The latest risk: the intelligence sector’s stifling lack of diversity?

By Elise Stephenson and Susan Harris Rimmer - 01 August 2023
The latest risk: the intelligence sector’s stifling lack of diversity?

Elise Stephenson and Susan Harris Rimmer explore new research on diversity within intelligence agencies and its implications.

In recent years, many global intelligence agencies are turning their eye inward with major reforms, analysis, and strategizing around a new risk: the sector’s stifling lack of diversity. From the UK’s 2018 report into Diversity and Inclusion in the UK Intelligence Community to the US’s annual Demographic Reports that collect – and publish – data on diversity across a staggering 19 different intelligence and national security agencies, we concur with growing evidence advocating for process review and analysis across different elements of diversity in intelligence, national security, and security vetting.

Intelligence services are at the forefront of identifying and understanding complex and multifaceted threats against the state, but how much do we know about the experiences of those who operate behind the curtain?

Our new research published in the International Studies Review comprised a systematic review of what’s known – and can be known – about diversity in the intelligence sector. It found that diversity in the sector is a critical tool of emancipation and inclusion for minoritised groups seeking representation in ‘secret’ intelligence institutions. Diversity is also seen as critical for fulfilling major, and growing, workforce shortages. Yet, workers’ diversity can also be co-opted for its utilitarian purposes: reducing groupthink, as well as surveillance and intelligence-gathering on minoritized groups which raises serious questions around the ethics, and circumstances, of diversity in the sector.

In the prevailing mostly European and US literature, the intelligence community (IC) is overwhelmingly white and disproportionately male. Indeed, whilst women have been informants, spies, and analysts in many various periods across human history, this was mostly in small-scale operations and on an informal basis. Cryptology and codebreaking were not initially considered male jobs, with a burgeoning war-era female workforce, yet women were still mostly subjected to subordinate roles and masculine norms had exclusionary effect on women.

In the context of deep secrecy and the absence of transparency, media perceptions of women in intelligence also ran wild, popularized by fiction and powerful cultural images of female spies and male intelligence officers. Soviet women in intelligence were portrayed as “sexualized femme fatales or as merciless, soulless devices of the system”. While men were often seen as “cool under pressure” and “loyal soldiers of the state”, women are referred to in the literature on intelligence as “shrewish wives”, “neurotic old maids”, “voluptuous young vixens”, “neurotic spinsters”, “red spy queens”, “svelte and striking blondes”, “beautiful, doomed exotic dancers”, “femme fatales”, “long-haired warriors”, “short-haired spies”, “beautiful seductresses”, “iron butterflies”, and “trailblazers”. Few terms could be considered inherently positive, almost all are loaded with meaning that diminishes, stereotypes, or otherwise limits women in intelligence.

A reliance on decades-old data is somewhat problematic for the study of diversity, yet often a reality as researchers must wait for documents to declassify or rely on seldom first-person accounts to surface through limited biographies and autobiographies. From the limited more contemporary data that does exist, women report being told they were not a “good fit”, were not “committed” to the organization, have a “lack of loyalty”, and were closely watched because they “stand out”. They can further experience siloing, infantilisation, and vertical segregation away from leadership positions – although the lack of up-to-date and transparent data does present limitations.

While at times the IC has provided opportunities for ethnically diverse individuals that were not matched by other industries, intelligence has also been found to be deeply structurally racist and exploitative of the benefits an ethnically diverse IC could bring to information gathering and analysis. Traditional methods of recruitment, security vetting, and background checks have historically factored into explicit and implicit discrimination of ethnically diverse candidates, with a small exception for specialist linguists or clerical grades.

