Women are vastly underrepresented in leadership roles within the federal government and in national security fields. In this Transition Lab episode, Jamie Jones Miller, a former principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for legislative affairs, and Nina Hachigian, a former U.S. ambassador to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, talk to host David Marchick about their own careers in government, how they handled uncomfortable situations and the importance of bringing more women into leadership positions. Both women are members of the Leadership Council for Women in National Security, an organization dedicated to improving gender diversity in the national security field.   

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Read the highlights:

Marchick asked how Miller felt when she was the only woman present when decisions were being made. 

Miller: “I was aware of it. I was aware I was the only woman in the room. That carries with it a certain burden. You want to perform well because you’re carrying the weight of all of the other women who want to be in the room and who should be in the room…And then I start to think about how I get more women…at the table. So I’ve made it. Great. I’m aware of it, but how do I open the door for others?” 

Marchick asked how the women handled situations when male colleagues were dismissive. “How would you approach it to reduce tensions, but also stand your ground?” 

Hachigian: “It helps to have some seniority and to be older. I wouldn’t suggest to younger women to just let it go…I think men don’t often realize what they’re saying can be offensive. It’s partly educating your colleagues to become allies.” 

Miller: “It is not just the responsibility of the woman in the room to point that out or to correct the behavior. It is the responsibility of everyone in the room to build that culture of awareness and to point out behavior that is not appropriate and not productive or not welcome in the workplace.” 

Marchick asked about the work of the Leadership Council for Women in National Security and how the organization hopes to get more women in important federal government positions. 

Miller: We are compiling a database of women who are qualified for the most senior Senate confirmed roles. We want to be sure that we have a women of color. We’re also putting together advice about how (an administration) can hire diverse teams, some of the tricks of the trade. And I’m holding a series of webinars for women who are interested in advice about the appointments process.” 

Marchick asked what the data show regarding organizations that have diverse workforces. 

Hachigian: “The data show that diverse groups in leadership are more creative. They’re more innovative. They’re more likely to avoid group think. Women in Congress are judged to be as or more effective than their male colleagues, for example. And in the private sector, we have all kinds of data that show literally that firms are more profitable and that their turnover is less when there are women in management. But the point is that if you have different points of view to bring, you’re likely to get better results.”  

Marchick asked about Mitt Romney being ridiculed during the 2012 presidential campaign for saying he had “binders full of women” when in fact he was making a concerted effort to find qualified women to serve in his Cabinet and other important government positions. 

Miller: “Knowing what we know today, it is a best practice…to be intentional about finding a diverse slate of candidates. I have to give Romney credit for that. It sounds like there was the game plan and a process. Unfortunately I think `binders full of women’ became a quote that everybody seemed to be using and throwing around.”  

Marchick asked Hachigian if she had advice for young women seeking mentors. 

Hachigian: “Older people who have had some experience love to talk to younger people about their careers and really love to help. And so it really is just a matter of asking for some time to talk through  your career, what you’re looking for in life and to ask advice and then just to keep up those relationships. That most often happened for me with people I’ve worked for and who I’ve kept in touch with, but it could be a professor or others. 

Marchick asked Miller which parts of the government have done a good job promoting women and creating more opportunities and which have not? 

Miller: “Capitol Hill is a great place for women, especially today in that there are a number of congressional staff organizations dedicated to helping grow women professionally. My experience in the executive branch is limited to the Department of Defense. The most senior women in the department made a very concerted effort to get to know the younger political appointees and staff members, but those things were all led internally. We had to make those things happen.” 

Marchick asked Hachigian about the opportunities for women at the State Department. 

Hachigian: “I do think they’re trying, but as far as I can tell, the number of women in senior management hovers around 30%, so it’s not great. There’s no pipeline problem…People are entering  the Foreign Service at about a 50-50 ratio. It’s just that they (women) fall out of the system for a variety of reasons. I think they’re trying, but we need to see more progress.” 

Marchick noted that the CIA conducted a diversity study several years ago and found gender parity for entry-level jobs, but anemic numbers for those with 10 years of experience. He asked what causes women to leave. 

Hachigian: “I think there’s a variety of reasons…It could be a sense that they’re not getting promoted and so they feel like this is a dead end. For some, they’ve encountered serious problems of harassment or assault. For some, it’s just being overlooked or not being heard. I think for some there’s the problem of balancing childcare responsibilities. There’s not good leave parental leave policies at all.”