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Thawing The 'Permafrost' For Diversity In National Security

Posted on March 5, 2015 at 12:00 AM

When the UK government first launched its review of the under-representation of women in the boardrooms of publicly listed companies four years ago, it almost certainly had no idea of the scope of the repercussions. That under-representation has become an issue which - like Topsy - 'has grow'd'....and continues to balloon up, just months before a general election.

The UK Parliament's Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) - a cross-party committee of nine parliamentarians from the Commons and the Lords - has been examining diversity issues in the UK intelligence community. Today it has published a report on the position of women in MI5, MI6 and GCHQ.

Women currently comprise 37% of the workforce of the three intelligence Agencies – considerably smaller than the figure of 53% for the Civil Service. They also comprise disproportionally more of the workforce at junior grades: on average across the Agencies women make up only 19% of the Senior Civil Service.

  “I believe there is a strong business imperative for greater diversity in the Agencies. They should reflect the population they serve but, more importantly, they cannot fulfil their mandate without drawing on the broad range of talent and skills that a diverse workforce can offer" says Hazel Blears, MP, who has spearheaded the report.

 "If all intelligence professionals are cut from the same cloth – sharing similar backgrounds and similar characteristics - then they are likely to share ‘unacknowledged biases’ which will circumscribe both the definition of problems and the search for solutions. Diversity will therefore result in better intelligence analysis and a better response to the range of threats that we face to our national security" she adds.

What has changed in this debate about women's representation at the top of a working society over the years is the recognition that addressing cultural and behavioural issues is the real challenge - not a minor aside.

The report acknowledges that the Agencies have shown "strong commitment to diversity", but says "to address cultural and behavioural issues" is the most important task ahead.

'It is clear to us there are those at middle management level – referred to by some people as “the permafrost” – who have a very traditional male mentality and outlook. This can reinforce a management culture which rewards those who speak the loudest or are aggressive in pursuing their career and does not fully recognise the value of a more consultative, collaborative approach. We therefore recommend that there is a real focus on identifying and tackling the barriers that can exist at middle management level, so that women and men can fully achieve their potential in a supportive team ethos" says the report. (my emphasis)

Issues around recruitment have always been at the heart of the lack of change in female appointments. (just trawl through this blog back to its start: the search engine works - try 'headhunters')

The report offers concrete steps for change by the Agencies, including the targeting of specific groups of women to recruit.

 "Women or mothers in middle-age or mid-career have valuable life experience and may offer an untapped recruitment pool. The Agencies should therefore use a broad range of mediums and include those specifically aimed at women and mothers – such as Mumsnet" it suggests.

The image of 'permafrost' encountering 'Mumsnet' may prove combustible in a good way.


The report also offers that radical idea - collaboration - including sharing ideas and initiatives with organisations with similar diversity issues, such as partner Agencies overseas.

Madeleine Albright, the former US Secretary of State who conducted a similar investigation examining women in the CIA, said:


 "As Ms Blears rightly says diversity should be pursued - not just on legal or ethical grounds, important as these are in their own right- but because it will result in a better response to the range of threats that threaten national security. Much of what is said in this report echoes and reinforces my own work on the Director's Advisory Group on Women in Intelligence at the CIA. I am sure we will all benefit from close cooperation on these vital issues between our two countries.”

Ms Albright is also famous in the new #socialmedia Twitter world which reveres the appeal of the 140 letter quote for having said: "there is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.”

This is an issue on which the ISC has not previously reported. Its report contains information that has never before been made public, including a large number of case studies written by women working in MI5, MI6 and GCHQ. They are said to provide unique insights in to what is it like to be a woman in the Agencies. Read it - or pass it on to someone you think should.

The report is now live - if the link doesnt work, try the ISC site.



Categories: Women, Behaviour, Appointments