Joseph Robinette Biden stood before America answering questions for nearly two hours the day before his one-year anniversary of becoming president. The press lobbed question after question on Russia, the pandemic, the economy, voting rights and even the status of his inner circle.
That last one caught my attention: He said he was “satisfied with his team,” His team is his so-called gang of four closest advisers, all white men. Ron Klain, Mike Donilon, Steve Ricchetti and Bruce Reed. I would have liked to ask why so many leadership positions are still going to men.
The president deemed equity to be one of his top priorities when he was sworn in on Jan. 20, 2020. When he was a candidate he pledged to strive for gender parity in his national security appointments.
But one year in, President Biden still relies heavily — some would say too heavily — on his old-boy network. And nowhere is that more true than in national security.
It’s true that 50 percent of Senate-confirmed leadership positions are held by women — but despite outward appearances that women and men are represented in equal numbers, a significant hidden power imbalance remains. And an invisible power imbalance may be more pernicious than a visible one.
Women make up only 36 percent of the president’s National Security Council. And while we have seen deputy secretary of State Wendy Sherman play a role in the latest diplomatic drama with Russia, she is the lone woman.
The decision-makers are still, in most cases, men. Take, for example, the American withdrawal from Afghanistan where the decision-makers were all men: Biden, Defense secretary Lloyd Austin, secretary of State Tony Blinken, National Security adviser Jake Sullivan and Gen. Mark Milley. Even if their subordinates were all female (which they are not), it matters that at the end of the day, the men are making these consequential national security decisions.
Regardless of whether the decision to pull out of Afghanistan was defensible, it catalyzed a significant plummet in Biden’s approval ratings. It is hard to imagine that a truly diverse room open to a contest of ideas would have resulted in the same outcome, especially one with such devastating effects on women and girls.
The power imbalance is not limited to the NSC. Among the most powerful American national security leaders are our ambassadors. Currently, women hold only 38 percent of ambassadorships. Most ambassadors come from the foreign service, which is 43 percent women, but the president has complete discretion on who he appoints. In addition, on average, the countries where men serve as ambassadors currently have twice the GDP of the countries with women as ambassadors. Some of the most consequential posts have never had a woman ambassador, including China, Russia, India and Australia. If confirmed, Caroline Kennedy will be the first woman to serve as ambassador to Australia.
For Senate-confirmed appointments and ambassadors, we have the benefit of transparency because nominations are publicly announced. Using this information, the Leadership Council for Women in National Security (LCWINS) created a political appointments tracker to better understand trends and to enable this analysis.
Unfortunately, for non-Senate confirmed appointments, we have much less insight, but what insight we do have points to the same problems of power imbalance.
At the beginning of this administration, the White House publicly announced non-Senate confirmed appointments, though they have not done so for many months despite some turnover and new staff additions. Based on those initial announcements, LCWINS analyzed the power ranking structure based on NSC staff positions: senior directors, coordinators, deputies and the Cabinet-level. On average, the men scored as coordinators, while the women scored as senior directors, almost an entire rank below the men.
The Biden administration deserves significant credit for the progress it has made. But we are not at gender parity. For women who see and experience these power imbalances, statements that we are at-or-near gender parity feel like gaslighting.
I often get asked why gender parity is so important in national security leadership. My first inclination is to think: Really? In 2022 are we still questioning why over 50 percent of the population should have access to the same options and opportunities? But, I get asked the question often enough that I always attempt a straightforward answer.
First, it leads to better decision-making within leadership teams, as has been shown time and again. But, you do not see the benefits of gender inclusion until you achieve critical mass; one woman is not likely to make a difference. Second, we are leaving over 50 percent of the talent on the table, untapped or under-tapped. Third, over 50 percent of tomorrow’s potential leaders are less likely to strive for these positions if they seem unattainable. Fourth, there is the issue of fundamental fairness. Fifth, we are willfully ignoring what other democracies are embracing. The United States is an embarrassing 41st in the Council on Foreign Relations’ Women’s Power Index. I could go on…
Historically, periods after major conflicts have resulted in significant defense and national security transformation. The periods directly after World War I, World War II and Vietnam resulted in revolutionary changes to our military, diplomacy and American-led international institutions.
As we emerge from the abrupt end to two decades of war and shift our national security paradigm toward addressing threats posed by Russia and China, we need creative new problem solving and an approach to national security that represents the interests of the American people. I fear that a room full of the same men who have been informing our policy for decades will not result in the new ideas and fresh thinking that we need for the future.
Lindsay L. Rodman is the executive director of the Leadership Council for Women in National Security.
Editor’s note: This piece has been updated to correct the names of nations that have never had a female ambassador.