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This group is training the next generation of women in national security

Women make up less than 40 percent of the U.S. State Department's leadership, and 26 percent at the Pentagon, according to a 2018 study by the New America Foundation. But women working in national security professions are drawing attention to the disparities and leading efforts to train the next generation of women in national security and foreign affairs. Ali Rogin reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    With president-elect Biden's nomination of highly experienced women to top national security positions, he is following through on a campaign pledge to pursue gender parity in an area of government where women are historically underrepresented.

    As producer Ali Rogin reports, women in the national security field are already hard at work correcting those imbalances for generations to come.

    We also want to note that some parts of this story were filmed before the COVID-19 pandemic.

  • Erin Simpson:

    So, what do we want to do?

  • Ali Rogin:

    For women in national security, it's hard enough to get a seat at the table. So, the creators of the podcast "Bombshell" built their own.

  • Woman:

    Welcome to "Bombshell."

  • Erin Simpson:

    I have questions particularly around normalizing the use of these sanctions and tariffs.

  • Ali Rogin:

    The three hosts, Erin Simpson, Radha Iyengar, and Loren DeJonge Schulman are all national security professionals.

  • Radha Iyengar:

    We have made a deal on how much to trade.

  • Ali Rogin:

    They have worked inside and outside the government, advising decision-makers on matters of foreign policy and defense.

    It's a field, like so many in government, dominated by men. Following the 2016 presidential election, the co-hosts wanted to make sure women's voices could still be heard.

  • Radha Iyengar:

    We were all out for drinks. And we were talking. And as we moved into a new administration, part of the discussion was just, like, how do we keep this kind of conversation, where it's women, but talking vis-a-vis their expertise, not just on women and security or diversity initiatives.

  • Ali Rogin:

    The show features strictly female guests, with one notable exception. Each January, they celebrate their new season by hosting an episode with only men. They call it their Manniversary.

  • Erin Simpson:

    This is our annual episode where we bring the men of the foreign policy world on to explore such questions on, what is it like to be a man in national security?

  • Radha Iyengar:

    How do you decide what to wear and be taken seriously?

  • Loren Dejonge Schulman:

    What do you think about doing with your hair? And do you have any lipstick tips for our listeners?

  • Ali Rogin:

    Those sorts of stereotypes, questions women still often get, are why the podcast exists. Co-host Erin Simpson previously served as an adviser to military officials in Afghanistan. She is now an executive at a defense technology company.

  • Erin Simpson:

    There's still a kind of a talking dog aspect to women in national security, especially on the defense side, which is, they can't quite believe — by they, I mean men — that we can put on eyeliner, take out high-heeled shoes, blow out our hair, and talk about the next set of con-ops or new technologies that might be emerging that are relevant to American national security.

  • Ali Rogin:

    Co-host Radha Iyengar, an economist, says the podcast shows what else gets left out when women are.

  • Radha Iyengar:

    People are willing and do have conversations about how women should be included. But, at the end of the day, if they can't find a women to be included or it's too inconvenient, that's still OK.

    And so I think that's really the sort of bridge that needs to be crossed next, which is to say, hey, if we end up in a situation where we don't have any women, it means we're probably missing some critical expertise, so we need to go back to the drawing board.

  • Ali Rogin:

    Recent studies show that women's expertise is missing at the top levels of government. According to a 2018 study by the New America Foundation, women make up less than 40 percent of the State Department's leadership and 26 percent at the Pentagon. The numbers during the same period of the Obama administration were similar.

    Lauren Buita It was challenging. I didn't see a lot of other women in the space.

  • Ali Rogin:

    That was Lauren Buitta's experience when she became an analyst focusing on national security law at a Chicago-based research institute in 2002.

  • Lauren Buita:

    I was deprived of certain opportunities that I had cultivated by male colleagues who, again, didn't necessarily acknowledge the value of women in national security.

  • Ali Rogin:

    That's what inspired her to create Girl Security, a program that gets young women and girls interested in national security and foreign affairs.

  • Woman:

    This is an emerging crisis scenario.

  • Ali Rogin:

    Before the pandemic, Buitta hosted in-person events like this one, where high school girls worked to solve a simulated diplomatic crisis.

  • Lauren Buita:

    Most people still harbor those same perceptions about the role of women in security, in other words, women don't necessarily belong in national security. And so part of our work has been changing the narrative around that space to empower those girls who are interested in the field.

  • Ali Rogin:

    Girl Security has suspended all in-person events, like this one, for now, but Buitta said COVID-19 provides real-time training.

  • Lauren Buita:

    We're living through a pandemic, which is a national security crisis, and it's having implications for every facet of our society. And this is precisely the situation that we're training girls to cope with and to excel at, as decision-makers in national security.

  • Ali Rogin:

    Twenty-year-old Sruthi Katakam hopes to be one of those decision-makers. She was supposed to spend her summer doing research at a U.S. Naval laboratory.

    But just when it would have been most relevant, her internship was canceled.

    Sruthi Katakam ; I felt like this incredible opportunity that would have really helped me gain some clarity on what I wanted in terms of my career and moving forward, that I had just lost that.

  • Ali Rogin:

    She applied for and was accepted into a new Girl Security program for college-age women.

  • Sruthi Katakam :

    I think it's more than a consolation. It's an incredible opportunity that I'm really excited to get.

  • Ali Rogin:

    Now she's writing a report recommending ways to strengthen the government's biodefense strategy.

  • Sruthi Katakam :

    A lot of the directives and sort of goals laid out in that strategy, if they were followed and properly implemented, we wouldn't be here right now.

  • Ali Rogin:

    Where do you ultimately want to see your recommendations end up?

  • Sruthi Katakam:

    You know, best-case scenario hopefully being incorporated into the next biodefense strategy.

  • Ali Rogin:

    Katakam also hears from guest speakers at the highest levels of government, like Sue Gordon.

  • Sue Gordon:

    Listen, this is such an extraordinary time.

  • Ali Rogin:

    Last year, Gordon stepped down as principal deputy director of national intelligence, after learning President Donald Trump was passing her over for the top job.

  • Sue Gordon:

    If you ask me what my best three years, I would say the last three years.

    So, hardship will come, but hardship doesn't have to define you. I'm going to give you my business card. One of my favorite things about having opportunities like this to be with you is, for the rest of your time, you're going to have me on your team.

  • Ali Rogin:

    Like Sue Gordon, Katakam says she's eager to pay it forward, before her professional career has even begun.

  • Sruthi Katakam :

    So, now, me as a young woman entering the space, 10, 15, 20 years from now, I know that I want to be involved in programs like Girl Security, giving back to younger women.

  • Ali Rogin:

    With Katakam already looking so far ahead, she and her peers are sure to have a lasting impact on the future of policy and the people who make it.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Ali Rogin.

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