There is a lack of women’s leadership in this country. In companies, Congress, Hollywood, tech and certainly in our field of national security, relatively few women have made it to the top. Just as President Obama couldn’t erase racial bias, recent women Secretaries of State haven’t nearly evened the odds for women leaders. Just watch the Sunday talk shows and prime-time cable news panels, which showcase the utter domination of men in foreign affairs and policy more broadly. But it is also true in media, on the Hill, at the State, Defense, and Homeland Security Departments, as well as in the intelligence community, military and with contractors. Women occupy 30% of top leadership positions, at best. The Trump Administration is moving backward on this issue, if anywhere. The situation is demoralizing for senior women as well as the next generation.
Yet research shows that more diverse leadership groups are more creative, innovative and more likely to avoid “groupthink.” Corporations with more women managers and board members are measurably more profitable. Female members of Congress are judged to be as or more effective than their male colleagues. And if there were no barriers, eventually the people with the most potential for excellence would rise, regardless of their gender or race. So while the lack of women especially women of color in top decision-making spots is a problem of fairness, it is also about making our institutions as successful as they can be.
Women talk to other women about the barriers to their achievement, internal and external, a great deal. But it’s men who can make the biggest difference. So, let’s say you want to improve your performance at work. Well, you should start by hiring or retaining a more diverse team.
But first you have to understand this fact: You, like just about everyone, are unconsciously biased against women and people of color. You will tend to think they are less qualified, too aggressive, and not leadership material. Admitting this bias to yourself is the best way to address it. Ask yourself: Would I have reacted like that if a junior man were involved instead of a woman? Do I assume that certain jobs (“communications”) are reserved for women? Am I drawn to younger versions of myself in job candidates, without having merit-based reasons for that preference? Women witness these biases all the time, though we are not immune to them ourselves.
Once you have admitted that you might not be fully enlightened, there are a couple of very easy steps men can take right away to help level the playing field in national security. First, take the “no manel” pledge so more women have a chance to share their ideas. If Justin Trudeau and Emmanuel Macron can staff half their cabinet positions with women, men and the institutions they run can refuse panels and other public opportunities that have no women, be it for TV, at a conference or congressional hearing. (And sorry, female moderators do not count. We see what you folks are doing there.)
Second, please mentor and, more importantly, sponsor junior women if you don’t already. Studies show that women are less likely than equally qualified men to feel confident volunteering for an opportunity. Women are increasingly aware of this tendency and trying to self-correct, but it remains a challenge for many. Young women need your encouragement and sometimes a nudge to throw their hat in the ring. (This was very true for female political candidates until the recent surge). Push them to seize new opportunities, take risks and overcome self-doubt. You may need to ask them to try something ambitious more than once.
Third, please try not to interrupt women when they are talking in a group setting. Next time you’re in a meeting, take a minute to note how often female participants are interrupted; this is a problem even on the Supreme Court. Make a point of listening carefully, and lift up points women make to the group. Also, don’t let foreign partners marginalize the women on your team. In our field, we’ve noticed that bias is often at its highest with international counterparts. Make a point of calling attention to the women’s contributions. Watch where they are seated and how they are treated.
Finally, think through how you socialize with your team. You don’t have to give up whiskey night at the cigar lounge in the golf club, but realize that many women will not feel welcome in that setting. Consider rotating the location of your after-work outings or who is in charge of organizing them so the whole team can bond.
If you’ve mastered the easy steps, there are more varsity challenges. Paid family leave is critical to retaining women, and men appreciate it, too. On-site daycare can be parental nirvana. Also, try to reduce the culture of crazy work hours. Very late nights are pervasive in national security and other sectors, and they are often unavoidable. But research shows that your team is making mistakes and sub-optimal policy decisions if they are not sleeping and unplugging enough. Measures to reduce long hours will improve quality, make your workers more content and will also grant parents additional time at home. Each of these measures also benefits men.
On a related note, please don’t make family decisions on behalf of women, even generous ones. Mothers of young children may still want to go on international trips or take challenging and time-intensive assignments. Discuss the requirements rather than deciding on their behalf. What can really change office culture is to talk about your own challenges managing career and family. Even casual comments about how you juggle competing requirements can make staff — particularly women — who might be reluctant to admit to the burdens of children or aging parents feel more accepted and understood.
We need a cultural shift, and men need to show the way. Women want to lead, contribute, excel. Please help us do it.