U.S. President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, and former presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton at the 50th anniversery of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s March on Washington, August 2013.
U.S. President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, and former presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton at the 50th anniversery of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s March on Washington, August 2013.
Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

On October 5, 2016, U.S. President Barack Obama issued a memorandum entitled “Promoting Diversity and Inclusion in the National Security Workforce,” which stated that “as the United States becomes more diverse and the challenges we face more complex, we must continue to invest in policies to recruit, retain, and develop the best and brightest from all segments of our population.” As President-elect Donald Trump prepares to take office, he has a unique opportunity to heed that advice and commit to improving diversity in the ranks of the national security establishment. To be sure, his derogatory statements about women and ethnic minority groups during the presidential campaign, as well as some of the appointments and nominations he has announced to date, have led many to question his views on diversity. But that is why a public commitment to ensuring diversity in America’s national security workforce is all the more urgent.

Without such a pledge, it is hard to imagine, for example, how U.S. intelligence agencies could successfully recruit Muslim Americans after Trump campaigned on a promise to block Muslims from entering the United States, when his choice for National Security Advisor called the fear of Muslims “rational,” and when one of his prominent supporters publicly cited as a precedent for a Muslim registry the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. And it will be difficult for him to assure servicewomen in the military that as commander-in-chief he will not tolerate sexual harassment or sexual assault in the ranks when he boasted about touching women inappropriately and then dismissed it as mere “locker-room talk.”

Trump’s public position on diversity in the national security establishment, which he has not yet clarified, must thus be viewed as a national security issue. The rapidly changing demographic landscape of the United States, the increasing prevalence of women in the workforce, and the need to cultivate personal ties with people in every corner of the world demand it. To get diversity right, officials must dispense with the pernicious myths that the lack of diversity among the senior ranks is best explained by the relatively poor performance of women and minorities and that increasing diversity will require protecting and promoting unqualified women and minorities to the disadvantage of more qualified candidates and the detriment of the country’s security. Although the pool of talent in the national security arena is not a perfect representation of the diversity of America, it is deep and wide enough to begin to transform the leadership of the national security establishment—and, thereby, to advance U.S. national security interests.

In every agency in the U.S. national security establishment, the ranks of women and minorities are even smaller at the top of the pyramid than at the bottom


In the memorandum on diversity, the White House concludes that the workforces in the national security community “are less diverse on average than the rest of the Federal Government.” The problem is even more pronounced when comparing the composition of the agencies’ leadership to that of their workforce at more junior levels. Indeed, the memorandum suggests that in every agency in the U.S. national security establishment, the ranks of women and minorities are even smaller at the top of the pyramid than at the bottom. For example, by the time a cohort of officers is being considered to join the ranks of the Senior Foreign Service, it is less diverse than it was at the start of the officers’ careers. This means that there will be even fewer women and minority officers who will be eligible when it comes time for promotion to the rank of Counselor in the Senior Foreign Service.

Critics may point out that there have been, after all, a number of women and minorities in prominent positions in the U.S. national security establishment for over three decades. Furthermore, they might argue, the formation and execution of U.S. foreign policy continue apace; any challenges are due to the inherent complexity of the problems the United States faces rather than the ethnic or gender composition of the policymaking establishment. Finally, some skeptics insist, tinkering with the recruitment and selection process of the national security establishment in the name of diversity would lead to the admission and promotion of less-qualified women and minorities to satisfy the proponents of political correctness.

Then-Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice in Washington, shortly after the September 11, 2001 attacks, obtained July 2015.
Then-Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice in Washington, shortly after the September 11, 2001 attacks, obtained July 2015.

Such critiques ignore at least three important points. First, the United States was founded on a philosophy of the inherent equality of every citizen. The idea has been practiced imperfectly over time, but it not only defines Americans’ view of themselves but also frames the country’s engagement with the rest of the world. Whether the issue is promoting women’s rights or resolving conflict in societies torn apart by ethnic strife, the United States holds itself up to the world as an example of how an inclusive, heterogeneous society can be governed. When Washington does not reflect that diversity, it undermines the narrative of inclusion and fairness.

