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Saturday, May 18, 2024

The Opportunities—and Obstacles—for Women at NSA and Cyber Command

Working in cybersecurity within the United States intelligence community means navigating a warren of male-dominated fields. Inequalities persist, but three senior-level women at the National Security Agency and Cyber Command offered WIRED rare insights into how those organizations have evolved—and the hard work that remains to be done.

NSA and Cyber Command agents are by necessity tight-lipped about the substance of their day-to-day work and specific accomplishments. But in talking about their experiences as women in majority-male fields they could be more candid, providing a rare window into their daily lives working on US intelligence analysis and international hacking operations.

Leila Doumanis joined the United States Marine Corps in 2006, first as a signals collection and processing analyst in Iraq and Afghanistan before returning to the US. After a decade working her way up the ranks, she became a cyberspace offensive weapons officer stationed in Japan and ultimately a captain working at Fort Meade, where NSA is also headquartered.

Today, Doumanis leads a 700-member combat support team for the Marine Corps Cyberspace Command. Her military progression is exceptional not only for its speed—she's one of the most junior team leads in her department—but for having accomplished it in an overwhelmingly male field with few female role models coming before her.

“I have a seat at the table to have discussions with our leadership about decisions that need to be made about what we’re going to do in cyberspace,” Doumanis says. “And in the back of my head—it’s very hard to put your finger on sexism—but in the back of my head I just always have this voice saying, ‘Would it be different if you were a man? Would they have listened if you were a guy?’ It’s hard sometimes to get past that.”

That sentiment was shared by command sergeant major Sheryl Lyon, who in September left Army Cyber Command to become command senior enlisted leader of Cyber Command and NSA. Lyon is the first woman to serve in her role, in which she advises both agencies on issues affecting the military workforce.

“As a female in the military, I'm gonna say it, it is a man's world—still,” Lyon says.

“One of my first leadership positions as a sergeant major, all of my peers were males, of course,” she says. “So breaking in to be a part of that team seemed insurmountable at first. In fact, many of them didn’t even know how to talk to me. We were getting ready to deploy, and we had other missions that were going on. I always say you have to prove yourself twice and heaven forbid you mess it up, because if you did you typically don’t get a second chance.”

Lyon says some male colleagues acted as effective and crucial allies, but female role models were hard to come by; it was an uphill process over many years to reach a point where she felt that her peers treated her as an equal.

Many of the stories the women shared are almost universally recognizable in any profession, particularly STEM fields. And the military has a commensurate track record, with urgent and inveterate problems still far from resolved.

“We have to take on sexual assault and harassment and violence against women in the military,” President Joseph Biden said at the White House in early March. “Sexual assault is abhorrent and wrong at any time, and in our military so much of unit cohesion is built on trusting your fellow service members to have your back. There’s nothing less than a threat to our national security.”

At the same event, Vice President Kamala Harris emphasized the national security importance of recruiting and then retaining more women in the military. “Enforcing policies to protect women and ensure they are heard, and advancing more women on a fair and equal footing, will without any question make our nation safer,” Harris said.


Doumanis, who has worked during her career in the military as a sexual assault prevention and response advocate, echoed this challenge. “When I came into the Marine Corps in 2006, there wasn’t a whole lot of women leadership. Only about 8 percent of us are women overall, but when you look at recruiting numbers it’s a little more even. And then after that first enlistment, a lot of women drop out; they go and pursue other things,” she says. “Coming into the Marine Corps when I did the culture was a little bit negative toward women—a lot of derogatory comments made. And sadly my mindset was ‘Well, I’m not gonna be like that. Obviously there’s something wrong with those women. I’m going to be different.’ How naïve I was. As I got older I realized I was part of the problem. But I think the culture is way different now than it was back in 2006. Every year I see it getting better.”

At NSA, gender equality problems persist. An October report from the agency’s inspector general, for example, found that in 2019, female employees only received 14 percent of “individual retention incentives,” discretionary bonuses, even though women make up 41 percent of the agency’s civilian workforce. In 2018, almost 39 percent of the US intelligence community overall were women.

Stacey Barron, sections chief and technical director of the NSA Alternative Technologies division, joined the NSA out of college. “My office basically develops initial access vectors for adversaries so we can get foreign intelligence,” she says. “That’s probably as much as I can go into.” In other words, her department finds vulnerabilities in NSA targets' networks, develops or uses digital tools to exploit the flaws, and gives other NSA hacking teams access to the targets' networks to conduct espionage operations. They’re like the recon team that preps the keys to the door or the combination for the safe.

As a manager, Barron notes the importance in general of recognizing how stressful intelligence work is for everyone, regardless of gender.

“We do work assignments that can be very taxing emotionally sometimes,” Barron says. “If you’re working to support the warfighter, that can make you anxious, especially if things go wrong. So it’s very important to make sure that we’re aware of the people around us and their mental health.”

All three women WIRED spoke to said that opportunities to learn and grow in the military and at NSA are what kept them in government intelligence work. They listed the chance to travel, learn new languages, and receive advanced technical training as some of the advantages of staying in the field. And all of them spoke about their desire to both inspire and help change the culture for the women coming up behind them.

The NSA offers a number of employee resource groups, including one focused on women’s issues, a “PRIDE” group focused on the agency’s LGBTQ community, and a “Next Generation” group for younger employees. The NSA also offers training and mentorship programs for students and participates heavily in a government job preparedness and training program called the Cybersecurity Education Diversity Initiative, which helps provide resources for schools and organizations looking to establish cybersecurity programs.

Ultimately, though, individual initiative seems to be the core driver of positive cultural change within the intelligence community, since there are few indications of large-scale structural or hiring initiatives. The 2018 IC demographics report noted, for example, that between 2017 and 2018 the proportion of female employees in the IC increased from 38.5 percent in 2017 to 38.8 percent in 2018, the first time that percentage had increased since 2014.

Gender disparities are endemic in virtually all STEM fields and can be difficult for women to push back on or expose. But the inherent secrecy of intelligence work can make it feel even more daunting to talk about the challenges in those environments.

“This is more than just a problem that exists in the public sector, but when it comes to the intelligence community there’s a secrecy within a secrecy,” says one female former NSA officer who spoke to WIRED about her career experiences on the condition of anonymity. “The reasoning for why things can’t be said is actually not a problem of information being classified, it’s a societal problem. There’s not a rule that says that women are legally obligated not to talk about specific events in their career, but there’s a hidden code of secrecy.”

Efforts to improve the working environment for cisgender women in the intelligence community also don’t even begin to address the additional challenges faced by transgender people working at an intelligence agency like NSA or CIA. The IC hasn’t published statistics on their number of transgender employees, but in general, the military only began allowing transgender people to serve openly between 2016 and 2017. Shortly after, then president Donald Trump took steps to ban transgender service again. The Biden administration announced on Wednesday that it is eliminating this ban.

This pendulum swing of different administrations and priorities reflects the extremely gradual rate of change in STEM fields overall and certainly within the intelligence community—a pace that for many remains far too slow.

Looking back on her military career thus far of more than 30 years, Lyon sees progress even if more concrete changes remain out of reach.

“I’ve been doing this long enough that I’ve actually seen some transition,” she says. “When I originally came into the service, it was kind of taboo—you weren’t supposed to show emotion. You were supposed to be stoic and stellar and continue to drive on regardless of the situation in which you found yourself. Now I do see people wanting to talk, looking for advice, needing someone to listen, and I’ve seen that become more acceptable. It has a huge impact.”

After so many decades, though, institutional change needs to come not just from individuals but from institutions themselves.

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