The world of national security has long been a man’s game. Not anymore. Primer’s Director of Global Intelligence Strategy, Cynthia Strand, spent 35 years in the CIA. At a recent panel for women in national security, Strand shared how success in national security comes when we all work together to break the gender bias.

“National security is a team sport. No one organization is going to save the country. But we can all do it together.”

Cynthia Strand

Cynthia Strand, Director of Global Intelligence Strategy at Primer, alongside three incredible women who work in national security, recently spoke at a panel hosted by George Washington University (GW). The fireside chat was hosted by the GW College of Professional Studies, which offers a master’s degree program in cybersecurity strategy and information management and a bachelor’s and master’s degree programs in homeland security. 

Strand was joined by Maria Berliner, managing director of the RTG-Red Team Group and a professor of intelligence and strategic analysis at GW, and Kathleen Haraseck, an adjunct professor of GW’s homeland security program. The discussion, moderated by Elaine Lammert, director of GW’s master’s program in homeland security, focused on building a career as a woman in national security, where panelists shared their experiences in the industry so that others might consider a job in such a cutting-edge and relevant industry. 

Breaking the bias

Traditionally, national security has been a male-dominated industry. Not anymore.

Over the last several years, there has been a movement to improve gender diversity and fight unconscious bias in national security. President Biden’s cabinet is 44% women, the highest ever, and 50% of Senate-confirmed political appointments in national security have gone to women. But Biden’s National Security Council comprises just 36% women, according to the Leadership Council for Women In National Security (LCWINS).

Breaking the bias for traditionally male industries—or rather any industry in general—is hard. 

That’s why this year’s International Women’s Day theme was to #BreakTheBias, encouraging everyone to work together to forge a path to women’s equality. This gives women in national security a place to thrive, knowing that their voices and points of view matter just as much as that of their colleagues.

Master your craft

For women considering a career in national security, Strand encouraged them to master their tradecraft. By being good at what you do, you create a seat for yourself at the table and a broad network of colleagues. The network you build makes you more effective and has a more significant impact on the organization. And women can only do that if they are given the option to maintain a shifting work-life balance as their personal lives evolve.

“The most important thing is to master your craft,” Strand said. “No matter what you are hired to do, do it to the absolute best of your ability.”

Don’t be afraid to get uncomfortable

Strand encourages women who are looking for a career in national security to stretch themselves, take risks, and apply for positions that they can grow into. That said, Strand also emphasized normalizing feeling uncomfortable in our roles and taking on new challenges and risks. If we’re not being challenged, we’re not learning. For Strand, one of the most significant challenges of her career has been navigating a job that fell outside a traditional path with a skill set that wasn’t always valued. 

“We learn a lot when we’re uncomfortable,” Strand said.

Before joining Primer, Strand spent 35 years in the CIA as a former Deputy Assistant Director and Senior Manager in the Directorate of Science and Technology. She was also the Industry-Government Partnerships Innovator at In-Q-Tel. 

Strand initially applied to be an analyst for the CIA but ended up as the Directorate of Science and Technology instead. She mentions that path as being “one of the best unanswered prayers of my career” as she was put into an environment where “we were encouraged to lean in and take risks.” She notes that the environment shaped the rest of her career. 

Tools to succeed

Successful women also need to be at the helm of recruitment efforts, represented in a wide range of occupations to help female candidates see themselves and a career path they want to go down. Strand also recommended starting the mentoring process earlier by pairing new hires with senior female sponsors. She and the other panelists agreed that we all need to lift other women up, as we stand on the shoulders of the women who came before us.

“Wherever you can, lift other women up,” Strand said.