Last week, the hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts relayed some firsthand observations on the myriad ways that women face an extra set of challenges in the national security community. I concluded:

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.

So, there’s a problem. This week, Spoiler Alerts focuses a little bit on possible solutions. Actually, “solutions” might be too strong a word. None of the women in national security I queried thinks that this problem will go away anytime soon. But some best practices might help. Think of what’s discussed below as a way to implement a significant gender tax cut in this field. And we all like tax cuts.

So here are some suggestions, ranging from most obvious to less obvious:


Hire and promote, you know, women

This is banal, but the more a particular workplace is gender-balanced, the less likely the kinds of taxes talked about last week exist. Mara Karlin, a former DoD official and now a professor of practice at SAIS, told me: “Be careful of ducks choosing ducks. When you’re hiring or asked to recommend someone for an opportunity, think twice as you go through the candidates. Ensure you have considered different types of people. The only way we’ll have diversity at the national security table is by facilitating diversity in the backbenchers.”


Some might think of this as affirmative action, but CFR’s Alyssa Ayres argues that the opposite is true:

When people think about candidates for roles, or think about who they would call on for expertise, what does that roster look like? Is it filled with dynamic young men with drive but not a lot of expertise/experience? If the answer is yes, ask where the women are. There frankly isn’t any reason for this type of bias and erasure anymore, given how many women have such significant expertise in the broader field. You have to actively be selecting against highly qualified women to end up with the male-dominated job slates or “manels” or media voices or whatever. No one has to “lower” their qualifications to draw upon women, and the fact that this objection even comes up at all points to the larger problem in the first place.

Speaking of qualifications, here’s my advice on whether women interested in national security should take the PhD route.

Modeling good behavior in the moment

Brookings Institution senior fellow Tamara Cofman Wittes wrote me that the more that those in authority model good behavior, the less likely that others will be tempted to act in a bad manner:

Demonstrating and modeling inclusion — that is, visibly and consistently treating your female colleagues as fellow experts whom you admire and respect — is THE MOST IMPORTANT THING men can do every day to create a culture at work where entitled, creepy a‑‑holes don’t feel like they can pull sexist crap on the women in your office and get away with it. The more respect we have and show one another, the more diverse our workplace becomes, the less room there is for a‑‑holes to be a‑‑holes. It’s that simple, really.

This echoes what another woman who worked in a civilian capacity at the Defense Department told me: “It is incumbent upon senior leaders to establish an environment in which those who are subjected to sexual harassment recognize their allegations will be viewed as legitimate and addressed accordingly.”


What struck me also was how many said that responses to sexual harassment incidents need to be quick and decisive. Geopolitical risk analyst Milena Rodban urged, “We need to call out this kind of behavior, immediately, and in a constructive fashion.” A junior scholar told me: “It helps a LOT when other men call out harassment and other bulls‑‑‑ when they see it. . . . When other men step in to say, ‘You interrupted her’ or ‘Let her talk’ or ‘How is what you said different from what she just said,’ that helps a lot. Including on Twitter and other social media platforms.”


This will be an interesting challenge to men who want to act in a constructive manner. For decades, skeptics of sexual harassment claims have asked women why they did not come forward immediately after the harassment occurs. My hunch is that men will be just as slow to react in real time. The fundamental awkwardness of calling someone out in a workplace environment makes silence seem easier.

Resist the temptation for awkward humor


When these issues come up in the workplace, I have to fight my instinct to crack a joke as a way of easing the tension. According to Wittes, I should continue to throttle that instinct into submission:

Hey, we get that it’s uncomfortable. It’s been uncomfortable for us, and we’ve been trying to just laugh this off, for OUR WHOLE PROFESSIONAL LIVES. Don’t be the guy whose behavior tells us that’s what we need to keep doing. Making a joke when this issue comes up is like sticking a Post-it on your forehead for all your women colleagues to read that says: If anything awful happens to you, I am not going to be any help.

This is not just about men, either. One private-sector consultant acknowledged to me that her own tendency to use humor to cope with sexualized behavior in the workplace worked for her but set a bad precedent: “In protecting myself — in deflecting, sparing, snapping — I had done nothing to help other women in the field. If anything, I likely made their lot worse by playing men’s games and laughing off their ridiculous, ham-fisted comments.”


Lead by example


Women who have advanced to management positions in national security institutions need to eliminate some of the residual stigmas that disproportionately affect women. Amy Zegart, the co-director of Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Arms Control, proffered one example:

Until this year, I never talked about leaving the office to see my kids in a game or concert. Now I am. Men who leave the office to do something with their kids tend to be seen as great involved dads. Women tend to be seen as not fully committed to their jobs. These unconscious biases can only get addressed if we talk about them consciously. That’s exactly what I’m now doing.

Don’t adopt the Pence rule

In the wake of all of these harassment episodes, some have claimed that maybe it would be a good idea for men to adopt Vice President Pence’s rule: “He never eats alone with a woman other than his wife and that he won’t attend events featuring alcohol without her by his side.” Sebastian Gorka heartily endorses this rule as well (although informed sources say that he does not practice it himself). And then there’s NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesch:


While I understand Pence’s motivations, this kind of rule harms women more than it helps them. This is particularly true in foreign policy and national security, fields that require a lot of evening work, out-of-town conferences and overseas travel. Earlier this year, when it first came up, Andrew Exum explained in the Atlantic why the Pence rule was so problematic for women seeking professional advancement:

Rules like those the vice president follows likewise harm the professional development of — and the professional opportunities afforded to — women. If, as either governor of Indiana or vice president of the United States, Mike Pence would share a glass of scotch at the end of the day with a male subordinate in a way that he would not with a female subordinate, that creates an obviously unfair advantage for the men working under Pence. Leaders in both the private and public sectors have to be very careful about creating such unequal opportunities for mentorship and professional development. . . .
I most recently completed two years as a manager in the federal government where I led a 45-person team of both men and women with whom I often traveled internationally. As a manager, it never occurred to me that I might not dine with one of my female subordinates while abroad: Leaving aside my own merits as a dinner companion, to not afford them the same opportunities professionally that I afforded my male subordinates would have been grossly unfair.

Here’s a simple way of delineating the costs: Imagine if the gender balance was reversed, and women in authority decided to implement their own variant of the Pence rule. Would men seeking advancement in national security tolerate the obvious gap in mentoring opportunities?

All of the women I queried made it quite clear that they disapproved of the Pence rule. Senior or junior, married or single, Republican or Democrat, they all said that the costs outweighed any perceived benefit. The Hoover Institution’s Kori Schake told me: “The Pence rule is pernicious, especially for young women.  The best decision rule I’ve heard is from Walt Slocombe, the former undersecretary of defense for policy, which is for guys to soft their behavior by ‘if a gay man who was my boss acted this way, would I be freaked out?’ ”


None of these actions on their own will solve the problem. The private-sector consultant told me: “Given the power dynamics at play, I don’t see any real opportunities for change until the age/experience/power lines don’t track with gender. That means we need more senior women and more midcareer women. But how many have thrown up their hands in the face of similar experiences and left the field?” Perhaps these actions (and non-actions in the case of the Pence rule) can nudge things in a much more positive trajectory.