The Need for DoD Gender Parity

October 09, 2019
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This summer, 15 Democratic candidates running to become president of the United States pledged that, if elected, they will seek gender parity in their national security appointments across government.

This is encouraging given the disappointing trends in this field. To highlight a few:

  • The Pentagon currently has just one woman at the undersecretary level, and just 15 percent of senior defense officials are female.
  • Similarly, the Defense Department has never exceeded 23 percent female of those occupying senior positions, as published by the New America Foundation. 
  • Nor have women surpassed 40 percent of senior positions (assistant secretary level and above) at the State Department, according to Heather Hurlburt and Tamara Cofman Wittes. 
  • Although there have been three female secretaries of state, unlike the Defense Department, which has never had a woman at the top. 
  • The Pentagon has had just one woman hold the second-highest ranking position of deputy secretary of defense in Dr. Christine Fox. 
  • In the uniformed military, women account for less than 10 percent of flag and general officers, according to Dr. Rosa Brooks
  • Women occupy only about a quarter of the federal government’s civilian Senior Executive Service and supervisory positions, also as reported by Brooks.
  • There have been just two female National Security Advisers to the commander-in-chief out of 27 total.
  • Of the ten secretaries of homeland security (or acting secretaries), three have been women.

The CIA is a rare bright spot in promoting women to the upper echelons. The current director, Gina Haspel, is female. Ms. Haspel’s head of operations, head of analysis, head of science and technology, and general counsel at the CIA are all also women.

Over at the Washington Post, The Monkey Cage ran a five-article series on the gender gap in political science writ large. As part of the series, Federiga Bindi and Mimosa Giamanco examined how women are underrepresented in foreign policy panels hosted by major think tanks in Washington.

Their report analyzed female representation at Washington, D.C., think tank events and found that, among other things, many events consist of all-male panels. Worryingly, the proportion of same-gender panels at think tank-hosted foreign policy events is similar to the proportion of same-gender hearings on defense matters before Congress.

The House and Senate Committees on Armed Services overwhelmingly hear testimony from men.

Examining the data from the past two sessions of Congress from both chambers’ oversight committees for defense, two troubling trends have emerged. One is that Congress is increasingly only hearing from fellow government witnesses with less input from outsiders and subject matter specialists. Both Congress and the Defense Department operate in respective bubbles. Talking primarily with government employees is bound to keep thinking, creativity and congressional oversight limited.

Most witnesses who are employed by the government at senior levels, such as generals or assistant secretaries of defense, are male. And they are compelled to testify given their employment status. Further, the issue of gross gender imbalances atop the leadership of the national security agencies has already attracted attention, as demonstrated by the #5050 in 2020 pledge by presidential candidates.

Outside experts are hand selected to testify based on their unique research and work, therefore, looking at non-government witnesses is particularly important for assessing the gender balance.

During the past two sessions of Congress, men not employed by the government usually outnumber private sector women by a factor of at least 4:1. In some cases, males outnumber female outside witnesses by order of magnitude. (This data excludes those asked to testify about their life experiences, such as survivors of sexual assault and domestic abuse, as opposed to experts in a particular topic.) 

Out of 45 hearings spanning the past three years with outside experts, 73% were composed entirely of men testifying. No hearings with outside experts before these two committees the past two sessions of Congress were composed entirely of women.

Why is all of this important? Central institutions that make what are often life-and-death decisions—like the military and its civilian bosses—need people with a range of experiences, backgrounds, and perspectives. Or, as Tamara Cofman Wittes told NPR: “When your problem-solving team is of all one type, then you’re not going to get the diversity of ideas you need to make the best decisions.”

Again, Rosa Brooks of Georgetown University:

“The research is clear: Put a lot of people who look pretty much alike around those decision-making tables, and you’ll get a lot of decisions that look pretty much alike. Diversify your leadership teams, and you’ll get smarter, better, more creative decisions.

This is true for all forms of diversity: Diversity of gender, race, sexual orientation, ethnicity, cultural and economic background all make teams stronger, but the research on gender diversity is particularly striking.

Companies with more women in management posts are organizationally stronger and do better financially than their less diverse counterparts, for instance, and gender diversity reduces dangerous overconfidence and reckless risk-taking.”

Decision-makers and policymakers should not just be a diverse group in their own right but also collect information and viewpoints from varied backgrounds. Congress should be holding more hearings from outside witnesses and experts who are not currently employed by Uncle Sam. And when its most powerful national security committee on armed services holds hearings with non-governmental witnesses, it should seek gender balance as standard operating procedure. 

This requires a commitment by the all-male political leadership of the two committees. But male witnesses should not consider themselves off the hook. When a proposed hearing topic and witness list is floated, the men contacted should demand the same parity in witnesses as those running for president have committed to pursuing in their appointments


Mackenzie Eaglen is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where she works on defense strategy, defense budgets, and military readiness.



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