Spies like us

20150310-Spy_picThere were many interesting details in the report released by the British Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee on March 5th. Titled Women in the UK Intelligence Community and coinciding with International Women’s Day, it explored issues of diversity in Britain’s three intelligence agencies: SIS (the Secret Intelligence Service, also known as MI6 and focussed on overseas spying), MI5 (the domestic agency) and GCHQ, or Government Communications Headquarters; the cyber snoops. But the primary focus for the report, as the name suggests, is how to attract, promote and retain women.

Much of the attention given to the report, written by Labour MP Hazel Blears, centred on the suggestion that Mumsnet, a parents’ support website, be used as a forum for advertising recruitment opportunities. The Mumsnetters had great fun with this, see here.  But as a bid for diversity the Daily Mail was unimpressed, commenting: ‘Er, is she sure about that? Is Mumsnet not even more insufferably middle-class than Oxbridge these days?’.

Unfortunately, many of the more interesting details were overlooked by the media.  For example, the report states that women made up 36% of applicants and 44% of actual recruits to SIS last year.  I read two things from these statistics: first, proportionally more women passed the SIS selection process than men. Second, given the ideal gender split would, presumably, be 50/50, a 44% recruitment rate equates to 88% of the target figure.  As a frequent user of national rail services, I’d be whooping for joy if every train I took achieved something similar.

One of the biggest criticisms of all three agencies was described as the ‘permafrost of middle management’. The report observed: ‘while the top and bottom of the organisation understand and are committed to diversity, there is a tier at middle management level…that seems to have a very traditional male mentality and outlook’. (Although even this attracted the Daily Mail’s ungracious observation: “Of course! Top jobs always go to greasers and yea-sayers who can sniff the political wind”.)

The intelligence agencies are not the only government departments experiencing permafrost; the British army suffers likewise. Gender equality issues are a regular feature reported to the Chief of the General Staff’s Briefing Team, a rolling outreach programme offering a shortcut to the head of the organisation for the most serious or widespread gripes.  Partly as a response, in 2011 the Army Women’s Network (AWN) was created, immediately attracting some boringly predictable responses questioning the need for such a group in the online discussion forum of ARRSE, the (unofficial) army rumour service website. The AWN will be re-launched this summer.

There are clear differences in culture and role between the intelligence agencies and the army. But can these account for, let alone explain comments (on ARRSE) such as “I hear the first 50 to sign up [to the AWN] will be entered into a draw to win a pony. The runners up will receive some nice flowers and knitting patterns”? Is the military less likely to see as a concern issues traditionally thought of as concerning women only, such as childcare and glass ceilings, because it calls for selfless commitment and is built for extreme violence?

Responsibility for childcare is seen in the report (and anecdotally in the army) as the primary reason for a lack of women in senior leadership positions. (Although it is interesting to note that whereas 23% of FTSE 100 Board Members are women, the figure for Britain’s intelligence agencies’ Board members is 35%.) But is the continuation of the argument that childcare concerns in the workplace are holding women back itself an outdated concept?  Is not childcare a shared endeavour (in most cases) between two people, with the predominant model being a man and a woman? So why is the argument not put forward that men are equally vulnerable to career-damage because of childcare responsibilities?

The ‘Glass-Ceiling Index‘ published this week in The Economist, combining data on higher education, labour-force participation, pay, child-care costs, maternity rights and representation in senior jobs, suggests the Nordic countries are the best places to be a working woman, although data from intelligence agencies were not included. Britain came 22nd.

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