Second, diversity in the most senior reaches of the national security establishment is essential for the retention of qualified women and minorities at more junior and mid-levels. If they do not see evidence that people of their own gender and ethnic background can successfully climb the career ladder, then they have no reason to believe that their best efforts will be rewarded. They may vote with their feet, thus further decreasing diversity in the agencies.

Third, as the United States becomes more ethnically diverse in the coming decades and as the country becomes more accustomed to seeing women in positions of leadership in other sectors of society, a national security establishment that does not reflect that diversity will become increasingly disconnected from the American public that it serves. More and more, it will be impossible to sustain the arguments of the 1960s through the 1980s that there are not enough qualified women and minorities to recruit and promote into professional positions in the national security agencies. The men and women who will be leading the country’s national security establishment 30 years from now are just starting to enter the federal workforce today. Thus, the time to build a diverse cadre of national security leaders is now. 

If one agrees that diversity is important and that there are qualified women and minority candidates, then one must look to recruitment and promotion procedures.

If one agrees that diversity is important and that there are qualified women and minority candidates, then one must look to recruitment and promotion procedures. The strength of anti-discrimination laws suggests that legal barriers to recruitment and advancement are not responsible for the problem. A more plausible explanation is that the informal professional networks of mentorship and sponsorship that are vital for grooming promising individuals for more senior positions are not sufficiently open. Indeed, professional networks can be self-selecting along the lines of gender and ethnicity. Leaders in the national security community should examine how mentorship and sponsorship affect career advancement to ensure that qualified women and minorities are benefitting from them as well.


Mentorship can be defined as the informal provision of professional advice and guidance. It is essential for helping junior officials learn the norms of an organization, the professional pitfalls to avoid, and the steps for advancement. Mentorship alone is generally not enough to strengthen the prospects of professional success. To be successful in the long run, employees need sponsors as well. Sponsorship is using the authority of office to ensure that qualified candidates are considered for career-enhancing positions and promotions. At a certain professional stage, the number of such candidates exceeds the supply of available jobs, and sponsors help ensure that their candidates have a shot at climbing the next rung of the career ladder. Sponsoring based on race or gender is rightly illegal under federal law. However, the proportionally lower numbers of women and minorities at upper echelons of agencies across the national security establishment suggests that, in general, they are not receiving the benefits of career sponsorship at the same rate as their white male peers. The question, then, is how to ensure that sponsorship opportunities are spread to all employees who are highly qualified, regardless of their gender or ethnic background.

The question, then, is how to ensure that sponsorship opportunities are spread to all employees who are highly qualified, regardless of their gender or ethnic background.

It is easy to see how this plays out in practice. For the professional staff of the national security agencies (that is, those who join the agencies as long-term employees as opposed to shorter-term political appointees), the standards for entry into the organizations and the criteria for promotion are relatively clear and rigorous. For example, taking the Foreign Service Officer Test is a rite of passage for all of prospective U.S. diplomats, with only a small percentage of test-takers passing the exam and going on into the Foreign Service.

In both the military and the civilian agencies, young officers are expected to learn and demonstrate professional competence in their respective specialties before they are selected for mid-level responsibilities. By policy and law, every effort is made to ensure that the requirements are as objective as possible: How well can a young Navy pilot land a plane on the deck of an aircraft carrier? How accurately can a young intelligence officer interpret the actions of a subject under that officer’s observation? The ability of young officers to master these skills will play a critical role in determining their advancement within the organization. Each agency has a vested interest in assuring that all of its junior officers, regardless of their gender or ethnic background, have the best training and coaching possible to be successful in their careers. And, in each agency, mentors are key. 

The mid-level stage is often the most critical for any professional. Broadly speaking, this stage starts after six to ten years of service and lasts through the 20- to 25-year mark. It is during this time that officers can start to distinguish themselves by taking the “right” jobs that will further separate them from their peers. Although mentorship continues to be important at the mid-level, sponsorship begins to count more. To be sure, Washington tries to make assignment and promotion processes as objective as possible. Promotion panels at the State Department pore over the Employee Efficiency Reports (EERs) of FSOs to determine who should be promoted now and who should be deferred for another year.

