Fran Townsend Stops by Sanford, Discusses Women in National Security

Ms. Townsend and former Amb. Benjamin There is a noticeable lack of concern about the underrepresentation of women in the National Security field. Contrast this with the amount of press coverage in the past two years about the lack of women in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (also known as STEM): following a Yale study, the New York Times covered the latter topic repeatedly (here and here), while the White House set up a website to encourage women to pursue STEM. While there have been recent advances in the U.S. government, with three female Secretaries of State paving the way, there is still a dramatic shortage of women serving in National Security and of public awareness on the issue.

Fran Townsend, the former Chair of the Homeland Security Council, took an hour out of her busy schedule recently to address these issues. She talked frankly with female undergraduate and graduate students at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy. Ms. Townsend was at Sanford to participate in a discussion panel on “The Evolving Terrorist Threat: What Should Be Done?” with former Ambassador Daniel Benjamin but was demonstrably eager to also talk to young women interested in National Security.

Ms. Townsend spent over 25 years in public service, beginning at the District Attorney’s office in Brooklyn, New York, and rising to serve as President George W. Bush’s Chair of the Homeland Security Council. Throughout her career, though, she often found herself as the only woman with a seat at the table. As a result, she is realistic about the problem of underrepresentation of women in the National Security field.

The reasons for this shortage, according to Ms. Townsend, likely vary from person to person based on goals and personal motivations. She saw many capable women self-select out of service, as it difficult to balance personal and professional lives when a career is as unpredictable as National Security. As she put it, “You can’t pick the time when stuff happens…so it takes a village [to make it work].” The question for each person becomes one of priorities – what are you, individually, willing to put first?

Certainly, she admitted, there are unique challenges to being a woman in a room full of men. She is careful about her appearance and has always dressed conservatively. This is due to her observation, “If you walk into a room and the first thing someone notices is superficial, it becomes an impediment to being heard.” And when you are heard it makes it easier to earn respect rather than simply demand it. Does that make her mad that she has to constantly consider her outward appearance? Absolutely. “It’s unfair, but it’s reality. It offends me deeply, but you have to pick your battles.”

In both the small roundtable on women in National Security and the discussion panel, Ms. Townsend made sure to tell the students listening that each person should consider spending a period of time in public service careers, whether or not they want to focus on National Security. She strongly believes that the experience not only makes institutions better, it makes the individual more confident and mature. As she notes, “If enough people serve, it will eventually change the dynamic in Washington.”

As I listened to Ms. Townsend in both fora and looked around the room, I was excited that so many young women and men showed an interest in National Security. Ours will be the voices of the next generation that have the chance to change the playing field for women while helping to solve the challenging problems of twenty-first century security.

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