WASHINGTON — In the summer of 2019, when it was unclear who would emerge from a crowded Democratic primary, a small nonprofit without a single full-time staff member managed to convince 17 candidates to sign a pledge that at least 50 percent of their national security Senate-confirmed positions would be women.
Among those who signed the pledge, organized by the Leadership Council for Women in National Security: former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Kamala Harris of California.
Now, with the Biden-Harris team preparing to take over the White House in January, that pledge could provide a historic flow of women into key national security leadership roles.
“It’s a huge step forward for women in the national security field,” said Lindsay Rodman, LCWINS' executive director. “It’s a big deal because it will immediately increase representation, and it’s a signal to women that the historic underrepresentation may finally be over.”
The definition of a “national security” appointment is, by Rodman’s own admission, somewhat arbitrary. For instance, the group decided not to include ambassador roles, nor jobs at the Department of Veterans Affairs — the former because of the role of career foreign service officers in filling those, and the latter because those jobs require more experience in hospital management or medicine, as opposed to defense-related backgrounds. Positions on the National Security Council were also excluded, given the propensity toward career officials serving there.
But the group created a list of 190 spots across the departments of Defense, Energy, Homeland Security and State, among other offices that fit the bill — including all political appointee roles at the Pentagon. (The list was culled from a 2016 compilation, so some jobs have changed; however, Rodman said the talent pool would slip easily into whatever newly defined roles there may be.)
Once the 190 jobs were identified, the group set about contacting its network and creating a database of potential candidates for those roles. The goal was to have about 500 women in the database; they ended up with 850. Those names have now been passed to the Biden-Harris transition team, which is also conducting its own solicitation of interest for jobs in the forthcoming administration.
There is no specific goal of having the Pentagon be a perfect split; the numbers are divided across the new administration. But if the Biden team were to go for a 50-50 split of political appointees at the Department of Defense, it would mean 30 women in top jobs. Only 79 women have been political appointees over the department’s existence.
For comparison, the Trump administration confirmed nine women to top DoD spots, with a 10th nominated. Currently, three of those women remain in office. (Women also occupied top national security spots at the departments of State and Energy during various points in the administration.)
The Obama administration saw a record 31 women in appointed positions over its eight-year term — 40 percent of all female appointees in the Defense Department’s history — 18 of which came in the first term.
There may be significant crossover between the nonprofit’s recommendations and the eventual Biden administration appointments, but LCWINS hopes its database can expand beyond the traditional names with which everyone in the D.C. national security community is familiar.
“The Biden administration, and any leader who takes the LCWINS pledge, has the chance to show that it’s not only best for the country to appoint an equal number of women in national security roles — it’s remarkably easy,” said Loren DeJonge Schulman, an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security who has held a number of national security roles and serves on the LCWINS steering committee.
“Seeing talented, diverse appointments up and down the national security organizational charts can help eliminate the myth that it’s somehow tough, or even a chore, to put in place a team with diverse perspectives and backgrounds,” she added. “It’s not only easy and natural — it’s the most promising outcome.”
A spokesman for the Biden-Harris transition team, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed that the team is “committed” to upholding the LCWINS pledge, but would not comment further about whether there is a point person for tracking gender parity, or if the goal is a 50-50 split at the Pentagon.
Obviously, Harris will serve as the highest-ranking woman in U.S. political history. But Democrats have a “deep bench” when it comes to women with national security and foreign policy experience, and the incoming Democratic administration should have no problem filling out as many jobs as possible, said Ray DuBois, a former “mayor” of the Pentagon and acting undersecretary of the Army who has tracked the number of women appointed to top DoD jobs over the years.
But he noted that the LCWINS pledge includes the phrase “committed to striving for gender parity,” which gives some leeway in how the Biden team approaches the effort.
“I would commit to striving for gender parity, but that doesn’t mean they are going to actually get it in Year One,” DuBois said. “I would not hold Biden to a 50-50 split of the first people announced out of the box, but I would probably hold him accountable over the next several years. That’s important to understand.”
For her part, Rodman said the group’s goal is “not to play ‘gotcha’ and get into an accountability game.”
“We will certainly be tracking it, but our goal is to be cheering on their successes, not to be pointing out their failures,” she said. “From my limited interaction with the transition team, I know the commitment is there. so now it’s a question of the intentionality, and making sure that stays a priority and they continue to be mindful of it.”
There is significant speculation that Biden will look to appoint the first female defense secretary, with Michèle Flournoy, a former undersecretary of defense for policy, most often the name mentioned.
Rodman noted there is a longstanding issue of placing a woman in a top job and then declaring mission accomplished.
“I would be concerned about the signal it sends to say: ‘There’s one women in the top spot, but we still think it’s OK for these jobs to be male-dominated throughout,’ ” Rodman said. “If we end up there, that will be indicative that there are other structural issues we have not yet identified because the historic claim is always: You need to grow the pipeline of women. And the case we are making with the database is that the pipeline exists. That’s no longer the excuse.”
LCWINS may be small in terms of full staff, but it has direct ties to a number of figures circling the Biden administration.
Four individuals with ties to LCWINS have already been announced for high-ranking positions. Linda Thomas-Greenfield, part of the group’s steering committee, is Biden’s pick to be ambassador to the United Nations. Avril Haines, on the advisory committee, has become the first woman nominated to be Director of National Intelligence.
Antony Blinken, Biden’s secretary of state pick, and Jake Sullivan, Biden’s pick for National Security Advisor, also serve as advisors for the group — a good sign that the gender balance pledge could find its way to State and the NSC.
Closer to the Pentagon, ties exist as well. The LCWINS steering committee includes Kathleen Hicks, who served as both principal deputy undersecretary of defense for policy as well as deputy undersecretary of defense for strategy, plans and forces during the Obama administration. Now the director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ International Security Program, Hicks recently added another job: head of the Biden-Harris landing team for the Pentagon.
Other notables among the advisory committee membership are Flournoy; Christine Wormuth, undersecretary of defense for policy from 2014-2016; and Michelle Howard, a retired four-star admiral who became the first woman to serve as vice chief of staff for any military branch. Both Wormuth and Howard are part of the Pentagon landing team.
Given those ties, it is notable that 15 of the 23 members of the Pentagon landing team are women, and 52 percent of the transition team members across all the teams are women — a fact Rodman called a “very strong signal” that the pledge may be fulfilled.
Many of the 850 names in the LCWINS database will be unfamiliar to the D.C. national security community, but there are plenty of high-profile defense experts in there who are expected to find homes inside the new administration.
Both Hicks and Wormuth are believed to be in line for top jobs at the Pentagon or elsewhere, perhaps including deputy defense secretary. Madelyn Creedon, a former deputy administrator for the National Nuclear Security Administration, is likely to be on any shortlist to lead the nuclear warhead agency. Juliane Smith, a LCWINS co-founder, has been reported by Axios as a potential ambassador to NATO.
Notably, the Biden team has signaled it would be open to bringing some Republicans into the administration. If so, DuBois said, the national security realm might be a logical place to house them.
“I think it would serve President-elect Biden to look at diversity not just through the lens of gender or color but also at diversity through the eyes of bipartisanship, especially in the national security arena. When we have bipartisan appointments in the national security team, the country benefits,” he said.
Of the LCWINS list, more than 100 respondents said they would work in either a Democratic or Republican administration.
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.