The Working Women of the CIA

The Working Women of the CIA

In which Federal Government agency do working women hold 62% of the top jobs?  Department of Education?  How about Energy?  Maybe the FBI?  Would you believe it’s the Central Intelligence Agency?  Yes, the CIA has recognized that women have the right stuff, even if movies and fiction historically haven’t recognized it.  According to an Ann Curry interview with the CIA, 5 of the 8 top positions at the agency are held by women.

The 2010 movie, Zero Dark Thirty, told the story of the capture of Osama Bin Laden and the female CIA agent that lead the manhunt.  In reality, the woman on the ground who relentlessly stalked Bin Laden for years, was part of a team behind the scenes that was also mostly women, say Fran Moore, the CIA’s Director of Intelligence and Sue Gordon , the CIA ‘s Director of Support.

The history of women in the CIA

Women have been used in espionage successfully for years.  A taped interview from the CIA’s archives has recently been unclassified and through a wonderful account in Mother Jones magazine, we get to understand a little about the history of women in the CIA.

  1.  Meredith, then-deputy chief of the CIA’s European Division. ”You could always tell them [foreign agents] by their socks,” She joined the agency with her husband in 1979 as a “contract wife,” a spouse sent abroad by the CIA with her agent-husband to provide secretarial-type support work for low pay. When dressing to blend in with the crowd, Meredith recalled, undercover agents—on all sides—tended to overlook shoes and socks. “That would never occur to my husband to look at.”
  2. “Women…were much better at detecting surveillants on foot,” agreed Patricia, who joined the agency in 1973 and was awarded the CIA’s Distinguished Career Intelligence Medal when she retired in 2004. “I always put that down to women [being] more sensitive [to] who’s near or in their space, for physical protection.” That included in stores, she said, “because surveillants don’t shop well; they just can’t fake it.”
  3. Carla, who joined the agency in 1965 and was Deputy Chief of the Africa Division by the time she retired in 2004, recalled a time when male higher-ups in the agency warned that women would be ineffective for recruiting agents and gathering intel abroad. She recounted a successful assignment debunking that notion: I never actually had to pitch the guy. I [played] sort of the “Dumb Dora” personality, and “Golly” “Gee!” and “Wow!” He would tell me, “I just love talking to you because you’re not very bright.” And I would just sit like this [makes an innocent expression]. The recruitment ended because he told me about a plot to go bomb the embassy in [redacted] and we arrested him and his gang of merry men as they crossed the border. He just told me everything and I got tons of intel out of him because I was just a woman who wasn’t very bright.
  4. An internal survey from 1953 dubbed “The Petticoat Panel” shows that while women accounted for 40 percent of the agency’s employees at the time—better than the overall US workforce then, which was 30 percent female—only one-fifth of those women were above the midlevel. That was despite the fact that women had proven essential to American intelligence just years prior as high-ranking operations officers and data analysts with the WWII-era Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the precursor to the CIA.

This is all very exciting.  But once again, it shows how using the entire population actually leads to better performance, better outcomes.  The fact is today nearly half of the CIA is female. Anne Curry reports, “In his first interview as CIA director John Brennan explains why. Are there any qualities women bring that men might not be able to bring to the CIA? “I am very surprised at how perceptive and insightful women can be about how a man is acting — whether it’s a foreign government leader, military official or somebody who is sort of carrying out their daily duties.”

Even spies want work/life balance and equality

The women quoted in the Mother Jones article also brought up another fact – life as a professional women is still a balancing act.  “Once I tasted this drug of being a case officer… the motherhood that I insisted on became kind of secondary,” said Iranian-born Susan, who helped the agency beef up language training in the wake of the Iran hostage crisis and again after 9/11. When she went on her first tour abroad, the strain of separation almost ended her marriage. “But for me to be sitting here as a senior female case officer of this Agency—every single one of us had to make sacrifices. For men, it’s the same, too. But for us, the sacrifices we made were tainted with kind of huge, huge guilts: leaving our husbands, leaving our children, and not being a housewife at home. Now, things have changed. But even now, for any female to get up to wherever they want, they’ve got to think they have choices. And they’ve got to make those choices.”

While they do hold top jobs at the CIA,  no women has held the top job and most women in the organization find it hard to get to the same level their male counterparts do.  The woman who the lead character in Zero Dark Forty was based on was passed over last year for an important promotion and in 2012 only one fifth of the intelligence officers promoted into the Senior Intelligence Service were women. Madeleine Albright was asked to lead an advisory group to increase the number of women in leadership roles. Albright’s report recommended many of the same things we see in corporate organizations such as a tamping down on harassment, pushing managers to help women subordinates climb the ranks, and promoting mentorship.

What choices do you make every day for your career or your family?  What would you do to make those choices easier for the young women in your life?  Share with is on Twitter, Facebook, Youtube, using #LeaveYourLegacy.

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I am passionate about helping women make the most of their skills and talents in the workplace, as well as encouraging them to ask for what they want and deserve. Creating Ask Ajna with Jae Lynn has been a labor of love and if we can help women find their authentic voice and support one another, we will build a community of change.

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