WASHINGTON – In the summer of 2019, when it was unclear who would emerge from an overcrowded Democratic elementary school, a small nonprofit without a single full-time employee managed to convince 17 candidates to sign a pledge that would make at least 50 percent of their national security from Senate confirmed positions would be women.
Among those who signed the pledge organized by the Leadership Council for Women in National Security: Former Vice President Joe Biden and Senator Kamala Harris of California.
Now that the Biden-Harris team prepares to take over the White House in January, that promise could enable a historic influx of women into key national security leadership roles.
“It’s a big step forward for women in the national security arena,” said Lindsay Rodman, LCWINS executive director. “It’s a big deal because it will instantly increase representation, and it’s a signal to women that historical under-representation may finally be over.”
The definition of a “national security” appointment is somewhat arbitrary, according to Rodman. For example, the group decided not to take on ambassadorial roles or jobs in the Department of Veterans Affairs – the former because of the role of career expatriate in filling them, and the latter because these jobs require more experience in hospital management or medicine than in defense-related backgrounds. Positions in the National Security Council have also been excluded because of the inclination towards the professional officials serving there.
However, the group drew up a list of 190 positions in the Defense, Energy, Homeland Security, and State departments, including those in offices compliant with the bill – including all political appointment roles in the Pentagon. (The list was removed from a 2016 compilation, so some jobs have changed. However, Rodman said the talent pool would easily slip into the newly defined roles.)
After the 190 positions were identified, the group began contacting their network and creating a database of potential candidates for these roles. The goal was to have around 500 women in the database; They ended in 850. These names have now been passed on to the Biden-Harris transition team, which is also conducting its own expression of interest for jobs in the upcoming administration.
There is no specific goal to perfectly split the Pentagon. The numbers are distributed to the new administration. But if the Biden team were to go for a 50:50 split of political candidates in the Department of Defense, it would mean 30 women in top jobs. Only 79 women were politically appointed for the division’s existence.
For comparison, the Trump administration confirmed that nine women were in the top DoD spots, with a tenth nominated. Three of these women are currently in office. (Women also held the highest national security posts in the ministries of state and energy in various positions in the administration.)
The Obama administration had a record 31 women in appointed positions in its eight-year tenure – 40 percent of all female candidates in the history of the Department of Defense – 18 of them in their first term.
There may be a significant transition between the recommendations of the nonprofit and the eventual appointments of the Biden administration, but LCWINS hopes the database can be expanded beyond the traditional names that everyone in the DC national security community is familiar with.
“The Biden Administration and any leader who keeps the LCWINS pledge has a chance to show that it is not just best for the country to appoint an equal number of women to national security functions – it is remarkably easy,” said Loren DeJonge Schulman Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security who has held a number of national security roles and serves on the LCWINS Steering Committee.
“Seeing talented, diverse appointments on national security org charts can dispel the myth that it’s kind of difficult or even arduous to put together a team from different perspectives and backgrounds,” she added. “It’s not just simple and natural – it’s the most promising result.”
A spokesman for the Biden-Harris transition team, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed that the team is “committed” to the LCWINS pledge, but did not comment on whether there is a point person to pursue gender parity or whether the goal is a 50:50 split in the Pentagon.
Obviously, Harris will be the most senior woman in US political history. But Democrats have a “deep bank” when it comes to women with national security and foreign policy experience, and the new Democratic government should have no problem filling as many jobs as possible, said Ray DuBois, a former “mayor” of the Pentagon and Assistant Under-Secretary of State for the Army who has tracked the number of women appointed to top jobs in the Department of Defense over the years.
He noted, however, that the LCWINS pledge includes the phrase “committed to the pursuit of gender equality” which gives some leeway in the Biden team’s approach to the effort.
“I’d make a commitment to striving for gender equality, but that doesn’t mean they’ll actually get it in the first year,” DuBois said. “I wouldn’t hold Biden to a 50:50 breakup of the first people announced right away, but I would probably hold him accountable over the next few years. It is important to understand. “
For her part, Rodman said the group’s goal was “not to play” gotcha “and get into an accountability game.”
“We will certainly go after it, but our goal is to cheer on their successes, not point out their failures,” she said. “From my limited interaction with the Transition team, I know the commitment is there. So now it’s about intentionality and that it continues to be a priority and that they are still aware of it. “
There is considerable speculation that Biden will seek to appoint the first female defense minister, along with Michèle Flournoy, a former under-secretary of state for defense policy, mostly by the named name.
Rodman noted that getting a woman into a top job and then declaring the mission accomplished has long been a problem.
“I would be concerned about the signal it sends to say, ‘There’s a woman at the top, but we still think it’s okay for these jobs to be male-dominated consistently,” Rodman said. “When we land there, it suggests that there are other structural problems that we haven’t identified yet, as the historical claim is always: You have to enlarge the pipeline of women. And the case we are doing with the database , is that the pipeline exists. That is no longer the excuse. “
LCWINS may be small in terms of total staff, but has direct connections with a number of people circling the Biden administration.
Four people with ties to LCWINS have already been announced for high-level positions. Linda Thomas-Greenfield, part of the group’s steering committee, is Biden’s election as Ambassador to the United Nations. Avril Haines is the first woman on the advisory committee to be appointed director of the National Intelligence Service.
Antony Blinken, Biden’s Secretary of State, and Jake Sullivan, Biden’s election as National Security Advisor, also act as advisors to the group – a good sign that the promise of gender balance may find its way to the state and the NSC.
There are also connections closer to the Pentagon. The LCWINS Steering Committee includes Kathleen Hicks, who served as both Assistant Under-Secretary of State for Policy and Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy, Plans and Forces during the Obama administration. Hicks, who is now director of the International Security Program for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, recently added another job: head of the Biden Harris landing team for the Pentagon.
Other notable members of the advisory board are Flournoy; Christine Wormuth, Under-Secretary of State for Defense Policy from 2014 to 2016; and Michelle Howard, a retired four-star admiral who became the first woman to serve as assistant chief of staff in a military division. Both Wormuth and Howard are part of the Pentagon landing team.
With these connections in mind, it is noteworthy that 15 of the 23 members of the Pentagon landing team are women and 52 percent of the transition team members on all teams are women – a fact Rodman described as a “very strong signal” that the promise may be fulfilled will.
Many of the 850 names in the LCWINS database are unknown to the national security community, but there are many high profile defense professionals who are expected to find a home in the new administration.
It is believed that both Hicks and Wormuth are eligible for top jobs at the Pentagon or elsewhere, possibly as assistant secretary of defense as well. Madelyn Creedon, a former Assistant Administrator for the National Nuclear Security Administration, is likely to be shortlisted to head the Nuclear Warheads Agency. Juliane Smith, a LCWINS co-founder, has been announced by Axios as a potential ambassador to NATO.
In particular, the Biden team has signaled that it would be open to adding some Republicans to the administration. If so, said DuBois, the national security area might be a logical place to house them.
“I think it would serve President-elect Biden to see diversity not just through the lens of gender or color, but also through the eyes of non-partisanship, especially in the area of national security. If we have non-partisan appointments on the national security team, the country benefits, ”he said.
From the LCWINS list, more than 100 respondents said they worked in either a Democratic or Republican government.