On Tuesday, a group of 223 women—former and current ambassadors, diplomats, and other ranking national security officials—became the latest group to shine light on an industry where sexual harassment and assault have been normalized and perpetuated for decades: the field of national security.
“Many women are held back or driven from this field by men who use their power to assault at one end of the spectrum and perpetuate—sometimes unconsciously—environments that silence, demean, belittle or neglect women at the other,” they wrote in an open letter to the national security industry that they titled #metoonatsec. “Assault is the progression of the same behaviors that permit us to be denigrated, interrupted, shut out, and shut up.”
Though this kind of abuse is destructive in any industry, these behaviors in the national security industry in particular could also make all of us less safe.
We know from research that women’s inclusion at all levels of national security policy and practice—as peacekeepers, in post-conflict reconstruction, as policy officers and policymakers—and their overall safety are linked to the security and stability of states. We also know that diverse teams make better decisions and function more effectively than homogenous ones and that male-dominated teams can make riskier decisions and may be more susceptible to abuses of power. And yet, while women enter many national security institutions at near parity with men, they hover at about 34 percent of senior leadership positions at many agencies. It seems pretty obvious that if we want to make smarter and more effective national security policy and decisions, encouraging more gender diversity—and figuring out why women leave—is a good place to start.
Jenna Ben-Yehuda, who co-authored the #metoonatsec letter with Ambassador Nina Hachigian, recalls a moment a number of years ago when she shortlisted for a role in the National Security Council. Ben-Yehuda, who spent more than a decade as a State Department official, came in to interview for the NSC role prepared to answer questions about her background on multilateral negotiations and human rights. “Among the first questions I was asked was, ‘What are your child care arrangements?’ ” said Ben-Yehuda. “I was flabbergasted, and mumbled some semicoherent response, that I had really excellent child care and it wasn’t going to be an issue. They said they heard I had children. And I said, yeah, I’d love to tell you what I’ve done on human rights.”
Later, the interviewers told Ben-Yehuda they didn’t think the position would be a good fit because the hours were so long, and they didn’t want to put her in that position. To her, it felt like an abrupt 180-degree attitudinal shift. It was hard not to question how and whether Ben-Yehuda’s role as a mother—and the assumptions the interviewers carried about what that meant—factored into the decision.
And then there were the mornings earlier in her career as an intelligence briefer. Ben-Yehuda would come into the office at 6 a.m. and prepare briefs for the senior State Department officials, all of whom were male. As the men strolled in at 7 a.m., they’d start to discuss who they found most attractive in the office and who they most wanted to pursue, treating Ben-Yehuda to a dialogue of salacious, obscene comments about her colleagues.
“That kind of workplace behavior creates a permissive environment for more severe and inappropriate behaviors to take hold,” Ben-Yehuda said. “People don’t wake up one day and decide to assault people. They’re constantly looking for what would be tolerated within a context. In an environment where people bring the personal to the professional, it erodes those lines.”
Which is in part why she and the other letter authors explicitly called out toothless policies and the cultures that erode their power. “The institutions to which we belong or have served all have sexual harassment policies in place,” they wrote. “Yet, these policies are weak, under enforced, and can favor perpetrators. The existence of policies, even good ones, is not enough.”
And because sexual harassment policies are severely under-resourced, there’s an extensive backlog of pending cases, which can mean that victims work alongside their abusers for months, said Ben-Yehuda.
That seemed to be the case for one midlevel female foreign service officer, who shared her story with me recently. This woman, who preferred to remain anonymous because of the sensitive nature of her current post, was sexually harassed twice while on overseas tours and sexually assaulted a third time when she was forcibly kissed by a man who played a key role at a Middle Eastern embassy. She decided to formally report that third incident. About two months later, the State Department’s Office of Civil Rights deposed her and her assailant. Months went by. She assiduously steered clear of the places where she knew her assailant would be present—the cafeteria, social gathering spots—but it was impossible to avoid him entirely.
Six months later, she finally had a verdict: The case was inconclusive. Her assailant claimed that she’d kissed him, and there was no proof to suggest otherwise. The outcome of the case was one reason that she left the post shortly thereafter, deeply disappointed by a group of people who she had trusted. “The State Department didn’t protect me when I was trying to protect the American people,” she told me.
And so she and the other #metoonatsec authors are pushing for a conversation shift away from outcomes to prevention and constructive solutions. They suggest, for instance, multiple channels for women to report incidences without retribution, mandatory exit interviews for all women leaving federal service, and a clear message from leadership that these behaviors won’t be tolerated.
The attrition of women due to sexual harassment represents “a loss to our ability to craft thoughtful, creative, comprehensive solutions to some of the world’s most complex problems,” said Ben-Yehuda.
To a casual observer, it may have looked like the national security industry was starting to take these issues seriously earlier this fall. Indeed, research about gender inclusion and security underpinned the bipartisan Women, Peace, and Security Act, which President Trump signed into law on Oct. 6. Among many of its objectives, it mandates that the Department of Defense, the State Department, and U.S. Agency for International Development all prioritize women’s inclusion in overseas conflict prevention, resolution, and post-conflict recovery efforts, and to ensure incoming diplomats are trained in the research on why inclusion is an issue not just of social justice but of national security and policy effectiveness.
But what the #metoonatsec letter makes clear is that policy change without accompanying cultural change doesn’t drive real, sustainable change. How can the U.S. become “a global leader in promoting the meaningful participation of women in conflict prevention, management, and resolution,” as stated in the act, if it’s failing to promote and respect women inside its own institutions?
“This nation’s ability to solve hard problems rests on bringing all of the talent that we have to bear. Understanding harassment and assault as being a part of why women leave is really important,” said Ben-Yehuda.
After all, national security is just an illusion if half the population is unsafe.