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Maybe Next Time

Groupthink makes bad policy. So why are there still so few women at the Pentagon?

Carla Anne Robbins

My usual response to cabinet announcements is journalistic and admittedly jaded, focused on confirmation odds almost as much as policy agendas. So I was surprised at my visceral disappointment when then-President-elect Joe Biden defied expectations—and a last-minute campaign of letters and petitions from members of Congress, veterans groups, and national security experts, including a former defense secretary and former secretary of the Air Force—and did not nominate Michèle Flournoy, number three in the Obama Pentagon, as the first female secretary of defense.

The Congressional Black Caucus mounted its own campaign and Biden chose retired General Lloyd J. Austin III—the two have ties going back to the Iraq withdrawal and Biden’s late son Beau served on Austin’s staff in Iraq—to be the first Black secretary of defense, pushing back against Democrats’ concerns about putting another general in charge of the Pentagon. The Center for American Progress’ Katrina Mulligan summed up the reaction of a lot of women I know when she tweeted, “That sound you hear is the dejected silence of women realizing the bar they have to overcome to achieve their ambitions is (once again) higher than men will admit.”

When Biden vowed to appoint the most diverse cabinet in history, Matt Yglesias, then of Vox, called it “a low bar,” since “every single treasury secretary and every single secretary of defense … has been a white straight man.” None of it has been easy, as Biden inevitably set himself up for factional fights, graphed and charted statistical comparisons, and uncomfortable tradeoffs (see the Marcia Fudge-Tom Vilsack face-off over Agriculture). With Austin at the Department of Defense (DOD), Antony Blinken atop the State Department, and Jake Sullivan as national security advisor, all three of Biden’s top national security principals are men. Discounting Trump that has not happened since Bill Clinton’s first term.

Firsts are important for exorcising stereotypes and inspiring others to follow. And Biden has made history—and taken a step toward repairing our Trump-battered national identity—in choosing Kamala Harris as his Vice President. His team has also named a large, potentially unprecedented number of experienced and talented women for senior national security positions, including notable firsts: Avril Haines as director of national intelligence and Kathleen Hicks as deputy secretary of defense.

Many more than half of the senior staff at the National Security Council (NSC) are women. (The Trump NSC senior staff had gender parity, at least for a while—proving that parity won’t ensure sound policy.) Biden’s team also points to the nomination of Linda Thomas-Greenfield to serve as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations (not an inner-circle position, but she is a highly experienced diplomat and one of three top Black career officials forced out as soon as Trump took office) and to Janet Yellen, the first female secretary of the treasury, a major first (but adding her to the national security list is resume padding).

So why was the Defense job such a big deal? Rosa Brooks, a Georgetown University law professor who worked with Flournoy at the Pentagon, told Politico at the time that signs Biden might be having second thoughts had prompted a “collective ‘what the fuck’ amongst women in particular in the national security world.” The response says a lot about the wide respect Flournoy has earned as a thinker and experienced policymaker­“Obviously she’s the person who ought to be there,” says the American Enterprise Institute’s Gary Schmitt—and as a mentor for a generation of women and men in the field.

It says even more about how much women’s influence still lags across the national security policy structure, and especially at the Pentagon. Lindsay Rodman of the Leadership Council for Women in National Security (LCWINS), who spent eight years on active duty in the Marines as a judge advocate and was a civil servant and political appointee in the Pentagon, told me “placing one woman at the top” isn’t enough to ensure the wider perspective essential for sound policymaking. But the symbolic power of a woman running “an agency that has historically leveraged arguments about women’s limited capabilities” would have been enormous.

Numbers Don’t Lie

The Trump years have been particularly harsh for women and people of color. The relentless stream of official White House photos—Trump in the Oval Office signing the global gag rule surrounded with a phalanx of white men; Trump discussing his family separation policies with a table of all white male lawmakers (Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) was in the room but out of the frame)­—were the memes for the in-your-face misogyny and racism of the Trump era. Trump had the least diverse and not incidentally the least competent cabinet in more than three decades.

And in department after department, Trump officials filled their own ranks with white men. By the end of the administration, women held only 2 of the 59 political-appointee positions at the top of DOD (in the serial chaos of the Trump Administration, 28 of the 59 confirmable jobs were vacant or had “actings” serving). By the end at the State Department, women held 5 of the top 38 jobs that require Senate confirmation (there were 19 vacancies or “actings” there). Trump appointed 48 female and only 5 Black ambassadors—out of 191 positions.

The barriers to women’s leadership especially at Defense—some structural, others political—long predate Trump. Since 1950 when Harry Truman chose Anna Rosenberg to be assistant secretary of defense for manpower and personnel (she was confirmed only after a Senate investigation determined that charges she had attended “Communist-front” meetings were a case of “mistaken identity”), 79 women have held a political-appointee job, and 29 of those were over the course of Obama’s two terms. (At the highest point in the Obama Administration, 15 of the Senate-confirmed positions at DOD, or 25 percent, were held by women.)

Only a third of the Defense Department’s large civilian workforce is female, due in good part to veterans hiring preferences, and 27 percent of its senior executive service are women. The ban on women in combat was finally lifted in 2015, but as of 2018 under 17 percent of the active-duty military was female, and 10.6 percent of Army colonels, 11.6 percent of Navy captains, and a dismal 2.3 percent of Marine colonels were women. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) warned last year that, “The services do not have plans that include goals, performance measures, or timeframes to guide and monitor current or future efforts to recruit and retain female active-duty service members.”

