With the nomination of Gina Haspel to be the next director of the CIA, the #MeToo and #TimesUp movement may have arrived at the CIA. For the women of the CIA’s clandestine service, having one of our own be nominated to lead the agency is something we never thought we’d see. While I never worked directly with Haspel, our careers overlapped for almost 30 years, and her reputation among my cohort has been stellar. While I’m aware of the current debate around her nomination, that doesn’t diminish the misogyny she likely faced in the culture of the operations world.
A female nominee to run the agency also does not change the reality that an inclusion crisis exists in the clandestine cadre of the CIA: fewer women applying to be operations officers, few women in important leadership positions, and continuing harassment of and discrimination against women. Much like #MeToo and #TimesUp, Haspel’s nomination provides an opportunity to get gender equality right in the field of espionage.
To take full advantage of this opportunity, we need to acknowledge that the agency’s current reliance on outside reviews, lawsuits and existing processes hasn’t worked. Addressing these issues effectively will require direct and sustained leadership engagement in a broad holistic effort.
Early in Haspel’s career, several female operations officers threatened to file a class-action discrimination lawsuit. In 1995, the CIA settled the suit in what the media at the time described as an admission of systemic bias against female officers. The settlement’s terms involved giving women operations officers opportunities commensurate with their male colleagues, as well as monitoring promotions for parity. This gave a small cadre of exceptionally qualified women, including Haspel, the opportunity to have significant career successes, highlighting that women are absolutely capable of this difficult work.
But for all their blunt power, lawsuits do not magically change culture. Unfortunately, once the monitoring requirements ended, leaders’ attention waned, and no meaningful follow-on female group progressed. In 2011, a second group of female operations officers confronted agency leadership with disturbing harassment accounts and poor gender-advancement statistics. A yearlong external review gave a false appearance of action that shielded leadership from accountability. While the report showed reasonable gender parity for the CIA as a whole, it knowingly held back troubling numbers of women in the spy side of the house. Subsequently, the numbers of women in identifiable benchmark positions declined, and discrimination and harassment continued. And the agency’s equal employment opportunity process has proved incapable of providing adequate remedy to individual female victims, let alone changing the agency’s culture.
Here is my road map for Haspel and her leadership team. First, accountability and personal involvement are key. Organizations have to stop putting discrimination and harassment issues into organizational staff lanes such as human resources and legalistic processes. When dealing with accusations of misconduct or systemic bias, leaders should get involved and work to personally understand the accuser’s narrative. Otherwise, they will likely respond to allegations with an eye more toward damage control than effective reform. Accountability should be transparent and timely. And because studies show people who suffer or even those who witness severe discrimination or harassment generally depart, Haspel and her team should seek out women who may have left for these reasons to hear their stories as well.
Haspel should understand the depth of the existing problem and the impediments to change. Better data and critical analysis (the hallmarks of intelligence) are necessary. Haspel should demand honest data — starting with numbers of operationally qualified women for senior operational positions. She should ask for in-depth briefings on the makeup of her midlevel managers. If the agency has few women in this category, it will have even fewer in its senior leadership team in five years. Meaningful action to rebuild the inclusive strength of her bench should be a priority. And the problem is not an unwillingness to lean in.
Inclusion must be represented meaningfully at the table when hiring, training and deployment policies are being made. Throughout my career, these decisions often unnecessarily hindered women from pursuing advancement.
Inclusion brings proven benefits to any workforce. That’s especially true in the world’s second-oldest profession — espionage. Officers who can better blend into different milieus and understand how half the world thinks are essential. Haspel’s nomination, plus the #MeToo moment, provides an invaluable opportunity for the CIA. The operations world is full of men and women who selflessly strive to protect our country. It is in their and our best interest to get this right.
Karen deLacy is a retired CIA operations officer and the founder of deLacy Associates LLC. She wrote this article for the Washington Post.