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‘Our time is now.’ With Biden, women in national security see chance to fix imbalance

Joe Biden has pledged to change the landscape of the overwhelmingly white male-dominated world of national security. When Biden takes the oath of office on January 20, 2021, he will become the first president to have pledged to pursue gender parity in senior national security and foreign policy government positions.

“Our time is now. And, of course, overdue, but certainly now,” said Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley, the co-chair and founder of the Leadership Council for Women in National Security (LCWINS) and a former ambassador to Malta.

Abercrombie-Winstanley is among a group of women leaders who have worked at the State and Defense Departments and within the intelligence community who launched LCWINS in 2019, beginning with a pledge to pursue gender parity, nominate women to senior roles that have never before been filled by a woman, and ensure that women of color are well-represented in senior ranks. Biden has already begun living up to his pledge, in forming the agency review teams tasked with facilitating the transition: Both the State and Defense Department teams are majority female, and both are women-led.

While LCWINS is nonpartisan, many of the women on its masthead held leadership positions in President Barack Obama’s administration. They formed the organization in the wake of the #MeToo movement and the record-setting number of women who ran for and won seats in Congress in 2018. The group’s founders, seeking more equitable representation within their own field, organized in order to “provide the public leadership and specific benchmarks to improve gender diversity and fight unconscious bias” in national security, according to their mission statement.

The election of Donald Trump, Abercrombie-Winstanley said, helped galvanize them.

Eighteen Democratic presidential candidates, including Biden and Sen. Kamala Harris, who later dropped out of the race and then became Biden’s running mate, signed the group’s gender parity pledge.

President Donald Trump did not sign the pledge.

A 2018 study by the New America Foundation found that women made up less than 40 percent of the Trump administration’s senior State Department leadership, and less than 30 percent at the Department of Defense. Women were slightly better represented in those departments during the same period of the Obama administration, but the numbers were still lopsided.

The gender imbalance in national security, which includes foreign policy, defense and intelligence, has long favored men. Those looking to Biden to prioritize gender parity are not inclined to give him a pass simply because things in the White House were marginally more equal the last time he was there.

President Trump had a total of seven women serving in 23 Senate-confirmed Cabinet or Cabinet level positions over the course of his administration, according to the Center for American Women and Politics. The first term of the Obama administration saw eight women in those same 23 positions.

Those who support gender parity as a critical administration goal want it not simply as a talking point for organizations. Rather, they believe that more diversity, not just in terms of gender identity but also race, sexual orientation, physical ability and other bases leads to better outcomes.

“We need the best people at the table. And if you don’t have it reflecting the reality of our country, it cannot possibly be the best,” Abercrombie-Winstanley said.

More than half the Biden transition team members are women, and approximately 40 percent represent communities historically underrepresented in the federal government, including people of color, LGBTQ+ people and people with disabilities, a Biden official said in a written statement. “The President-elect and Vice President-elect are committed to building an administration that looks like America,” the official said.

The real test, however, will come when appointments to Senate-confirmable roles are announced. “Everybody is watching,” Abercrombie-Winstanley said. “Transparency is going to be key.”

LCWINS and other groups have been working to ensure that whoever won the presidency in 2020 would not lack qualified female candidates. Beginning last spring, the council has built and maintained a database of women who could serve in 190 national security-related civilian political appointments, ambassadorships and non-Senate-confirmed senior positions like presidential personnel, chiefs of staff and White House liaisons.

The database includes 850 names, including many from outside Washington. Women of color comprise 37 percent of the list, and members of the LGBTQ+ community make up five percent.

“The reality is that [senior government roles] are male dominated and that people who are in such positions tend to look for people like them. So we’ve got to mix that up,” Abercrombie-Winstanley said.

LCWINS compiled lists for both the Trump/Pence and Biden/Harris teams, based on whom each woman said she would be willing to work for. Each of the Senate-confirmed positions has at least four different well-qualified women for consideration.

While LCWINS and other high profile groups are focused on national security, gender disparities are pervasive across the federal government. A 2018 study by CQ found that only 25 percent of the Department of Transportation’s employees were female, and the Departments of Defense, Homeland Security, Energy and Justice all had female workforces of less than 40 percent.

The study also found that among managerial positions known as the Senior Executive Service, only 26 percent were held by women in the Department of Energy, 27 percent in Defense and Justice, and 28 percent in Commerce.

The Department of Health and Human Services was the only cabinet agency the study found to have more than half of those leadership positions held by women, although Housing and Urban Development was close at 49 percent.

While LCWINS is focused on senior national security leadership, other groups like Nat Sec Girl Squad, a nonpartisan community for national security, intelligence and defense professionals, are working to deepen the federal government’s bench.

“A lot of people are asking, ‘who will be the first woman to be secretary of Defense?’ I’m less interested in who’s first and more interested in who’s tenth. You don’t get to ten until you’ve been at one. And Nat Sec Girl Squad is really focused on ten,” said founder Maggie Feldman-Piltch, a former chief of staff at the American Security Project, a nonpartisan national security research organization.

Founded in 2018, Nat Sec Girl Squad has over 40,000 members, according to Feldman-Piltch.

The group is now developing online applications for members, which Feldman-Piltch hopes will give them an edge in a government vetting process that she said tends to be more difficult for women who fall outside the “pale, male and stale” default of government service.

“I can’t tell you the number of times when I’ve had a [security clearance] adjudicator call to ask me to prove how I know that somebody from the Nat Sec Girl Squad community is an American citizen because they are mixed race. One time is too many, but it’s really a lot,” Feldman-Piltch said.

A 2020 survey of Nat Sec Girl Squad members found that 65 percent of female respondents agreed with the statement that it is “especially difficult for people from underrepresented groups to get through the application process,” while only 46 percent of men agreed with the statement.

One upcoming Nat Sec Girl Squad tool, called “Project V-U” for “Verified Unicorn,” will allow members to input information about themselves and see what potential clearance vulnerabilities emerge, including those related to personal conduct, drug and alcohol use and financial considerations.

“If you know that somebody is going to see this and if something pops, you have a chance to do something about it,” Feldman-Piltch said.

On the top of that list of addressable vulnerabilities is a person’s debt and credit score.

“What they’re really looking for is, ‘What is the source of the debt? Can it be leveraged against you? Are you loyal, are you honest, are you unblackmailable?’ That’s what the threat really is. And it’s also, ‘Are you responsible? So do you forget to pay your bills all the time?’”

To help its members address those financial blind spots, Nat Sec Girl Squad is partnering with Ellevest, a women’s investment app.

While Nat Sec Girl Squad does not have a formal relationship with the Biden team, Feldman-Piltch says she believes in the ‘if you build it, they will come’ maxim for those looking to join the incoming administration.

“We really spent the last five and a half years preparing for this moment, not knowing when it would come. We were ready to do this four years ago. We’re ready to do it now.”

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