The stats are better at State, but still nowhere close to parity—and that’s after we’ve had three female and two Black secretaries of state. At the end of the Obama Administration, 14 of 34 political-appointee jobs, or about 40 percent, were held by women. A 2020 GAO study found that women made up just one-third of the top level of the Foreign Service and racial and ethnic minorities were 14 percent. The rest of the national security world isn’t doing much better. On D.C. foreign policy panels (face time is often the better part of credibility), “here was one woman for every three males” in 2018, according to a study in the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs. Even more damning, the authors noted, “in most cases, the woman on the panel was the moderator,” perpetuating “the idea that women can be gracious hosts, but not experts.” I am now uncomfortably reviewing my own record of whom I’ve turned to as experts over the years.

There was a time, not all that long ago, when discussions of women’s leadership and national security quickly morphed into a debate over whether women were less likely to wage war because of their supposedly collaborative nature, with Margaret Thatcher and Golda Meir inevitably cited as the exceptions to the rule, or proof that gender is not destiny. Much of the research today has shifted to the impact of gender, racial, and ethnic diversity on leadership and performance, with more diverse businesses shown to produce greater innovation and higher financial returns (one study found that mock juries with diverse members made fewer errors while reviewing the facts of a case).

The dangers of insularity and groupthink, and the advantages of having people with different cultural and life experiences providing analysis or developing policy options, are especially high in national security, where the constant challenge is to assess and predict the behavior of foreign adversaries­—known and unknown—while avoiding the cognitive trap of assuming they think, plan, and calculate risk “just like us.” Diversity also matters for how the rest of the world sees us. After George Floyd was killed last spring, the American Academy of Diplomacy, a group of retired diplomats and senior officials, wrote that “representatives of U.S. foreign policy need to look like America,” warning that “the State Department falls short of this goal … most glaringly in the senior ranks.”

The most common excuse for not hiring or promoting more women for top national security jobs is a supposed lack of women with the right qualifications. Today Washington is filled with women with national security expertise and women’s national security networks. (When a TV news researcher put out a call on the #NatSecGirlSquad listserv for a disinformation expert to comment on the Capitol Hill attack, she got multiple responses.) “When I started out all of these things were unimaginable to me,” says Heather Hurlburt, who worked at State and the White House in the Clinton Administration and now directs the New Models of Policy Change project at New America. “Part of your professional identity was supposed to be that people didn’t notice you weren’t a white man.”

During the 2020 primary campaign, LCWINS—in many ways, the mother church of women’s networks, with a roster of advisers and leaders that includes Madeleine Albright, retired Admiral Michelle J. Howard (the first woman to be appointed vice chief of naval operations), Flournoy, Hicks, and Thomas-Greenfield—persuaded all of the Democratic candidates and Republican candidate Bill Weld to pledge to strive for parity in their national security appointments. This fall they turned over the names of 927 women, more than a third women of color, to the Biden transition—at least 4 women for each of the more than 200 confirmable positions at Defense, State, Homeland Security, Energy, the intelligence community, the Treasury Department, and the Justice Department. They sent a separate list of 100 women to the Trump team.

Rodman, the group’s executive director, says the new administration is “doing historically well” but “at the NSC principals committee, the top decision making body, the percentage is 31% women. Not close enough for us to feel the pledge is being met.” (LCWINS has an online appointments tracker if you want to follow along.) Hurlburt says the Biden numbers are “a wonderful development but no guarantee of permanent systemic change.” The lesson of the Trump years is that it could still “very quickly turn around.”


After four years of Trump’s malign neglect, there are a lot of areas demanding action. Last year’s GAO study on lagging recruitment and retention rates for women in the active-duty military had just one recommendation—repeated five times over for the secretary of defense, the secretaries of the Army, Air Force and Navy, and the commandant of the Marines—to develop a plan “with clearly defined goals, performance measures, and timeframes, to guide and monitor … female active-duty service member recruitment and retention efforts.” Late last year, the American Academy of Diplomacy, warning of “a failure of leadership and talent management,” called for establishing a senior chief diversity and inclusion officer “reporting directly to the Secretary of State” and making a provable commitment to diversity a requirement for foreign service advancement.

Recent reporting suggests that Austin may be open to finally addressing the deeply flawed system for prosecuting military sexual assault cases (in 2019 close to 8,000 assaults on service members were reported), taking them out of the chain of command and putting more impartial military prosecutors in charge. Most generals have been fiercely opposed to the change, while Biden is a supporter, telling donors last year about a “real run-in” with an unnamed member of the Joint Chiefs over the issue when he was Vice President.

Any proposal to scale back preferences for hiring veterans is guaranteed strong pushback on Capitol Hill, but a 2018 Rand Corporation study said that without substantial changes, the already hugely underrepresented number of women in the DOD civilian workforce will decline. The chairman of the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service told Congress last year that the system is unfair even to many veterans and is leading to less qualified applicants getting hired. The commission called for making the preference a “tiebreaker between equally qualified candidates” and for limiting the number of times a job applicant can use the preference. There is also a compelling case—made recently by Frances Tilney Burke and Mackenzie Eaglen in War on the Rocksthat the preference system may be eroding civilian control of the department and “contributing to a one-sided and myopic workforce.”

Perhaps the most urgent argument for more diversity is the performance of the Trump Administration. Mike Pompeo has been tagged by columnist after columnist after columnist as the “worst” secretary of state ever. Trump ran through so many Defense secretaries after he fired Jim Mattis that nobody bothered to pass an end-of-administration judgment. I give Biden high marks, so far, for choosing experienced, competent folks. The most diverse cabinet in history won’t guarantee success. But there is no doubt that the least diverse cabinet in recent history was an abysmal, alienating, and shameful failure.

Carla Anne Robbins is an editorial board member of American Purpose. A former deputy editorial page editor at the New York Times, she is faculty director of the master of international affairs program at Baruch College’s Marxe School and an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Twitter: @robbinscarla

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