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What Women Want: A Fair Shot at Defense Careers

Robert Kneschke/

Discrimination is still an issue in the defense industry and the government isn’t doing enough to attract women to defense and government careers, according to a recent ClearanceJobs survey of cleared professionals.

ClearanceJobs surveyed more than 1,200 men and women, asking for their thoughts and experiences with discrimination in the defense industry. In almost every area, men and women were in near agreement. The defense industry is a “boys’ club,” and until more women pursue defense careers, it’s likely to stay that way.

Eighty-three percent of female respondents said they had witnessed discrimination or experienced it firsthand. When asked to provide examples, women cited being treated differently than men, being talked down to, receiving inappropriate comments about attire or pregnancy, and more.

“It happens frequently in meetings where a woman gets interrupted or talked over,” said a female respondent in the ClearanceJobs survey. “I myself have been yelled at in the past, working as a government contractor on a government site. It was a fellow contractor who was my boss. I can’t fathom he would speak to or confront a male peer that way–ever.”

In a survey where women and men were largely in agreement, there was one area where they were in double-digit disagreement. Women were more likely to respond that the government doesn’t do enough to recruit women. Forty-one percent of women said the government and defense industry need to do more. In contrast, 68 percent of men said they already take adequate steps to attract female candidates.

“Well-qualified female employees are not receiving the opportunity for career growth,” said one female respondent. “It’s all about who you know and what male affiliation males have. The ‘good old boy’ system runs deep, and intimidation toward women is running wild.”

Making Strides

Office of Personnel Management Director Katherine Archuleta recently announced some promising statistics when it comes to women in federal service. An OPM report, the third in a series, looked at opportunities for women in federal service. She noted that women are beating their private sector counterparts when it comes to breaking the glass ceiling, making up 34.4 percent of senior executives in the federal government, compared with 14.6 percent in the private sector.

But it’s not just about making the promotion, it’s also about finding their voice. “One of my top priorities as director of OPM is to make sure women have a seat at every decision table,” said Archuleta.

ClearanceJobs recently had the opportunity to interview Ellen McCarthy, director of plans and programs at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. She started her career as an analyst and spent the past two decades working in a variety of intelligence positions, including serving as president of the Intelligence and National Security Alliance. When it comes to bias, she doesn’t see deliberate discrimination on the part of men. But she does acknowledge an environment where women feel marginalized.

“There’s very rarely a day that goes by when I don’t feel like I’m not being heard all the time,” said McCarthy. “I don’t think it’s intentional. But I do think, even to this day, especially in the field we work in—intelligence, defense, national security, that side of the house—I think we all have to admit that there are times when we don’t feel like we’re heard.  And I think we need to learn what it takes to be heard.”

The Numbers

More than 50 percent of respondents said the percentage of females in their offices was less than 30 percent. Just 3 percent of respondents said that females made up greater than 50 percent of their offices. So while progress continues to be made in attracting women to defense careers, it’s clear that more could be done.

When it comes to what benefits would attract women to government or defense industry jobs, men and women were in almost complete agreement—and their answers may surprise you.

When asked, “How important are these benefits in attracting women to government/defense careers,” responses were as follows:

  • 70 percent of all respondents said telework/flex time options were “very important”
  • 64 percent of women said increased training and professional development opportunities were “very important”
  • 49 percent of women said mentorship opportunities were “very important”
  • 49 percent of women—and 55 percent of men—said paid maternity leave was “very important”
  • 41 percent of men and women listed on-site day care it as “very important”

Does this mean maternity leave and day care options don’t matter to women? No. But it does mean that flexibility—including telework and flex time work options—are more important to both men and women. They’re also much easier for many organizations to implement.

Lindy Kyzer is the editor of and a former Defense Department employee.

(Image via Robert Kneschke/

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