Women in intelligence seek balance in life, value in work

The CIA and other intelligence agencies are a "heavily male industry," said Carol Evans, president of Working Woman Media.

Story highlights

  • Nada Bakos was CIA intelligence analyst when 9/11 hit
  • After 9/11, she switched to operations work
  • Like many female intelligence officers, she has trouble with work/life balance
Nada Bakos used to go work with a Glock strapped to her thigh. The former targeting officer for the CIA started her intelligence career as an analyst in 2000. But then 9/11 happened.
"Everybody's life changed," said Nada Bakos who, like many other women who were serving as analysts prior to the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, moved to the counterterrorism and eventually made the switch to the operations side, which meant she wasn't just analyzing the data on the bad guys, she was going after them.
She didn't yet have a family when she accepted her assignment as a targeting officer in Iraq, working alongside special forces in the hunt for the now-deceased terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. She won't share the details of exactly what she did to help find him, but she saw definite advantages to being a woman in the arena, noting that she sometimes had a very different experience than her male counterparts when it came to working within the norms of the culture.
"I got a completely different response than the men did," said Bakos, describing one particular effort to gather information. "How is a 26-year-old white male gonna walk up to a woman in the Middle East and say 'Hey, why don't you talk to me?' "
After a couple of years, Bakos realized that she knew more about Zarqawi than she did about many of the other men in her life. That, in part, was a wake-up call to do something more: She wanted to start a family. But she was deep into her career on the operations side. That was a problem.
"The difference between men and women is that it's really hard for women to live the lifestyle of a case officer," said Bakos. "If you have a significant other, it's hard for you both to be employed. I was 37 then and I can't really say, 'Hey, let's interrupt your career and you can carve out what you need."
At least 160 other women feel her pain. Women from the CIA, the National Security Agency, Naval Office of Intelligence and dozens of other agencies met last week in a hotel conference room in McLean, Virginia, to try and find a better way.
The "women in national security" conference was sponsored by Working Woman Media. Carol Evans, president of that group, noted the unique environment in which these women compete.
"These women work in a very unusual industry," said Evans. "National security is still a very heavily male industry, and many of these women, as they will say throughout the day, are oftentimes the first in their field to be a woman -- the only person in the room who's a woman. So when we bring women together in an industry like this, they just feed off of each other, they catch each other's energy, and they build relationships."
And relationship-building while navigating a career in intelligence and national security is key, according to Letitia Long, the only female director of any of the 16 agencies that make up the U.S. intelligence community.
Long, who spoke at the conference, insists that work-life balance is something she has to work at every day.
"I'm passionate about what I do, so I often want to stay to do that last e-mail or sign that last memo, or ensure that I'm prepared for the next day. But we do have to remind ourselves that if we are going to be at the top of our game, if we are going to be rested and ready to lead, we have to take that step away and ensure we are keeping that work life balance," Long said in an interview with CNN's Security Clearance.
"These are ... some of the most stressful positions that are in the work force, and if we are able to balance this, then perhaps there are some secrets that we can share with others so that they can balance also."
Long said that part of the stress is dealing with a culture at the agencies that needs to change.
At the agency Long heads, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, women make up about 31% of the work force, and the attrition rate is slightly higher than that of men. As director of the agency, Long feels that balance has to change if the country is going to build a stronger, more diverse, national security work force.
"I do notice that women bring a different perspective when we're talking about the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency and our core mission, of GEOINT, as men and women are looking at imagery, they see things differently," Long.
"We all are a product of our background and our upbringing," she said, "and women will just tend to notice different things in an image than men will. Or if we're looking at pattern of activity, they might notice something that a man might not and vice versa. A man will notice something that a woman will not, because they don't see it as important or they don't see it as relevant, yet something that's not relevant today, might be relevant tomorrow."
The deputy director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, David Shedd, agrees. With women making up close to 35% of his employees, he sees distinct advantages in finding a work force more in balance when it comes to gender.
"Women as a rule tend to have stronger intuitive skills, and in the world of intelligence, where you are often dealing with less than perfect information, that intuitive nature is important," said Shedd. "Men tend to be more fact-based."
Shedd also offered advice to the women attending the conference. When a woman from the NSA stood up and told him that she personally struggles with how effective she is at her job because when she makes an unpopular decision, instead of being seen as a strong leader, she is referred to as a word that rhymes with "witch," he agreed that some misperceptions still exist.
"As a man, I can tell you when no women are around, men still say that type of woman, you used the 'witch' word, but the man, he's just strong-willed and strong-minded," said Shedd. "I am very familiar with that. Changing the culture is critical."
Shedd advocates for women in intel to build a strong team of mentors and call on them often, and to set clear goals rather than being afraid to show their ambition.
Bakos, the former spy mom with the Glock, is on that path now. She retired from the CIA, has two kids and is looking for consulting work. She still feels like she has much to offer, and she advocates for a change of culture within the intelligence community. And for letting strong women find a way to live both lives.
"I think there has to be a better way," Bakos said.