Susan Hasler poses for a portrait near her home in Singers Glen, Va. Hasler… (Matt McClain/The Washington…)
A previous version of this article stated that Michele Flournoy co-authored the report “CIA Women in Leadership.” She was an adviser to the taskforce that produced the report. Also, former CIA analyst Cindy Storer did not work for Alec Station.This version of the story has been corrected.
The announcement this week that a White House lawyer will become the first female deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency may seem to signal that women have finally arrived at the spy agency known since its inception in the 1940s for its testosterone-fueled work culture.
In addition to the surprise appointment of Avril D. Haines, who served as President Obama’s deputy counsel on national security issues and is the first outsider appointed to such a high position in the insular agency, women head up two out of the CIA’s four directorates. A woman serves as the agency’s executive director. And women make up 46 percent of the agency’s workforce.
But while it’s true that women have made significant progress at the CIA, the glass ceiling is still firmly in place for many women, particularly in the clandestine service and at the top levels of leadership.
Then-CIA Director David H. Petraeus was troubled to discover that of all the officers promoted to the Senior Intelligence Service last year, only 19 percent were women. He called for a serious review of internal CIA work culture to find out why.
That report, “CIA Women in Leadership,” headed by former secretary of state Madeleine Albright and released without fanfare on the CIA Web site this spring, called for “significant reforms.” It found that the CIA culture failed to sponsor and promote female officers, which “directly and negatively impacts the mission” of the CIA.
Michele Flournoy, former undersecretary of defense for policy and an adviser to the task force that produced the report, said that far from a simple “work-life” debate, the CIA’s failure to promote or fully exploit the skills of female officers is a national security issue.
“This is a strategic issue,” she said. “If you’re routinely investing all kinds of resources and training up your workforce, and then, because we can’t figure out how to manage the work-life balance issues more effectively, we end up losing some percentage of that trained talent, that’s just a waste.
“It’s going to hurt our standing in the world, our competitiveness and our ability to be a leader.”
Nada Bakos is a case in point.
Bakos spearheaded the CIA’s team that targeted and killed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the brutal al-Qaeda leader in Iraq. In her career, she’d worked long and hard to steadily move up the ranks of the spy agency’s Counterterrorism Center and the male-dominated clandestine service. But then she left.
“I didn’t have a lot of options at the time to make it work for me and my family,” Bakos said of one of the reasons for her departure. “I would love to see a shift from the way assignments are traditionally handled to accommodate the needs of both working spouses.”
Recent popular movies such as “Zero Dark Thirty” and the HBO documentary “Manhunt” have highlighted the crucial role that female intelligence analysts — dubbed “The Sisterhood” — played in finding and capturing Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders.
Michael Scheuer, who headed Alec Station, the CIA’s first unit dedicated to finding bin Laden and unraveling the tangled network of al-Qaeda, said that of about 23 analysts working for him, the vast majority were women.
Although he worked with many skilled analysts, he said, the women “were extraordinarily adept at both mastering the kind of detailed information that’s key to counterterrorism, but also very, very insightful in mapping out relationships,” he said. They also were focused and worked long and hard, he said.
“I would have been happy to put up a sign outside my office that read, ‘No men need apply,’ ’’ added Scheuer, who resigned from the agency in 2004. “It’s flip. But there’s a large, large grain of truth to it.”
A common problem
In many ways, the dearth of women at the top levels of leadership at the CIA is not unlike the dearth of women at the top of any federal agency. Women make up 31 percent of the CIA’s Senior Intelligence Service and 33 percent of the entire federal government’s Senior Executive Service.
In business and politics, women make up 14 percent of the executive officers at Fortune 500 companies and 18 percent of Congress.
Despite former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton’s efforts to shed light on gender inequity and the lack of female leaders at the State Department, little progress has been made. Women make up about 27 percent of the Senior Foreign Service.