The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The tax on women in national security

Gender discrimination in national security circles is most definitely a thing.

Former secretary of state Hillary Clinton delivers remarks at Georgetown University in March before presenting the 2017 Hillary Rodham Clinton Awards for Advancing Women in Peace and Security. (Getty Images)
Placeholder while article actions load

The hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts has been paying close attention to the Harvey Weinstein scandal and its fallout across the country. Egregious case after egregious case has been publicized. The spread of the #metoo hashtag across social media has been eye-opening. I know women who have been annoyed or dismayed by the publicity this has attracted, believing such incidents to be common knowledge. As a man, I have found it quite informative. I was aware of the existence of sexual harassment in the workplace. I have had individual conversations with multiple colleagues about the issue. I do not think, until this fall, that I appreciated the pervasiveness of the problem.

The question of how prevalent sexual harassment and discrimination are in national security circles is an important one: see Susan Glasser’s recent Politico roundtable as the must-read Exhibit A; Christine Fair’s narrative in BuzzFeed is another.

For the hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts, this topic cannot be ignored. At the same time, writing about this issue in any productive way is something of a challenge. The issue is not even close to going away. And yet, every time I think about trying to say something non-obvious about it, the minefield seems awfully big. This is a roundabout way of saying that as a straight, middle-aged guy, this topic seems more than a little awkward to broach right now. Which means that, for the past month or so, I’ve gotten a small taste of what it’s like to be a professional woman trying to live like an ordinary human being.

Friend of the Blog Milena Rodban suggested that rather than trying to start with what I think about this topic, maybe ask some of my female colleagues about their experiences and suggestions for change. I did that earlier in the week, querying a range of bipartisan national security professionals. They have all served in D.C. at some point in the last decade or so. They have all achieved some measure of professional success, which means that this sample is biased in favor of those who survived and thrived in the gantlet of being young and interested in national security and foreign policy.

Their responses were sufficiently thought-provoking that I am going to split them into two posts. Today is about the variegated experiences my colleagues have encountered. For very understandable reasons, some respondents asked to remain anonymous. I cannot repeat some of the off-the-record responses, but suffice it to say that those stories were hair-raising.

Below are the responses I can relay to Post readers. I would suggest that they break down into three categories:

Explicit sexual harassment

From Mia Bloom, terrorism expert, Georgia State University:

When I was a first or second year PhD student at Columbia, I overheard an assistant professor tell a senior colleague that “Mia has a better future on her back than in academia.” I never said anything to him about it, but steered clear.
Later, I started to work at [a think tank focusing on the Middle East]. It required me to work long hours with a senior male colleague. While friendly, he was over 50 and it was never flirty or anything. Once I was in the office after a call from my mother … he asked me what was wrong, and I said: “My father was just diagnosed with brain cancer.” His response: “I would really like to make love to you in this office.” I left the office and did not file charges or make a complaint.

Then there’s this, from a minority woman now in academia after serving in civilian positions with the uniformed services as well as the Defense Department:

My experience working for a military service was profoundly different than my experience working within the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD), with the former being an arena of far fewer instances of sexual harassment than the latter. From unwanted touching to overt sexual overtures, I encountered many more examples of sexual harassment in environments of mixed with government civilians and active military members (OSD staff) than in majority military environments.
Being a woman of color brought an additional dynamic to instances of sexual harassment.  One happened during a trip to an installation to visit several officers serving as program managers for programs over which I had oversight. During this trip, I had one of the program officers invite me for dinner followed by a night of Thomas Jefferson/Sally Hemings role playing.

Side note: most of the women who responded to me on this question and had spent time with the uniformed services told me that the military handled these issues far better than their civilian counterparts.

And finally, from a woman who interned in various places in Washington before pursuing an academic career in an area of national security interest:

Sexual harassment has been a big problem in my career. Most of the harassment I’ve faced has been from senior male colleagues in the discipline and my department, ranging from the inappropriate ogling and failure to make eye contact at conferences that most women in academia experience to some of my colleagues’ constant need to comment on my and my female colleagues’ physical appearance. They don’t hit on us but they do so with students and no matter how many complaints are filed, nothing ever changes — tenure is powerful protection for old white dudes who’ve been doing this for 40 years.

Grad school was worse, though; there were asshole classmates and faculty who reinforced each others’ bad behavior and you have no recourse; filing a sexual harassment complaint would end your career before it started. And of course the harassers know it, which is why it’s better just to go along with it, let them ogle and whistle at your outfits at formal dinners and try not to be alone with them ever if you can help it.

The worst experiences I ever had in D.C. were as an intern on the Hill. I don’t think it’s a secret that Congress is a hotbed of men creeping on young women. In our office, we were required to wear skirts and pantyhose. There was a LOT of ogling and inappropriate behavior/comments towards the interns and young female staffers. It was like they set us up to be harassed. Other little things, too — ie, you get a picture taken and the politician puts his hand a little too far down your back for comfort. The worst part of this is that it makes you paranoid — you second-guess what you experienced, whether it was real, whether it meant anything, whether you gave off “signals” that you were open to having his hand on your ass. It takes a long time to get over it.

