Networks for Inclusion: Organizing for Women in the Security Sector
Despite women now comprising over half of graduate students in international affairs in the United States, progress toward gender equality in national security and foreign policy remains sluggish, especially at the leadership level. Undeterred, women have created multiple organizations to assist other women as they navigate the security sector, mentoring and helping them gain greater visibility in the field. After witnessing how the well-established networks of the national security and foreign policy sectors have prevented the success of deserving individuals, these women have created their own networks in order to chart new pathways to excel.
As part of a new series of articles examining diversity and inclusion issues in the U.S. national-security sector, I interview several leaders of such organizations. Their experiences reflect the ambivalent nature of networks to both exclude and include others. Their careers and diversity and inclusion work are reminders that inclusion is not simply about who is present or visible, but rather who participates in the meaningful interactions that give life to institutions.
"Inclusion is not simply about who is present or visible, but rather who participates in the meaningful interactions that give life to institutions."
Networks are brought to life by daily interactions and social relations leveraged to accomplish goals. In the context of diversity and inclusion, the concept of networks raises a deeper question about the relationships we establish and maintain and the larger effects of how we socialize with one another. Beyond being tools for advancement, networks also provide a useful lens to think about the common experiences that unite the women of these organizations, the nature and persistence of the challenges to diversity and inclusion, and the work still to be done.
The foundation of the organizations looked at here, like that of most strong networks, is a shared sense of experience, identity, and goals. Their leaders are motivated by a common experience of being outnumbered and wanting to see more people who looked like themselves. The experiences of Camille Stewart, co-founder of the Diversity in National Security Network, after beginning her career in national security during the Obama administration reflect a common reality for many women in the sector. She says: “It became very clear that there weren’t a lot of people who looked like me or had my perspective within the walls of those organizations. I was literally physically closed out of conversations by white males that I worked with on my team.” Stewart says she felt a personal sense of duty to help other women advance in the field, posing a question that is echoed by the other leaders interviewed: “If I didn’t take part in doing it, who would?”
Beyond the personal experience of being outnumbered, there was a unanimous desire to address what was seen as a pressing security issue; in short, the networks that dominate national security are not fit for the task. Stewart explains that there are levels of harm when national-security personnel is not reflective of a country’s diversity: “One, solutions aren’t reflective of the lived experiences of the people on the ground. Two, the voices and lived experiences that our broad range of citizenry bring allow for innovation and agility which we cannot have if everyone making the decisions have gone to the same schools, have similar upbringings, are of the same gender, etc. Also, we don’t show up on the world stage in the same way when we aren’t reflective of the diversity that America has. It sends a visual representation of the things we say we embody and encourage other nations to embody.”
"The networks that dominate national security are not fit for the task."
Additionally, most of the leaders interviewed pointed to studies of corporate boards and the importance of having women at the table at peace negotiations to support their case for gender equality. Chantal de Jonge Oudraat, president of Women in International Security Global, recounts: “There have been quite a lot of studies both in the economic sector and political sector that show that if you have more diverse voices at the table, you get more innovation, you get more creativity. Diversity is good for the bottom line. In the peace and security arena, research has shown that if you have more women at the peace negotiating table, the likelihood of your peace agreement being more effective, more stable and lasting is much greater.”
The entrenched networks of national security and foreign policy often encourage a reliance on close ties and familiar social markers that exclude newcomers and outsiders. Bonnie Jenkins, founder and executive director of Women of Color Advancing Peace and Security, asserts that, despite the progress being made, “the culture still hasn’t changed enough, which can impede the sustainability of all of our efforts to be more inclusive.” For Corinna Hӧrst, co-founder of the Brussels Binder Initiative and former president of the Brussels chapter of Women in International Security (and deputy director of GMF’s Brussels office), the issue of networks is “entrenched habits, we need someone to speak on XYZ and we first think about the people we know.”
The shared experiences that lead to the foundation of networks can also work to exclude those without them. Asha Castleberry, co-founder of the Diversity in National Security Network, flags a bias toward those of particular backgrounds: “A lot of us forget that classism also plays a part in this too. When you come in with a certain type of credentials, whether you went to an Ivy League school or you’re rich enough to throw money at an institution to help you promote your work, that really helps in this field.”
