the base's brass knew who she was, they still assumed she would want to go shopping. "You don't even begin to know what they're thinking." The general she was traveling with stepped in and said he was certain that Hicks, as the subject matter expert, would opt to skip the shopping.
Coming up together in the defense world, from the Pentagon to Washington think tanks and back again, Hicks and her female peers often called upon one another for advice and insight. Christine Wormuth, the principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for homeland defense and Americas' security affairs, worked with Hicks and Flournoy at the Pentagon in the 1990s. Back then, she says, as a relatively small group of women in defense policy, they would brainstorm about their jobs and how to balance work with family.
Pregnant pause. They commiserated as well, and liked to joke that being a woman in the Pentagon was much like being a talking dog—an impressive anomaly that colleagues often didn't know quite how to handle. One of their favorite stories, Wormuth says, involved the 1997 Quadrennial Defense Review when Flournoy was "very pregnant" with her first child. "QDRs are often very contentious processes here in the department. Michele was calm but was having a very intense discussion with a one-star general." The general "very much wanted to get in her face and use his physical size to intimidate her," Wormuth recalls. But he couldn't: "Her stomach was blocking him."
Colleagues describe Flournoy as both relaxed and supremely competent, and few were surprised when President Obama tapped her to head the Pentagon policy shop. "We were always trying to figure out her secret," says Janine Davidson, deputy assistant secretary of defense for plans. A former Air Force pilot and the first woman to fly C-130 planes, Davidson jokes that women in the building often sigh and say, "If only we could be more like Michele. We tell male colleagues, 'You know, we're not all like that. We're not all that calm. Some of us yell.' "
It's a relief, Davidson says, that "with this many women in the building, you're allowed to have your own personality, your own style. When I was the only woman flying C-130s, whatever I did spoke for all women."
Davidson recalls her first assignment on Okinawa, when she was the only woman in her squadron. "The guys all treated me like their kid sister. That wouldn't be tolerable for me today, but I was 23, and it worked out." She had been told that the enlisted men in the flight crew wouldn't accept her. "What I learned right away," she says, "is that when you demonstrate you're competent, they're fine."