Gender discrimination

In these instances, women found their career path blocked because of their gender. Sometimes the behavior was overt, but I am struck by the examples where the effect was to instill doubt.

My Drezburt partner-in-crime Heather Hurlburt emailed me:

I count myself as very fortunate to have only experienced anything like actual assault once. In some ways the years of harassment and inappropriateness from a couple bosses was much worse. It does a subtle job on your psyche. The job I was so proud to get where first I was told, “we held this job open for a woman” and then “so I hired you and dated the other finalist.” I was really scared I wasn’t good enough — to hire or date — and for a while, I performed like I wasn’t. It was words of encouragement from other women that helped me report the butt-grabber and survive the unpleasant boss. I was shocked at the time that the men in my office never spoke up. Even as I type this, I’m thinking, maybe that isn’t even harassment, and I was just over-sensitive. That’s how the security policy environment is.

Another colleague who was based in the Middle East and now works in Washington told me the following tale:

I was in need of a new job. I emailed a friend and colleague who was hiring in my subfield. I was young but well qualified. We had collaborated previously — I had even ghostwritten several pieces for him. I had neither forgiven nor forgotten that he had kissed me unexpectedly — and unacceptably — the year before, but my life was in various stages of falling apart, and I desperately needed that job. Needless to say I didn’t get it. I was devastated. 

It would be years before I found out why I wasn’t hired, or at least years before he confessed it clearly. At the time I was told that I wasn’t really qualified; a careful fiction that I believed. It was a searing burn — one that years of success couldn’t salve.

From the woman who shifted from congressional intern to academic:

Too many men assume that women, especially young women, don’t know what we’re talking about — or that we’re secretaries there to take their receipts for reimbursements or make sure they have water. Standing up to this has consequences; at best, it gets you labeled an uncooperative bitch.

Milena Rodban’s experiences were more overt:

In my personal experience, sexual harassment throughout my career has been linked to power projection. I’ve been asked to accompany men to important social gatherings in hopes that I could “help them look good in front of important people.” In another situation, I was on the cusp of finalizing collaboration on a project, and a man found out that I was dating someone, whereupon he abruptly declined to complete the deal. On another occasion, I was told that I was too “voluptuous” for a role that required face time with the media, and that my “figure would be a distraction.”

Subtle sexism

There were numerous examples relayed to me of an inappropriate hand on the back, or a minor slight in conversation, that in and of themselves were not egregious but, over time, exact a cost. Alyssa Ayres from the Council on Foreign Relations offered several examples of these slights:

It’s happened to me more than once that I’ll walk into a small group briefing or be quoted in a story alongside some man with no PhD listed as “Dr So and So” and then my own name just appears as first name-last name. To come up with that configuration — let me repeat that it’s happened to me more than once — someone has to actively ignore my publicly available bio, and then actively make up a doctorate for someone who doesn’t have one. This tells a lot about assumptions. So even when I get in the room, I’m downgraded and some man gets an upgrade. All for no real reason other than bias.

It has also happened to me on more than one occasion while in government that I would, on a trip somewhere in South Asia, arrive for my meeting with a foreign government official, and the official would turn to the man accompanying me from the U.S. Embassy and address him as his counterpart, as if it were inconceivable for me to be the senior official. Just a preposterous thing to happen. Hasn’t happened a ton, but the fact that it has happened at all is wrong.

Many others offered similar kinds of tales. In other cases, men treated female subordinates differently, guaranteeing their failure. Rosa Brooks told me of one superior at the Defense Department who invoked his own version of the Pence Rule: “he acknowledged that meant that he wasn’t going to give younger women the kind of mentoring he gave younger men. (He also told me he rarely gave women the kind of tough feedback he gave men, for fear it would make them cry.)”

Positive mentoring

Finally, it is worth stressing the number of colleagues who related positive experiences with mentors in the workplace. Brooks noted, “I have been pretty lucky: I have worked for great bosses and on the whole had fantastic, supportive colleagues, male and female.” Ayres concurred: “I’m very lucky to have had some amazing male mentors who, by virtue of their advocacy for me and for my work, helped break through some of the inherent bias that exists.” Kori Schake wrote, “the men who taught me in the Joint Staff taught me to treat sexual harassment as a professional issue, not a gender issue.”

Reading all of these responses, what struck me was the ongoing tax that most of these women reported experiencing. Even if not facing outright harassment, they had to constantly navigate a work environment in which inappropriate or problematic norms were on display. Each of these women reported constant internal debate over when and if to protest “minor” infractions.

These are problems I have never had to deal with during my entire professional career. I can only imagine just how less productive I would have been coping with this additional layer of challenges.