When Joe Biden took the oath of office on Jan. 20, he became the first president to have pledged to pursue gender parity within his top national security positions. And so far, his roster reads like a who’s who: Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, Wendy Sherman, Victoria Nuland, Avril Haines, Kath Hicks. They are the gold standard.
The Leadership Council for Women in National Security (LCWINS) arose from the idea of getting all presidential candidates to pledge to strive for gender parity in national security. That was a critical start; Biden made that pledge when he was campaigning. But the president and Congress must go a step further if they want to keep the pipeline of women in national security to achieve and maintain this goal. They need to reimagine a post-COVID national security workforce that does not look like a return to normalcy.
Working women — especially women of color and mothers — have been hammered by the current pandemic. Women in national security are no exception. That’s because women are more likely to take on the increased care burdens caused by COVID-19, such as caring for children when schools are closed or looking after vulnerable elderly relatives. One in four women is now considering downshifting her career or leaving the workforce because of COVID-19. Last month’s job loss was staggering. Women accounted for all the losses, losing 156,000 jobs.
At the same time, the pandemic’s upheaval of work-life balance has forced many employers, including the federal government, to reconsider standard work practices and shift toward more flexible policies, such as remote work or alternative work schedules. For those who work in national security, this has been nothing short of revolutionary and deeply necessary for anyone with caregiving responsibilities.
Prior to the pandemic, only 22 percent of federal employees were able to telework.
When the pandemic hit, women were able to shift toward more flexible work schedules and, at times, even work from home. As the premier organization aimed at facilitating gender equity within national security, LCWINS surveyed its network to uncover the challenges women in national security are facing during COVID-19 and how the pandemic is impacting their career plans. We learned that COVID-19 did not create new problems for them; it exacerbated existing problems, and challenged the balance they were barely managing to hold together before the pandemic.
In the LCWINS survey, between 70 and 80 percent of respondents said that they wanted remote work options, flexible work schedules, and/or remote work with classified information. For many women in national security, telework has been complicated by their need for access to classified information. Women also ached for more flexibility, transparency, and predictability. So much so that the private sector has become a desirable alternative to federal government service.
“There’s a perception that government is sort of the last bastion of very traditional work arrangements, which, again, as a mother of a small child certainly gives me pause,” one respondent told LCWINS. “I don’t think it would prevent me from serving, but it does give me pause relative to what I know I will have post-COVID in the business world.”
This is a time for change. This is a moment to reimagine the future and break from the past. Every industry is trying to reimagine what is next. So why not the federal national security workforce? Returning to the pre-COVID normal for the national security workforce risks losing some of our best to the private sector.
As the pandemic spread and lockdowns began in the Spring of 2020, the Office of Personnel Management released guidelines for federal agencies to permit maximum telework flexibility, flexible work schedules (FWS), and special evacuation leave, as deemed appropriate by office management. Remote work and telework appear to have been implemented as emergency measures, but their future as established practices in the national security space are uncertain at best. The national security industry has often bristled at the idea of classified telework, but some defense agencies are piloting programs to allow their employees to work with classified information from home using secure software. The Biden administration needs to figure out how to hold onto this flexibility in a post-COVID world.
Those who responded to our survey demand this.
“I think if you do see a drain of people leaving the national security sector, it’s going to be because they’ve realized that those remote options are out there, and it may be better for their work-life balance,” one woman told us.
If national security women exit the workforce now in droves, it will reshape the pipeline for decades.
This would be a terrible loss against strides made for women in our field. The pandemic has made life enormously difficult in the short term, but it also presents an opportunity for change going forward. It could compel a new standard for national security employees and a push to improve consistent family-leave and dependent care policies, and increase workplace flexibility. And while these policies will facilitate the goal of helping us achieve gender parity in national security leadership, these changes would benefit all federal employees, not just women.
Image: Ulrike Loffler works as her daughter Alex hugs her at their home in Palma de Mallorca on May 19, 2020, during the national lockdown to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 disease. Photo by JAIME REINA/AFP via Getty Images