Women face a unique challenge in this field according to Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley, co-chair of the Leadership Council for Women in National Security: “I think a barrier in the national security sector for women —even more than minorities—arises because women are not the image in people’s minds when they think of ‘national security expert’. It doesn’t feel naturally our space. There are still so few of us in this area, that we are still a black swan walking into a room of white swans.” The burden to make space for oneself and establish credibility is heavier when one is greeted with skepticism. It is hard to avoid feeling as if “you’ve got the weight of your gender or color on your back for everything you say and how you comport yourself and how good your ideas are. We don’t have the space that white men have to fail, to make a mistake, to misstep and be retrieved.”
Networks have the power to grant space to individuals and organizations function to boost women’s sense of belonging in the sector. They can be a source of courage to speak up and advocate for oneself, which multiple women flagged as crucial to increasing gender equality. Hӧrst opines: “It’s also on the individual, women daring to speak up and feeling comfortable to step forward and say: ‘I have a view on this, and it deserves to be recognized.’ It’s also about self-confidence and developing the professional skills to feel more adept to speak up.” Kim Kahnhauser Freeman, executive director of the Women’s Foreign Policy Group, also illustrates the consequences of not putting oneself forth for opportunities: “Women can’t wait to be asked. If they remain silent when others volunteer, it will damage their chances of advancement.”
Networks also help us consider the role of leadership in provoking institutional change and explain the gap between talk and action on diversity and inclusion. The women interviewed highlighted the importance of leadership, but also noted the limitations of relying on leadership to create lasting change. One limit is the focus on operational priorities that can render diversity and inclusion talk mere lip service. Maureen Russell, director of business development of Emissary, points out the difficulty in “trying to get a bunch of operations team leads to pause in the middle of things they think are very important and say: ‘We really need to look at how your team’s hiring practices are going, if you’re making things accessible.’ It’s not that they don’t care, some of them don’t, some do but it’s just that they have to go and that stuff gets left behind. So that will always be a gap.”
"Networks also help us consider the role of leadership in provoking institutional change."
Beyond the focus on daily priorities, leaders’ impact can be limited despite their personal dedication to diversity and inclusion. Abercrombie-Winstanley warns: “When you get a political appointee who might be intent on improving diversity numbers, as was Colin Powell at the Department of State, that political appointee can do, in fact, very little. If you don’t implement something permanent in the way the institution works, whatever changes you’ve made are only temporary. If the institution wants to regurgitate and banish them as soon as you go, that’s exactly what happens.” Diversity and inclusion efforts must be taken seriously throughout the institution and cannot be the purview of a few.
Reta Jo Lewis, GMF’s director of congressional affairs and founder of the Women of Color in Transatlantic Leadership Network argues that diversity and inclusion is the business of everyone: “Institutions do not change unless there are people inside of the institution that are willing to speak out and to participate in the change.” Numbers make the difference because, as Abercrombie-Winstanley explains: “One voice can’t change it. Even two are going to have difficulty. You need to have a sufficient presence to ensure your points of view are not seeming to come from the moon or from out of leftfield. Impact requires that there are people at the table who are at least in the same universe as you to amplify and reinforce your position as you put forward options, solutions, and recommendations.”
Insofar as change involves an institution-wide effort, the biggest obstacle to increased diversity and inclusion remains the exclusionary power of entrenched networks. For many, inclusion still equates to a loss of power, and for Oudraat that may have to be the case: “In the long run, having diversity, inclusion, equity is good for all of us, but in the short term, yes, some people will have to give up their seats because you can’t continuously add on people.” If diversity and inclusion mean short-term loss for some, how does one gain wide-scale buy-in? Some of the women interviewed have chosen to reframe the issue of gender equality to avoid having the topic dismissed as solely a women’s issue. Oudraat frames the issue by saying: “Everybody has a gender, and there are even more than two genders. We have to recognize that when we’re talking about gender we’re talking about the balance between these genders, the expectations attached to certain genders and examining what that means for international peace and security issues.” Hӧrst says that men must also participate in conversations about gender equality because “you can’t always have women asking for gender diversity, you also need to have the men come forward and say this.”
