Women Have Made Progress in National Security Leadership Positions

But there's still a long way to go, Paula Broadwell, Deepti Choubey , and Laura Holgate write.

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Women's leadership in international security is moving from the sidelines to center court, but the bench is not deep enough, and too many women are taking themselves out of the game.

Recent headlines lead one to believe that we should award U.S. policies an A for inclusiveness, yet empirical evidence suggests we still have a way to go: Multiple studies on women in national security have illuminated concern about the progression of women into senior leadership positions. Many of the studies question whether women face either real or perceived barriers to reaching the highest ranks.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the David Petraeus Scandal.]

Indeed, women are playing an increasing role in international security—inspiring examples abound. In the military, Army General Ann Dunwoody became the first female four-star general in U.S. history; Gov. Janet Napolitano of Arizona was recently designated by President-elect Barack Obama to defend the homeland; in diplomacy, we applaud both Susan Rice, the second-youngest U.S. ambassador-designate to the United Nations, and Sen. Hillary Clinton, a historic presidential contender and current secretary of state-designate. These women follow in the footsteps of leaders such as presidential counterterrorism adviser Frances Townsend and Secretaries Condoleezza Rice and Madeleine Albright, who have exemplified the eloquent, formidable, and credible force that women can bring to the arena of international security. Could their careers foreshadow a tipping point for women's involvement in international security, or do we still have a hill to climb?

Problems remain. Women in International Security at the Center for Peace and Security Studies at Georgetown University examined the status of women working in leadership positions in international security institutions, including the United Nations and key agencies of the U.S. Government. The study found that in the United States, as well as the international community at large, equal representation is not yet a reality. Women comprise over half of the U.S. population yet hold nowhere near that proportion of leadership positions in security sectors.

It is not that the pipeline supply is waning. Women presently make up 14 percent of the armed services but only 5 percent of active Army general officers. According to a 2007 report from the College of William and Mary, women are receiving political science degrees in record numbers (more than half of university students in international affairs-related programs are women), but female representation among political science faculty still lags—only 26 percent of the 13,000 political science professors in the United States today are women. There is an obvious disconnect between supply and demand.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Afghanistan.]

The supply exists. For more than 20 years, Women in International Security has worked to promote this pool of talented women through inclusion and leadership in U.S. foreign policy, defense, and international peace and security arenas, by providing development, networking, and mentoring facilities. It is the only global network actively advancing women's leadership, at all stages of their careers, in the international peace and security field. With membership over 1,700 and 47 countries represented, the group this year developed a "Plum Book" of candidates from its network for consideration for federal sector positions in the new administration. This list promises to be an ongoing resource to identify qualified women.

Women's visibility matters, so something must change in the equation. Those maintaining low expectations for promotion to high levels will fail to aspire to elite positions and fail to work in a manner that would enable them to achieve such a goal.

What will have to change? In the government, as in the private sector, women and men aspiring to high levels of leadership undeniably have to make choices and sacrifices to get there. Yet as one general officer stated in a survey, "Perhaps some redefinition of gender preconceptions is in order. After all, what could be more feminine than to want to protect and defend what one cares about?" Furthermore, just as the 2006 U.S. National Security Strategy advocates for a policy of female inclusion efforts to counter conflict situations globally, we must galvanize our own policy process to change and live up to what we preach. Inclusion and diversity of view, at home and abroad, is an inherent aspect of achieving our national security objectives.