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The Pentagon remains a battlefield for women

by Courtney Mabeus January 10, 2021

This piece was published in partnership between Foreign Policy and The Fuller Project.

What you need to know
  • Michèle Flournoy, who served as undersecretary of defense for policy in the Obama administration and also served in the Clinton administration, was widely considered the front runner to be Defense Secretary.
  • President-elect Joe Biden did not choose Flournoy, opting instead to appoint another first: retired Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, who could become the first Black person to head the department.
  • Women continue to face significant barriers to reaching the highest ranks of the Pentagon, which can influence decision making in ways that impact national security.

As an active-duty officer in the Marine Corps, Lindsay Rodman was accustomed to being the lone woman in the room—and, unlike her male peers, having her mere presence challenged.

There was the lieutenant colonel who seemed genuinely bewildered that a woman would be interested in joining, and another colonel who flat out told her women didn’t belong. A different colonel in Afghanistan didn’t have to say a thing; he refused to shake her hand.

“There’s no great response,” said Rodman, now the executive director of the Leadership Council for Women in National Security (LCWINS), a nonprofit that advocates for greater gender diversity in national security. “My response typically was always like, ‘Well, sir, I’m grateful to be in the Marine Corps. I do think women belong in the Marine Corps.’”

If confirmed, President-elect Joe Biden’s pick for defense secretary, retired army general Lloyd J. Austin III, would be the first Black person to head the Department of Defense. But his historic selection dashed hopes for another first: that after 73 years of uninterrupted leadership by men, a woman might run the Pentagon.

For a time, that possibility finally seemed within reach. Michèle Flournoy, who served as undersecretary of defense for policy in the Obama administration and also served in the Clinton administration, was widely considered a top contender for the position. Many viewed her as a slam dunk because of her decades of experience, her knowledge of how the Pentagon operates, and her deep connections within the defense community. The Democratic chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Adam Smith, endorsed Flournoy, telling reporters last month that she was “hands down the best qualified person for the job.”

Austin’s nomination also comes with some controversy. Many Democrats have called for a return to civilian leadership of the defense department after President Donald Trump chose retired Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis to be his first defense secretary. Because of a law requiring seven years of separation between military service and civilian leadership, Mattis, who retired in 2013, required a waiver from Congress. As a recent active-duty general, Austin will also require a waiver.

Women have long faced barriers to reaching some of the country’s top defense and national security jobs. Not only has the military openly discriminated against women throughout history—combat jobs were only opened to women in 2015—the Pentagon remains an environment in which “most people were either military or former military,” said Rosa Brooks, a Georgetown Law professor and co-founder of LCWINS who previously worked for Flournoy at the Defense Department. Women were “overwhelmingly likely to be neither,” Brooks said of her time at the Pentagon, which resulted in them being left out of networks often developed by a shared military connection.

The numbers show just how tightly shut the doors have been to women at the Pentagon. Women accounted for just six of a total 23 positions at the rank of assistant secretary or above within the Defense Department as of late 2018, according to a New America report. Indeed, Secretary of Defense and Secretary of Veterans Affairs are the only cabinet agencies that have never been led by a woman (neither has Secretary of the Treasury, but Joe Biden has nominated Janet Yellen for the role).

While it’s hard to predict how Flournoy—or any woman—would run the department, her appointment would have signaled to other women interested in working in national security that the United States is ready to draw from all of its talent. Linda Reynolds, who has led the Australian Department of Defence since May 2019, has made the case for better gender equity within that country’s forces and pushed back against a toxic locker room culture that has been described by government officials as “what happens outside the wire, stays outside the wire.” Last month, after a war crimes investigation revealed the gruesome killings of Afghan civilians by Australian soldiers, she dismissed claims from a former special forces captain that the killings were the “fog of war,” instead calling them “cold-blooded murder.”

A study of female defense ministers worldwide found that women are less likely to be appointed in countries that are engaged in conflict or that invest heavily in military operations at the expense of peacekeeping. It also found that, as women’s representation in government overall increases, so does the likelihood that they will be appointed to top national security posts. In the United States, women’s participation in government lags behind that of many developed countries. Dozens of countries, including the U.K., India, Chile, France, Spain, and Germany, have had women at the helm of their defense ministries. America, Rodman said, is “behind the curve.”

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That lack of representation can influence decision-making in ways that can affect national security. In September, the U.S. Air Force released a report on digital acquisition titled “Take the Red Pill,” intended to be a reference to the film The Matrix. But the phrase “red pilling” has also been used as a dog whistle by men’s rights groups that have been associated with violence. Kathleen McInnis, an author and defense expert who has served in the Pentagon called out—along with other women and at least one man—the double meaning within the defense community, including online, prompting the Air Force to rename the report “There Is No Spoon” (another Matrix reference). “If you have … a bigger pool of diverse perspectives to draw upon, these kinds of things are more likely to be brought to the fore, earlier, in a way that they aren’t right now,” McInnis said.

Rodman noted the hypocrisy in America’s call for greater participation of women abroad while continuing to fall short at home. In 2000, U.N. Security Council Resolution 1325 recognized the need for greater representation of women in the peacebuilding process, and the United States passed its own version in 2017. Her organization received pledges from every Democratic presidential candidate and Republican Bill Weld in the 2020 election to strive for greater gender parity in senior national security and foreign-policy appointments. But Trump did not sign on. “It’s quite easy for other countries to point at us and be like, ‘Are you guys kidding us?’” Rodman said, adding that there are no excuses for officials who say they would consider a woman for a senior civilian appointment but can’t find any who are qualified.

There are currently 57 Senate-confirmed civilian positions at the Defense Department, according to Senate Armed Services Committee spokesperson Marta Hernandez. LCWINS developed a database of female candidates for those and other agency positions, including senior civilian roles at the State Department, totaling about 200 jobs. The organization aimed to offer two candidates for each position, or 400 names. It ended up compiling about 900.

Rodman said there’s plenty of room for more women in the national security space. Biden recently named Dr. Kathleen Hicks, who served at the Pentagon as part of the Obama administration, as his pick for deputy secretary of defense. If confirmed, she will be the first woman to hold the number two position (Christine Fox held the job in an acting capacity during the Obama administration). More national security personnel announcements are expected soon.  

Beyond representation, McInnis stressed the need for the culture of the field to change. A woman as defense secretary is no “silver bullet,” she cautioned. When she was working as the NATO-ISAF operations director at the Pentagon, a man told her that she was “too passionate” about her job and that it was undermining her credibility. “That shut me up for years,” she said.

Rodman said she also self-censored when she felt her audience wouldn’t be receptive to her ideas, keeping her from pushing back against sexist comments or from offering alternative perspectives.

Now, she’s more concerned about what would have happened if she weren’t there. “It always dawns on me that if I’m not in the room, then there’s no woman in the room, right?” she said. “That seems to me to be even more important than being the lone female voice.”

Rodman imagines what she might have said to the men who questioned her presence in the Marine Corps if a woman had been in charge of the Pentagon. “The power of being able to look at someone under those circumstances and say, ‘Hey, sir, the secretary of defense is a woman.’ Just the power of being able to turn around and say something like that.”

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