The U.S. government is expected to spend more than $1 trillion on national security projects in 2015. Discussions of national security—from policymaking to implementation—have long been a central fixture of the American news cycle, and decisions made in the name of national security directly affect domestic and international landscapes. With this in mind, it’s clear that the significant gender imbalance in the highest levels of the American security sector—just 21 to 29 percent of senior national security positions are held by women—is a national problem with global repercussions.
Solving this problem is going to take more women like Angela Canterbury.
An expert in “public interest advocacy, policy analysis and public campaign strategies,” Canterbury is the latest woman to enter the upper echelons of the U.S. national security world. She was recently named executive director of the Council for a Livable World (CLW), a nonpartisan organization that advocates for nuclear disarmament and broad national security reform on a range of issues, and its sister think tank, The Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.
In an interview with the Ms. Blog, Canterbury weighed in on the position of women in security today, testifying to the transformative power of reversing the imbalance:
Women have been given more opportunities to lead in diplomacy and development, which have been considered the softer side of national security, and often pejoratively so. But the perception of so-called soft power being “weaker” may be changing, as it has been changing for women in general as more women get leadership positions.
Canterbury, who previously served as public policy director at the Project on Government Oversight (POGO) and held positions at Public Citizen and the League of Women Voters, has long been a proponent of making Washington work for the people:
I see my role as leader of these esteemed and dynamic organizations as being a bridge between Washington and people outside of the Beltway. I want to be able to communicate with people who are not in Washington about what’s happening here and why it matters to them.
In Canterbury’s new position, this vision centers in part on changing how the United States thinks about national security. The Pentagon’s budget is based on an outdated strategy—heavy defense spending without actually reducing threats to the U.S.—and the American people suffer as a result. As the CLW suggests, “many parts of the defense budget … consume massive budgetary resources but provide little return in terms of security.” And with Washington pursuing such stunning blunders as a $1 trillion fighter jet that doesn’t really work, it’s not hard to see where Canterbury is coming from:
Americans are weary and wary of war. They are tired of military approaches that don’t yield results, and recently we have seen substantial success in Syria (in eliminating chemical weapons) and ongoing progress in Iran because of diplomacy.
While her experience and expertise alone make her an important addition to the world of public advocacy in national security, it’s additionally important that Canterbury, as a woman, is in a high-level position. In fact, she is a strong proponent of bringing more women into national security, saying, “We can do more and we should do more. I personally plan to do what I can to cultivate women leaders.”
Women, who are already vastly underrepresented in American politics, remain particularly excluded from national security positions. According to research conducted by the organization Women in International Security (WIIS), while “the opportunities for women in international security government positions have improved enormously in recent decades,” women are still significantly underrepresented in senior-level positions, holding only about a quarter of high-level positions at agencies such as the Department of Defense, State Department and USAID.
Despite clear signs of progress—the CIA’s new deputy chief of the National Clandestine Service is a woman for the second time in a row—many women remain “acutely aware of their minority status in many international security working environments,” according to WIIS. This in turn creates significant pressure to establish one’s credibility in “substantive policy areas that remain male-dominated, such as defense, intelligence and law enforcement.”
The United Nations continues to recognize the importance of bringing more women into security, calling the worldwide absence of women in peace talks “striking.” Data on women’s participation in 31 peace processes from 1992 to 2011 reveals that women at the peace table are exceedingly few and far between, and in 10 of the 31 cases, there wasn’t a single woman present in any capacity: no signatories, mediators, witnesses or negotiating team members.
Advocacy groups such as The Institute for Inclusive Security (IIS) have taken this as a call to action. Beyond the need for equal opportunity, the IIS argues that incorporating women’s perspectives into security carries unique, tangible benefits. Among these benefits: women are especially effective at connecting disparate groups, understanding community needs, accessing areas closed to male leaders, increasing operational effectiveness of police and military forces, and inspiring inclusion for future generations. As Canterbury put it, “Women know women’s issues best, but women also bring a special perspective to any policy conversation.”
In the end, it’s clear that women’s global absence from national security fields is a disservice to everyone. Canterbury is hopeful, however, emphasizing that women in national security positions can form strong connections with other expert women. As she put it, “networking is what we do best.” And for young women looking to enter the world of national security, pursuing personally interesting and engaging topics is key:
I would tell young women to get engaged with the organizations that work on what interests them. Once you are connected and engaged, I think that the field is really limitless for women.
Photo courtesy of Angela Canterbury.
James Hildebrand is a senior at Amherst College and editor in chief of the independent student blog AC Voice. He is interning this summer at Ms. magazine.