C-Suite Lessons from the CIA


What can corporations learn from the CIA about gender diversity? 

Twitter recently appointed its first-ever female board member. Before we give the company too much credit, consider that the appointment came only at the apex of much-publicized debate and criticism for their lack of diversity in leadership, during the weeks leading up to its IPO. Twitter’s C-suite? Still all male. Its executive team? Not much better: out of 12 leaders, only two are women: general counsel and the vice president of human resources.

Despite compelling evidence as to the business merits of building a gender-diverse leadership team, it’s clear that we still have an issue with securing women seats at the table. Twitter is only the most recent and well-publicized example. which is why a recent article on gender diversity at a highly visible organization should be a lesson to those who still balk at the notion that diversity is not a nice thing to do, it is a necessary thing to do. It is an asset to a team that must be actively cultivated.

This case study comes to us from the CIA. An article on NBC News – well worth the entire read – highlights the fact that 46% of the CIA staff is currently female.

This is a number that represents quality over quantity, as well. In 1992, that number was 40 percent, but women were disproportionately represented in low-level jobs (which is not uncommon among corporations today). “Females were still rare in the most important and sensitive jobs,” the NBC article notes. “Only 10 percent of upper management was female, and the number was lower for the clandestine services.”

Today, it’s a different picture. Again, from NBC News:

“As recently as 20 years ago, there were no women in the upper ranks of the CIA. Now three of the top four officers and five of the top eight are women…Forty-seven percent of the agency’s intelligence analysts are women, and 59 percent of the support staff, which handles everything from security to communications to safe houses, is female. Among the agency’s actual spies – the undercover operatives in the National Clandestine Service — the figure has risen to 40 percent…Women now make up a third of the agency’s senior staff, triple the level of 20 years ago.”

Here are 3 things today’s companies can learn from the CIA:

1. Diversity doesn’t happen overnight, and it doesn’t happen without attention. So often companies defend themselves from accusations of gender or racial bias by claiming that they simply can’t find any qualified candidates who are not white and male. But if you look deeper, the source of imbalance is often internal breakdowns rather than lack of external candidates. Until the ’90s, the sources in NBC’s article note, there was a persistent glass ceiling at the CIA, the result of gender bias that clogged the pipeline of female candidates.

In 1994, women in the Clandestine Service, the CIA’s most secret ranks, filed a charge of sexual discrimination with the agency’s equal employment office. The CIA ultimately settled and agreed to pay several hundred women more than $1 million and make changes to its promotional practices.

Once the pipeline was unclogged, women began to rise through the ranks and fill leadership positions. This mirrors the lessons we’ve learned about the often differing criteria by which companies promote men and women, the need to focus on sponsors to pull women up the ranks, and the importance of a robust pipeline of diverse leaders; that is, the need to make diversity a part of our recruiting, hiring, coaching and promotions goals. To ignore the pervasive systematic biases that keep marginalized groups outside of traditional power structures, and to expect diversity to happen on its own, is at best wishful thinking, and at worst discrimination.

2. When done right, diversity contributes to greater good. This includes both the bottom line as well as less quantifiable criteria. The mind-boggling thing about Twitter and other such companies making such a mess of diversity, is that companies with greater gender diversity on their boards and in their executive ranks are shown to be more profitable, perform better, have fewer ethical breakdowns, and a host of other issues. Consider the many headlines during this fall’s government shutdown that suggested flat-out “Men Got Us Into the Shutdown, Women Got Us Out,” “Senate Women Lead in Effort to Find Accord,” and “Women are the Only Adults Left in Washington,” highlighting the ultimately more successful negotiation styles of female senators that prized collaboration over ego. At the CIA:

But then women began to rise in the ranks, and as they did, said [Director of Intelligence Fran] Moore, they started to change the culture. The CIA started to improve its work/life balance, which benefited both male and female employees.

…The payoff is the success of the mission, particularly the agency’s biggest modern coup. Osama Bin Laden, like other al Qaeda leaders like Abu Musab al Zarqawi of Iraq, was caught by a so-called “Sisterhood” of al Qaeda specialists.

Nada Bakos, who led the Zarqawi “targeting team” and is now writing a book on the role of women in the war on al Qaeda, recalls that three quarters of the officers who worked for her were female.
Much is often made of the differences between traditionally feminine and masculine leadership traits and approaches to power. The lesson is that neither style is 100 percent better than the other, 100 percent of the time. It takes a breadth of styles to make informed decisions, to innovate, and to move past ingrained biases that hold organizations back.

3. When there is true diversity, hires are able to act as individuals, not their gender or ethnicity.
When there is a small number of any traditionally marginalized group in a visible role, too often those individuals are expected to act as the spokesperson for their entire gender or ethnicity. Their uniqueness means that their every action is viewed through a lens of gender or ethnicity that is not applied to their white or male counterparts. Thus, when Marissa Mayer, one of only 22 female CEOs of a Fortune 500 company, decides to cut back on employee work-from-home capabilities, the debate is not about the pros and cons of remote workplaces in tech companies, but about how one mother could take away such important rights from other mothers in the workplace, about how the decision reflects on Mayer as a woman, not a CEO. This is not diversity; it is tokenism. Contrast that with the CIA:
Women make up about half of CIA Director John Brennan’s leadership team. Notably, they hold the No. 2 and 3 positions at the agency…During the last 20 years, the number of women in Senior Intelligence Service, or executive, positions has increased dramatically. This year, women constitute one-third of the Agency’s SIS officers, up from just 10 percent in 1992.
According to Harvard Business Review, when boards have three or more women, a ‘critical mass’ is achieved that allows those directors to be viewed as individuals rather than as token women, to have their voices heard, and to shift cultural dynamics. With true diversity among the leadership ranks at the CIA, those women are able to make and execute decisions as leaders, not as women leaders. It would be foolish to assume the CIA has morphed into a utopia of gender equality. But the moves the CIA has made are positive steps in the right direction, and are light years ahead of many companies who are far smaller and presumably more nimble in their ability to institute change. In this instance, it wouldn’t hurt corporate America to take a page from the CIA’s playbook.

About Cassandra A. Gaddo

Cassandra A. Gaddo is managing director of Step Up Women's Network in Chicago. A passionate advocate for gender equality and the advancement of women and girls, she is also a board member of Rape Victim Advocates, and a Young Professionals Ambassador for The Chicago Council on Global Affairs. She writes and speaks about local, national and international women's issues, including in her blog, "Twice As Well."