National Security’s Alpha Women

Crashing barriers, three women are getting top national security jobs

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Larry Downing / REUTERS

U.S. President Barack Obama (R) shakes hands with U.S. Secret Service agent Julia Pierson (L) after she is sworn in as the first woman Director of the Secret Service by Vice President Joe Biden in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, March 27, 2013.

Today’s popular culture features some memorable terrorist-hunting heroines, from Homeland’s tenacious Carrie Mathison to Zero Dark Thirty’s steely Maya. In reality, national security remains very much a boys’ club. But that’s slightly less true thanks to the recent rise of women to three of the U.S.’s most sensitive and secretive jobs.

President Obama has a new White House counterterrorism adviser in Lisa Monaco, a top Justice Department lawyer who stepped in when the job’s prior occupant, John Brennan, took over the CIA last month. Just before Brennan decamped for Langley, a female career CIA employee assumed command of the agency’s deeply secretive clandestine service. (The woman is undercover, making her name secret enough that if they told you, they really might have to kill you.) And on March 26, Obama put a woman in charge of protecting his own life when he named Julia Pierson director of the Secret Service.

Each of these women inherits some mighty gender-neutral challenges. Monaco confronts the roiling debate about America’s drone strikes overseas. The CIA’s clandestine service chief manages U.S. spies and covert operations around the world. And Pierson has to sweat not just Obama’s security but also her agency’s lesser-known policing of financial crimes like counterfeiting and credit-card fraud.

(MORE: What Awaits John Brennan at the CIA)

Not that gender is irrelevant to these posts. Pierson, a 30-year Secret Service veteran who is the first woman to hold the director job, takes over an agency shamed by last year’s revelation that agents working in Colombia before a presidential visit there had hired prostitutes. Some 90% of Secret Service agents are male, and critics say a better testosterone-estrogen balance might deter future scandals.

A woman running the CIA’s clandestine service is another first. She too oversees a male-dominated culture in a field where some experts believe a female perspective is valuable. “We do bring different attributes to the table,” says former CIA analyst Nada Bakos, who suggests that female spies can excel thanks to a knack for “empathy and listening.” Whether the clandestine chief will stay is an open question, however. She holds the job on an acting basis, and Brennan is reportedly concerned about her link to the 2005 destruction of videotaped interrogations of high-level terrorism suspects, ordered by her then boss. (A Justice Department investigation resulted in no charges.)

It’s hardly unheard of for women to have sensitive national security posts: Condoleezza Rice served as George W. Bush’s National Security Adviser, and Frances Townsend was his top homeland security aide. Janet Napolitano runs Obama’s Department of Homeland Security. There’s talk that U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice might become Obama’s next National Security Adviser. And Monaco is a contender to replace FBI Director Robert Mueller when he steps down on Sept. 4.

(MORE: Susan Rice and the Modern Secretary of State)

But the numbers remain conspicuously macho: a 2010 study by Women in International Security found that women hold just 20% to 30% of key foreign policy and national security jobs.

That’s why women who love security clearances are cheering the rise of real-life Maya figures. “The top dog has special meaning,” says former Clinton White House aide Amy Zegart. “The lines for the ladies’ bathrooms are still too short in our national security agencies. But these appointments are a big, big step forward.”

This article is featured in this week’s Nation page.