The organizations’ most widely adopted strategies and tactics revolve around data (such as gender audits and surveys to assess gender equality institutionally) and visibility (utilizing lists, social media savvy, and events to increase the presence of women experts on security and foreign policy.) Lewis argues that “the only thing that moves this from a talking point to reality is the data. If you have five seats and nobody is a woman or nobody is a person of color, there’s something wrong with that. If you say you have five seats and you can’t find anybody, go find them because they are out there.” The claim of not being able to find diverse participants has propelled several organizations to compile lists of experts to speak about the wide range of security and foreign policy issues.
"The organizations’ most widely adopted strategies and tactics revolve around data and visibility."
Garnering media attention is key to gaining interest in the security sector among the next generation for Castleberry: “Another reason why there’s a lack of diversity in national security is the fact that you don’t really see diverse professionals talking about these issues and that prevents inspiring younger people to do the same thing.”
The greatest downside to networks, even those working in the name of diversity and inclusion, is the danger of perpetuating exclusion. While women continue to be locked out of opportunities in national security and foreign policy, women of color specifically have experienced even longer histories of exclusion. Speaking of the challenges of African Americans in particular, Abercrombie explains: “We come from further behind because we didn’t get a start at the same time...that access to education, to making connections, to links, to sponsors did not start at the same time for African Americans, so we are behind and need extra help to navigate this space.”
The unique challenges faced by women of color have unfortunately created cleavages among some organizations working on behalf of women. Castleberry admits: “There’s a gap, I would say, with women of color versus white women. There are white women that work with women of color, but there are some that need to work on this issue. They can’t just work among each other; they must open up. We have to work collectively. When we say women, we mean all women, not just a certain set of women.” Networks rely on a certain level of social comfort to facilitate strong ties. However, to further inclusion, there also must be space for the discomfort of the new and different. Thus, the lens of gender analysis opens the door to a larger discussion of intersecting identities across race and ethnicity, class, able-bodiedness, generation, religion, and other dimensions.
Ultimately, each of the organizations mentioned here provides a necessary space for women to connect in ways their jobs often do not offer. Lewis affirms that people “need to get together to be in a collaborative network around the work that they do, and there’s nothing like being in a supportive professional network around people that encourage and empower each other.” Beyond providing support, coaching, mentoring, and sponsorship to make national security and foreign policy reflective of society’s diversity, the greatest potential of these organizations lies in the networks they are creating between the leaders who will drive the progress of diversity and inclusion efforts.
Expanding these networks can therefore amplify the calls for institutional commitment to inclusion. As Bonnie Jenkins states: “It’s important that all of these organizations find a way to connect and work together. We must be good at collaborating and working together on these issues because we can also burn ourselves out with everyone working hard to make important changes. I think if we work together, we have a better chance at success because there’s strength in numbers.”
Diversity in National Security Network: A coalition of national security and foreign policy practitioners providing a platform to feature diverse voices and help those seeking national security talent as they plan events and do research.
The Brussels Binder Initiative: A database of female policy experts that is a go-to resource for improving gender diversity in policy debates.
Emissary: A women-owned small business focused on providing operational, analytical, and staff-augmentation services to the U.S. intelligence community and Department of Defense.
Women in International Security: An organization sponsoring leadership training, mentoring, and networking programs as well as substantive events focused on current policy problems.
Women’s Foreign Policy Group: An organization that advances women’s leadership in international affairs and amplifies their voices through substantive global issue discussions and mentoring. Of women at every stage of their careers.
Women of Color, Advancing Peace, Security and Conflict Transformation: A platform devoted to women of color that cultivates a strong voice and network for its members while encouraging dialogue and strategies for engaging in policy discussions on an international scale.
The Leadership Council for Women in National Security: A group of senior women in national security providing the public leadership and specific benchmarks to improve gender diversity and fight unconscious bias in the field.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.