The National Mall in Washington D.C. on the date of Barack Obama's inauguration as U.S. president, January 2009.
Jason Reed / Reuters

Nevertheless, there are ways in which sponsors can boost the career prospects of promising mid-level officers. For example, an ambassador at an embassy can call the White House to recommend an exceptional member of his or her country team for service on the National Security Council staff. A division director at Langley can help an accomplished analyst get a coveted spot to study at the National War College. Sponsors can be crucial, but given the prevalence of white men in senior leadership positions across the national security agencies, women and minorities will likely need at least one white male sponsor dedicated to their professional success to progress up the career ladder. This, frankly, is where addressing the challenge of diversity in the national security establishment must begin.

Mentorship and sponsorship networks are informal. Beyond objective performance, these relationships rely on personal rapport and established trust. As is the case in social relationships, such bonds are usually formed more easily among people of similar backgrounds. In a professional environment where the leadership is overwhelmingly comprised of white men, diversifying the national security establishment at its upper levels depends on its leaders making conscious efforts to broaden informal mentorship and sponsorship networks.

This phenomenon works in reverse as well. When women and minorities see leaders in their organization who share their demographic background, they feel more confident that they, too, can achieve similar levels of success. Conversely, the relative absence of women and minorities at senior levels can cause them to question their future in the organization. Although there have been prominent women and minorities who have served as senior political appointees in the national security establishment, they do not really “count” since political appointees do not climb the career ladder of the national security bureaucracy that professional staff members are required to navigate. The national security agencies thus lose highly talented women and minority officers at the mid-level point in their careers.

The Marine Corps is a particularly telling example. It remains the only one of the four armed services in the Department of Defense that has selected exclusively white men for its most senior leadership positions. Since 1948, when President Truman ordered the integration of the U.S. military and authorized the commissioning of women in the regular Marine Corps, there has never been an African American or a woman Marine promoted to the rank of four-star general. Over the same period, there have been 15 African American four-star officers and four female four-star officers in the other three services. When the handful of female and African American colonels in the Marine Corps today assesses these facts, they may reasonably ask themselves if the Corps will ever select them for its highest rank even if they have earned it. 

Developing and maintaining a diverse workforce in the national security community at all levels depends on breaking these cycles at the junior and middle levels. The professional ranks of all the national security agencies are closed pyramids. The workforce is broad at the bottom and narrow at the top, as officials compete against each other for professional advancement. These agencies do not hire externally; they cannot increase the size or change the demographic composition of their workforce by bringing in new personnel in positions above those at the entry level.

This dynamic is why mentorship and sponsorship are so critical. Because the pool of talent in these agencies will never be bigger than at the point of entry, improving institutional diversity at senior levels requires agencies to pay particular attention to the growth and advancement of female and minority staff. In short, the leadership of the national security establishment must become advocates and allies in the promotion of diversity.

In short, the leadership of the national security establishment must become advocates and allies in the promotion of diversity.


Obama’s memorandum issued three broad directives to the national security agencies to enhance diversity. First, it directed them to collect better data on the diversity of their workforces and to disseminate that information publicly. Second, it directed them to expand professional development opportunities “consistent with merit principles” and to conduct interviews with a cross-section of employees to determine their reasons for remaining in or leaving the organization. Third, it called on agency leaders to reward efforts to promote diversity and to expand training on unconscious bias. Further, Obama requested that agencies report back to the White House on their progress within 120 days and annually thereafter. Agency leaders should consider additional steps to supplement the directives outlined in the memorandum.

First, although legal and policy barriers to women’s and minorities’ participation in the national security establishment were lifted at roughly the same time across the national security establishment, there remains significant variation in the degree to which individual agencies have been able to promote diversity. The result has been an unintentional experiment in which agencies with better track records on matters of diversity can share their experiences with those that have been less successful. For example, since the Marine Corps has the least diverse officer corps and senior leadership in the armed forces (both in absolute terms and in proportion to its size), it could look to the Army, Navy, and Air Force to see how they do better. And the director of the CIA could enter into a dialogue with retired ambassadors and other Senior Foreign Service Officers to better understand how the State Department has attracted and retained women and minorities. Interagency dialogue can help individual agencies import best practices on diversity from each other and help illuminate barriers in their own institutional cultures that may be difficult to identify solely through self-examination.

