What Four Decades of Women Working in Nuclear Policy Found in the Field

Only 12 percent of the people who held leadership positions in the field of nuclear security from the 1970s to 2019, including in an acting capacity, were women. (Only 2 percent of that 12 percent were women of color.) While they may not have been represented in large numbers, however, women have worked in the field from the beginning—and they’ve played a crucial role in keeping our world safe.

Their stories deserve to be told. That’s why Heather Hurlburt, Elizabeth Weingarten and Alexandra Stark and I set out to create the first oral history of what working in such a male-dominated field was like, and how these pioneers impacted policy.

We interviewed 23 women who held positions in the Departments of State, Energy, and Defense, the former Arms Control Disarmament Agency and in the White House, from the seventies to the present day. We talked to women who worked for Republican and Democratic administrations, both domestically and abroad. And this is what they told us.

#1: “Women Aren’t Afraid of Nuclear Weapons.”

The nuclear field has a very exclusive culture that prioritizes theory, technical knowledge and orthodoxy—because nuclear policy, of course, is extremely technical. But because the community emphasizes this in a way that makes it difficult for policymakers from more diverse backgrounds to join, many women are drawn to more open sub-fields, like arms control or non-proliferation.

Even so, “women aren’t afraid of nuclear weapons,” according to NATO Deputy Secretary General Rose Gottemoeller, and “as advocates for sound nuclear policy, including disarmament, they don’t shy away from working nuclear issues.”

#2: Sexism in the Field Remains “Routine.”

Women working in nuclear security, much like their peers in other male-dominated sectors, also face a “gender tax.” In addition to juggling the responsibilities of their demanding jobs, they also navigate discrimination, gendered expectations and sexual and gender harassment. One woman even said “it was routine” to be discriminated against while she was working in the Pentagon. These effects are amplified for women of color—and their costs drove some women out of the field.

#3: “We Don’t Soften Policy by Adding Estrogen.”

Women have made major contributions to nuclear policy. Female policymakers are not a monolith, and they represented a huge range of opinions and perspectives on nuclear issues. Some were in favor of reducing or abolishing nuclear weapons, but many pushed back on the essentialist idea that women are inherently peaceful. “We don’t soften policy,” one remarked, “by adding estrogen.”

At the same time, the women we talked to were very clear that gender diversity did bring innovation, creativity and different approaches to work style into the field. The decision to destroy Syrian chemical weapons at sea instead of at land, for instance, was an outside-the-box idea championed by a women-led team.

The field’s hierarchy, however, and the extra pressures put on female policymakers, creates what former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy called a “consensual straitjacket.” The field’s rigidity limited innovation and meant that women felt they had to fit into a particular policy mold to be taken seriously—and everyone, not just women, couldn’t express all the policy ideas they had.

One of these lenses that we asked about in this study was a gender lens—the idea that national security policy doesn’t impact men, women and non-binary people the same way. Dr. Mareena Robinson Snowden, a graduate fellow at the National Nuclear Security Administration from 2017 to 2018, similarly told us that she wants more attention paid to how policies impact indigenous communities and communities of color. “We detonated some of our strongest weapons in Bikini Atoll and in Micronesia and the Marshall islands,” she pointed out. “It wasn’t the suburbs of Montana where we were doing that.” 

We believe that gender and race analysis should be an important part of the policymaking process, but our interviewees didn’t find such diverse analyses to be typical. Our analysis suggests that paid family leave, flexible work policies, revamping performance reviews, making the promotion process more transparent, aiming to change behaviors about gender instead of beliefs, creating strong anti-sexual harassment policies and trainings and developing programs that encourage mentorship and sponsorship to support new policymakers can help change that narrative, and spark further change in the field.

With diversity comes innovation, and vice versa. In the midst of threats from North Korea, Iran and non-state actors, that’s exactly what the nuclear policy world desperately needs.

Speaking to these women and hearing their stories was an honor. Studying their careers, contributions, and challenges within the field offered us not only a crucial missing history, but insights into its future. It’s time to make more room for their voices—and more seats for women at the table in the field of nuclear policy.


Elena Souris is a research associate in the Political Reform program at New America, a D.C.-based think tank.