National security is a complex dance—from Venezuela to Iran to North Korea to Nigeria, it’s difficult to figure out the next steps. Yet we have a persistent move in this field: leaving out women—and, therefore, some of the best minds hoping to take the lead.
Women aren’t sitting it out on the sidelines. We’re making the right moves to claim our space.
The #MeToo movement is leading to positive results in many industries, and the national security sector is no exception. An open letter on the subject—penned by my former colleague and founder of Women’s Foreign Policy Network, Jenna Ben-Yehuda—was signed by 223 women diplomats, military personnel, contractors and development workers. Together, they spoke out against sexual harassment with the #MeTooNatSec hashtag.
But basic physical safety is not enough. Women need to thrive rather than just survive.
Truman National Security Project’s annual member conference in June, known as TruCon18, was unique in a few ways—not least of which is that every keynote speaker, panelist and other presenter was a woman.
TruCon18 was ultimately a powerful reminder that women from all walks of life occupy key roles in all sectors of national security—there were women there from all sectors of national security, from all levels of seniority and from diverse backgrounds. And it was proof that a conference free of “manels”—that is, all-male panels—is possible.
If you’re a regular on the conference circuit, that may come as a shock. Think back: How many panels have you attended where all the panelists are men? Worse, how often have you heard men talking about issues that should be primarily the purview of women?
I once attended a panel on women’s access to health services in developing nations where all the panelists were men. In February, Brigham Young University held a panel on Women in Math with an all-male panel. Eighty percent of speakers at the recent Munich Security Conference were male, and only two of the 12 panel discussions featured more than one female speaker. All this skewed representation suggests that men do all the thinking and all the work—but Truman helped prove that narrative wrong.
I’m a woman who has served in the U.S. State Department for more than a decade under three presidents and five Secretaries of State. I have heard a number of excuses for the lack of women on panels: “We couldn’t find any women to speak.” “There are no women in this field.” “There are no women at the level needed for our panel.” “We didn’t think to include women.”
Yes, I have actually heard that last one. More maddening still, I have heard people say that “women need to speak up more”—all while excluding them from the most important conferences!
Women notice when we are excluded, and now more men are taking note as well. Truman’s President and CEO, Michael Breen, made the decision to elevate women at TruCon18 after a male staffer came to him with the idea for the all-female conference. When I spoke to Breen about the all women panels, he said that it was an obvious thing to do and that the #MeToo movement certainly influenced this decision; Truman wanted to put their money where their mouth is.
He had also learned from the past: Breen told me that in 2015, Truman was embarrassed when the TruCon ended up with multiple all-male panels. There had been a few cancellations, and they did not realize until during the conference what had happened. Ultimately, Breen got on stage and apologized to the conference attendees. He has not allowed for that to happen again since, and more CEOs and conference organizers should learn and take action like Truman has done.
Truman understands that women have a seat at the table in all areas—especially in national security, where we need the best and most diverse talent. I would like to see more conferences and panels follow this model, challenging the comfort zone of leading men in these spaces. Not all panels should be all women all the time, but other organizations should follow Truman’s lead and demonstrate that there are women in their fields who should be recognized, elevated and given the opportunity to share their expertise.
There is no doubt that there are still many struggles for women in the national security field, including those listed in the #MeTooNatSec’s open letter. Fixing the gender imbalance of panelists is not the only change we need to make. But for now, the fallacious belief that diversity will sacrifice the quality of conversations we have at conferences and in this field can and must be proven wrong, again and again.
Truman’s conference helped to highlight just how many strong, diverse and qualified women there are in national security—and proved that inclusivity is fundamentally the right move for better results.