U.S. Army members march in a Veteran's Day parade in New York City, November 2016.
U.S. Army members march in a Veteran's Day parade in New York City, November 2016.
Eduardo Munoz / Reuters

Second, bureaucracies and the people that work within them respond to institutional incentives. They tend to focus on the things that the organization signals are important for advancement, and they pay less attention to those things that the organization says are not important. For example, despite the theoretical benefits of working more closely together in warfare, the armed forces did not truly become “joint” until the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986 mandated that all officers had to complete Joint Professional Military Education and serve in a joint assignment in order to be eligible for promotion to the flag or general officer ranks.

The same should be true in matters of diversity. Agencies should make clear to employees aspiring to senior positions in their organizations that it is not enough for them to refrain from demonstrations of prejudice or sexism in the workplace. Rather, agencies should require that aspirants demonstrate a commitment to promoting workforce diversity in order to become senior leaders in their organizations. Critics of such an approach fear that such a heavy emphasis on diversity will allow employees to “play the gender/race card” if their careers are not successful. Contrary to such concerns, federal law explicitly forbids the consideration of race or gender in the assignment or promotion of staff in virtually every circumstance. Additionally, there are mechanisms in agencies across the federal government to distinguish legitimate complaints of gender or racial bias from spurious ones.

Further, agency leaders can demonstrate a commitment to promoting diversity in any number of ways without unfairly favoring women and minority candidates. For example, they could promote workforce diversity by making recruiting trips to women’s colleges or historically black colleges and universities. They could also attend the meetings and conferences of affinity groups such as Women in International Security or the Hispanic Employees Council of Foreign Affairs Agencies. Such visits would ensure that all senior leaders are acquainted with the unique histories and challenges of particular demographic groups in the workforce, help them build interlocking networks of mentorship and support between employees from traditionally underrepresented groups and those from the traditional majority, and allow them to develop a comfort level for understanding and promoting workforce diversity.

Third, there are at least two best practices that agencies and their leaders can take from corporate and non-profit America. For one, agencies can mandate that a woman or a person of color is considered (although not necessarily selected) for every senior position. This practice is increasingly common in the corporate world and the non-profit sector, and it ensures that a diverse group of talented people is at least considered, which increases the chances of a woman or a person of color being selected and improves diversity in institutional leadership overall. After completing a legal review to ensure compliance with federal labor law, national security agencies could adopt a similar policy. Should agencies find that they do not have enough qualified women and minorities at appropriate levels to consider for every senior appointment, it would serve as an occasion to ask themselves why that is the case.

Further, agencies could review the records of all mid-level staff, including women and minorities, who receive adverse personnel evaluations to ensure that they are receiving fair treatment. In his autobiography, My American Journey, General Colin Powell wrote that, when he was a newly minted brigadier general (one-star), he served as the assistant division commander for the Fourth Mechanized Infantry Division at Ft. Carson, Colorado. He had a particularly difficult relationship with his commander officer, who ultimately wrote him a potentially career-ending evaluation. An officer senior to the commander was visiting the unit and saw Powell’s professional acumen in practice. The visiting officer overruled the negative evaluation and saved Powell’s career, allowing him to rise through the ranks to become a four-star general, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and ultimately U.S. secretary of state. We may never know how many other Colin Powells the military and civilian national security agencies have lost as a result of the vagaries of personal relationships or worse. But an effort to review the negative records of otherwise strong performers could help ensure that future stars can rise to their full potential.


Advancing U.S. interests in the world depends on having the best people working on the country’s behalf. It is essential that all of America’s national security professionals, including women and minorities, have an equal chance to rise professionally as far as their talents will take them. As Trump considers revising or rejecting the executive orders and presidential memoranda of his predecessor, he would do well to retain the October 2016 Memorandum on Promoting Diversity and Inclusion in the National Security Workforce. Doing so would be an opportunity for him to demonstrate his commitment to an inclusive country where all people are welcomed and encouraged to dedicate their professional lives to the protection of their country. The leaders of the national security establishment today have a vital role to play in diversifying the ranks of the national security leadership of tomorrow. There are fair and appropriate ways to do so if leaders choose them.

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  • REUBEN E. BRIGETY, II is the Dean of the Elliott School of International Affairs at The George Washington University and a former U.S. Representative to the African Union. 
  • More By Reuben E. Brigety II