Taking Stock: Sexual Harassment and National Security

The wave of sexual assault, harassment and misconduct allegations that is roiling the media and entertainment industries, and is threatening to disrupt a number of political careers, is also stirring up debate in the field of national security.

Just yesterday, more than 200 women who are working in national security signed a letter stating that this is a problem they also face. They’ve worked as ambassadors, civilians at the Pentagon, military officers, staffers on Capitol Hill, professors, and in the non-profit and think tank worlds.

“This is not just a problem in Hollywood, Silicon Valley, newsrooms or Congress,” the women said in their letter. “It is everywhere.”

They note that in all of the places they’ve worked, there were, and are, sexual harassment policies in place, and yet, they are “weak, under enforced, and can favor perpetrators.”

More must be done, they argue. The actions they recommend include:

  • Clear leadership from the very top that these behaviors are unacceptable;
  • Creating multiple, clear, private channels to report abuse without fear of retribution;
  • External, independent mechanisms to collect data on claims and publish them anonymously;
  • Mandatory, regular training for all employees;
  • Mandatory exit interviews for all women leaving Federal service.

But progress cannot stop there, the letter says. The national security community also needs to look at its own “serious gender imbalances,” and create a workplace culture where women are viewed as “equal peers and colleagues.”

As a female journalist who worked in Washington for years covering the Pentagon, I’ve existed in two worlds: media and national security. As this watershed moment continues to unfold, I’ve found myself reflecting on my own experiences. On the one hand, I feel a sense of relief because I’ve reached my mid-30s, relatively unscathed. I’ve certainly avoided my share of potentially skeevy situations, but I am not a victim of sexual assault or harassment. On the other hand, navigating the media and defense world as a woman is such an ever-present part of my career, I am barely consciously aware of it. The steps I take to joke with the boys, or dress inconspicuously or use being underestimated to my advantage now come second nature to me. 

In the last few weeks, experiences that I’ve long forgotten have come back to me. I remember the time I was talking to an Army general about a weapons program, and to explain to me the cost efficiencies of buying more missiles (or whatever it was), he compared it to buying dresses. “You know, when you go to the mall and buy dresses. The more dresses you buy, the less they cost,” he told me. I remember nodding and smiling politely, and then later, laughing, because 1) dresses, really?! and 2) this is not how dress-buying works.

I also came to learn that sometimes it was a disadvantage being a female journalist, because male sources, particularly in the military, were not always comfortable sharing a drink or meal alone with me, something my male colleagues did all of the time to build relationships and trust. I also noticed that women in uniform were less likely to provide me information or talk on background than their equally ranked male counterparts. I always guessed they had a much smaller margin for risk in their careers.

But other times, being a woman, and being underestimated because of it, has helped. One of my favorite nicknames given to me was by an Army general who called me the “smiling piranha.” I took that as an enormous compliment. That said, walking into a situation where people assume you’re dumber or less qualified than you really are is hardly ideal. Even if you can make the best of it, it would be far better if you were estimated correctly and given opportunities based on merit.  

Then, there are all of the challenges that come with trying to maintain a career while being the mom you want to be to your children. The media appearances and opportunities to speak on panels you turn down because either A) you have to pick up your kids or B) after working all day, you just want to be with your kids. Asking your male boss where you can pump. Losing a competitive beat to a colleague because you’re home on maternity leave. The time your male colleague made fun of your “big diaper bag,” which was actually a computer bag. The list goes on.

I heard similar stories earlier this month, when I listened to POLITICO’s Susan Glasser speak with a number of women from the national security world about their experiences. The women talked about what it was like when they entered their national security jobs — whether at the State Department, the Defense Department or on Capitol Hill — in their 20s, and then how their experiences have changed as they’ve advanced in their careers.

When you’re trying to prove yourself as a young woman, and build your career in a male-dominated environment, it is very daunting to bring forward any complaints, said Kathleen Hicks who worked at the Pentagon for almost 20 years, finally as principal deputy undersecretary for policy.

“I think we talk much too little on the civilian side about how our fates as women in national security are ultimately tied to the women in uniform and their ability to advance,” Hicks said. “Because when they are at the top, when they are respected for their warrior capabilities, I think that’s when we can really be respected as civilian women. I think we’re always going to be hampered until we reach that point.”

Over the last several years, there has been improvement on that front. The Obama administration opened up combat roles to women, creating huge opportunities for professional advancement while also recognizing the front-line roles women were already playing. As for the military’s battle with sexual assault (against men and women), it has been brought more into the open and Congress has attempted to help fix it through legislation. Still, there is a long way to go, and if anything, the latest revelations about Harvey Weinstein and others show that the military is far from alone when it comes this problem.

Plus, with President Donald Trump as commander-in-chief, it becomes more difficult to foster a climate of respect and tolerance for differences, whether that’s gender, race or religion. He’s been caught bragging about sexually assaulting women, and laughed it off as “locker room banter.” He has also been accused of unwanted sexual advances by multiple women.

The president is also going out of his way to make his government male. So far, 95 percent of his nominations for U.S. attorney posts around the country are men. And as of September, among the 407 nominees that Trump sent to the Senate for confirmation, 327 were men and 80 were women. This isn’t just giving men an advantage now, but will have ramifications for years to come, as the men selected can use their government posts to boost themselves throughout their careers. Whether it’s in law, national security or public policy, few women are in positions of power in the Trump administration, and therefore are not accruing any of the experience or knowledge that their male counterparts are.

This is not a simple moment of progress, but it does hold enormous opportunity. We are all increasingly aware that whether you’re a senior official at the Pentagon, or an actress on a casting couch, or a staffer on Capitol Hill, you’re navigating the same set of problems.

As the letter from the women in national security made clear, “These abuses are born of imbalances of power and environments that permit such practices while silencing and shaming their survivors.”

 

Image: Alex Wong/Getty

 

About the Author(s)

Kate Brannen

Deputy Managing Editor of Just Security, Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council, Former Senior Reporter covering the Pentagon for Foreign Policy Follow her on Twitter (@K8brannen).