Where 9/11 resulted in greater counter-terrorism initiatives and a bulking up of national security and intelligence agencies globally, it also provided more opportunities for greater ethnic diversity in intelligence. Indeed, in Britain, in the aftermath of 9/11, intelligence offered opportunities to ethnic minority communities at a time when there was intense opposition from the private sector and other government agencies to employ Arabic speakers. This was largely the result of the perceived and real limitations the IC had with specialist languages, cultural awareness, and infiltrating specific communities. In other words, ethnic inclusion in intelligence became an imperative to better survey ethnic minority communities.

LGBTIQ+ people did not escape this double-edged sword either. Whilst the study of sexuality in intelligence is limited, LGBTIQ+ communities have long histories of being the subject of surveillance and police brutality, not to mention “don’t ask, don’t tell” policies that forbade their ability to live and work openly in national security. Until 1975, the US IC openly barred employing homosexuals, looking for evidence of “sexual deviance” during background checks and security vetting. Among the main concerns included a concern that individuals would be able to be blackmailed; however, the loyalty of individuals was also a subject of contention, and wider homophobia (legally and socially sanctioned at the time) also impacted individuals.

Further research on “what works” in gaining greater diversity and better experiences for a diverse workforce in the IC is direly needed. Some tactics already engaged include establishing employee referral programs; increasing the diversity of job advertising campaigns; enhancing web and print media; recruiter training curriculum; invitation-only career fairs; establishing overt policies and staff networks; and language hiring bonus and awards program, among others. Additional targets drawn from the UK include: tangible commitment and leadership from departmental heads; staff networks that galvanize support and recognition for under-represented groups; inter-agency collaboration; external partnerships, particularly with industry associations around gender issues and LGBTI + inclusion; recruitment campaigns that are increasingly innovative and diverse, promoting “brand awareness “and a more diverse recruitment pool; and progress around flexible work and support for staff returning from parental leave.

Yet, gaining more diversity in intelligence also raises a more fundamental question—is it enough to argue for a more diverse IC, or do intelligence organizations perpetuate institutional sexism, racism, and other forms of discrimination to the extent that intelligence structures should be redesigned or abolished completely? In adjacent military literature, some feminists argue for women’s “right to fight”, while others argue for an anti-militarist approach, with women’s participation in the military seen as legitimizing an institution that is antithetical to the goals of feminism. To what degree should society and government accept and legitimize a more diverse intelligence workforce tasked with surveilling marginalized communities and perhaps inadvertently (if not directly) helping maintain some of the systems of oppression tied to their wider identity or background?

Encouraging reforms in the IC could itself be seen as anti-feminist; as Cynthia Enloe states of the military, “the newest maneuver has been to camouflage women’s service to the military as women’s liberation”. There is therefore serious doubt whether it is possible to re-gender the national security sector—including intelligence agencies—if the sector’s primary function remains the organized use of violence to achieve national objectives devised by groupings with few women and marginalized groups represented.

At the same time, what brought us to this work was the reality that whilst intelligence services exist, they must be diverse. We assert that even if a more diverse workforce does not result in the complete remaking of the intelligence sector, it is, perhaps, more likely to do so than maintaining the status quo has done to date. In other words, we believe it is important to fight for the right of women and historically marginalized groups’ inclusion in intelligence, but this does not mean we cannot keep critiquing the institution. Therefore, this article sits at an uncomfortable place for us as authors—wanting to disrupt the instrumentalist way in which the IC views diversity while also holding the promise that you can indeed transform these institutions.

Fundamentally, the IC should not have to make a case for diversity. These agencies have access to a huge amount of budget and resources; they have significant and very special privileges, immunities, and duties under the law; and they carry significant status in state societies. Access to intelligence institutions should therefore draw on the full diversity of the state’s citizenry as a matter of fundamental principle, not merely instrumental benefit. Moreover, even as we address diversity issues in intelligence, we must continue to problematize and question the institution itself.

For the full research article, please see here.





Dr Elise Stephenson is the Deputy Director of the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership at the Australian National University.

Professor Susan Harris Rimmer is the Director of the Policy Innovation Hub at Griffith University.

Photo by Faisal Rahman

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