By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 22, 2010; A01
When Rose Gottemoeller began negotiating the new nuclear treaty with Moscow, the U.S. diplomat got questions on the usual topics: missile defense, warheads, inspections.
And then there was this one from the Russian generals: "How come you've got so many women?"
To the Russians' astonishment, an array of American women faced them across the negotiating table. Gottemoeller led the American team during the negotiations, which concluded in March. Her deputy was Marcie Ries, another diplomat. The top two U.S. scientists were female. And helping to close the deal on the New START agreement was Ellen O. Tauscher, a State Department undersecretary and former congresswoman.
The U.S. delegation reflected a little-noticed shift in the tough-guy world of national security. Twenty-five years after White House aide Donald Regan famously opined that women were "not going to understand throw-weights," American females clearly get nuclear policy.
They also run it.
Or a lot of it, anyway. Women hold senior nuclear positions at the Pentagon and White House. Search out the old office of Gen. Leslie R. Groves, the Manhattan Project's "Indispensable Man," and you will find a woman. She is Karin Look, who helped oversee the dismantling of Libya's nuclear weapons program.
"From me to the secretary, it's all female," said Look, a senior verification official whose chain of command extends up to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
The nuclear experts are indicative of an expanding cast of top female national security officials. Women occupy between 21 and 29 percent of the senior positions at the State Department, USAID, the Pentagon and other national security and foreign policy agencies, according to a recent survey by Women in International Security, a professional group. About 13 percent of the Senior Intelligence Service is female, it found.
"We're really at a very critical juncture in the field at large. We've had many more women than we've ever seen," said Jolynn Shoemaker, executive director of the group. "It's particularly visible in this administration."
Current and former officials say the increase is not just due to the Obama administration. Gradually, the women who began taking national security jobs in the military, the diplomatic service, think tanks and other institutions in the 1970s and 1980s are rising to the top.
They include people such as Michele Flournoy, the Defense Department's undersecretary for policy and one of the highest-ranking women in Pentagon history; Letitia A. Long, who recently was named to run the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency; and Laura Holgate, a top nuclear official with the National Security Council.
"We're not overnight successes," said Susan Burk, a 34-year government employee and the top U.S. official at the recent review of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Perhaps "we have to work more years to get to these positions."Collaboration
Nuclear experts dismiss the idea that the expanding role of women has changed policy. While the cliche persists that women are more peace-loving than men, "I have certainly never seen that," Look said.
But she and several other women said female leaders can often have a more collaborative style.
Women are "perhaps more attuned to working on teams, which I think is vitally important if you're going to have a good negotiation," said Laura Kennedy, U.S. ambassador to the Geneva-based Conference on Disarmament.
Kennedy began her career at the State Department in 1975, three years after authorities lifted a ban on married women in the diplomatic service.
"There really were very few women in the State Department," she said. "It's been an enormous transformation over the years."
As Kennedy was getting her start as a young diplomat in Moscow, Gottemoeller began tackling nuclear issues as a Russia analyst at the Rand Corp. She became a junior member of the delegation that negotiated the first Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which was signed in 1991. Those lengthy negotiations in Geneva "were a great incubator for the generation that's of age today," including several current female nuclear officials, Gottemoeller said.
Still, it wasn't always easy being a woman in the U.S. delegation back then. Linton Brooks, the chief U.S. negotiator at the time, remembers how one Soviet official balked at negotiating with a female American diplomat.
The next time that Soviet official held a meeting, Brooks sent the American woman back -- with six other women.
"You had to make it very clear that some other delegations may have had issues, but I certainly didn't," Brooks said.
These days, most of that overt discrimination is over. In U.S. nuclear policy circles, it has gone virtually unnoticed that Gottemoeller is the first woman to negotiate a major U.S. arms-control treaty.
"Internally it doesn't attract any attention at all," Brooks said. "It's just, 'Of course Rose is the negotiator. She's the right person.' "
Female American nuclear experts may still attract attention abroad, but several said their gender has little impact on their work.
In fact, when Gottemoeller was named head of the U.S. delegation for New START, one Russian military newspaper warned of the "danger" in striking a deal with a woman who had run the Moscow Carnegie Center and had an "inside knowledge of Moscow's logic."Still, 'minority status'
Despite their advances, American women are still nowhere near equality in terms of their share of senior national security jobs.
The recent report by Women in International Security noted that female professionals "have remained acutely aware of their minority status in many international security environments."
And many of the women interviewed for the study "pointed to a need to establish credibility quickly, especially in the defense, intelligence and law enforcement areas, and acknowledged that this was sometimes difficult."
In addition, women faced "unique challenges" balancing work and family, it said.
Gottemoeller said her most difficult years professionally were when her two children were growing up. In 1993, after the election of Bill Clinton, she was offered a job on the National Security Council, which is famous for its grueling hours. Her husband, also a State Department employee, agreed to pick up more of the parenting responsibilities.
"My husband and I had a deal. He said, two years in the NSC. And that's it. And I said okay. It worked for us," she said. "Luckily in those two years we were able to get the deal struck where we were able to get nukes out of Kazakhstan, Ukraine and Belarus" after the collapse of the Soviet Union."
During the latest negotiations, Gottemoeller noted that the Russian Foreign Ministry actually included a few young women in its delegation.
"Things are changing," she said, "even in their government."