December 8, 2017

TSC IntelBrief: The National Security Costs of Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment in the workplace is an under-acknowledged and under-reported fact of life for many women in the public and private sectors across the United States.

The public exposure and condemnation of powerful men responsible for repeated incidents of sexual harassment is overdue in the national security sector.

• Far too often, women working to neutralize hostile foreign threats have been forced to navigate hostile work environments in their own organizations.

• The #metoonatsec branch of the larger #MeToo movement has produced an open letter signed by more than 200 women in various national security fields.

• Sexual harassment threatens to damage national security by limiting opportunities for highly qualified professionals or making their jobs untenable.



Sexual harassment in the workplace is an under-acknowledged and under-reported fact of life for many women in the public and private sectors across the United States. Many women in national security posts have found their jobs untenable following instances of abuse, depriving the country of the full benefit of their talents and willingness to serve. While the media has recently focused on sexual harassment on the upper levels of entertainment and politics—with more scandals still to be revealed—the issue’s implications for national security have rarely been acknowledged and are only now being addressed.

On December 6, women who shared their personal experiences of sexual harassment in the online #metoo movement were named Time magazine’s 2017 ‘Person of the Year’, in a cover article entitled, ’The Silence Breakers.’ A number of their counterparts in the national security sector, are breaking their silence, with an offshoot called #metoonatsec. They seek to publicize their experiences of systemic sexual harassment in one of the nation’s most male-dominated fields, in sectors ranging from defense, law enforcement and intelligence, to the foreign service, and humanitarian aid. Two hundred women in the group have signed an open letter, stating that they have either experienced sexual harassment themselves, or know someone else who has. 

In national security, and particularly in the military, sexual harassment is often rooted in a pervasive mindset that women, by dint of gender, can’t be truly competent at what some still consider to be ‘man’s work.’ A U.S. President has yet to nominate a woman for Secretary of Defense, and its only within the past few years that combat roles that may lead to promotion have been opened up to woman. Other nations, such as Norway, have long recognized the value of promoting women, whose ability to serve their country is assumed, rather than debated. It is also true that in national security, as in many other fields, a woman who advances in rank or position may find herself facing damaging rumors of how she might have obtained her position. Contrast that to men, where generally nothing of a sexual or personal nature is whispered behind their backs when they achieve higher rank.

Sexual harassment is both an assault on women at large and an offense against the individual women who suffer its effects. It can limit or waste the careers of talented women, at a time when the national security sector needs both fresh talent and new ideas. It often continues, just beneath the surface of many organizations, despite training and clear written standards of conduct. Progress has been made in establishing formal and informal consequences for sexual harassment. But as seen in recent scandals involving well-known political and media figures, written rules and standards of conduct may be violated, sometimes with impunity, particularly by men in positions of power. The #metoonatsec campaign, and the larger #metoo movement, show how much work needs to be done to make such behavior, which can damage individuals and organizations important to national security, truly unacceptable at every level.

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