How to reduce the tax on women in national security

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…

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