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This nonprofit wants to put more women in national security jobs

Amy Scott and Richard Cunningham Jan 18, 2023
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Women make up only 20% of the national security workforce, but the nonprofit Girl Security is looking to change that. Above, the Pentagon. Alex Wong/Getty Images

This nonprofit wants to put more women in national security jobs

Amy Scott and Richard Cunningham Jan 18, 2023
Heard on:
Women make up only 20% of the national security workforce, but the nonprofit Girl Security is looking to change that. Above, the Pentagon. Alex Wong/Getty Images
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The United States spends a lot on national security — funding in the latest National Defense Authorization Act was nearly $858 billion.

And it’s no secret that the industry has long been dominated by men. But there’s a growing movement to bring more women into national security jobs. According to a story in The 19th, women make up just 20% of the workforce.

Mariel Padilla wrote that story, profiling an organization called Girl Security. The nonprofit has connected more than 800 young women to national security mentors and graduated 75 fellows from a workforce training program. 

“Marketplace” host Amy Scott spoke with Padilla about Girl Security and the work its doing. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Amy Scott: What is keeping women out of this field of national security? 

Mariel Padilla: I think it’s a combination of things. It’s a lack of visible role models, it’s long-standing misconceptions about career pathways available to young women and stereotypes about what the sector should look like. 

Scott: Yeah, you open the piece with a “Men in Black” reference. And those stereotypes are based in a little bit of reality though, right? I mean, the security guard, the Secret Service member, the bouncer at the bar — usually people we see working in security are men. 

Padilla: Right. I mean, women still account for only about 20% of the national security workforce across the board. And a lot of people attribute this to longstanding ideas that security is about power and control and physical strength, and that might have been the case in the past, but things certainly are changing. 

Scott: You profiled this group, Girl Security, that is working to change the perception of national security and also get more young women working in the field. How are they going about that? 

Padilla: Yes, so Girl Security is an organization that was started in 2019 by a woman who worked in national security for years. And she left the industry actually for a decade and didn’t come back until she realized that the number of women had remained stagnant across the field. So she is kind of focusing this organization on helping younger women and girls, ages 14 through 26, just learn about what kind of pathways are available to them, and what kinds of things they can contribute to the national security field, and honestly, just figure out who is interested and what they’re interested in, because there’s a new perspective being brought to what national security looks like from these girls. 

Scott: What do you think women and people who don’t identify as male — the group is open to nonbinary folks as well — can bring to the space, maybe that has been missing?

Padilla: Yeah, so I actually talked to some of the young women who are involved with this organization already. I talked to several college students and one high school student, and they told me about how they were able to bring their own ideas to a space that they didn’t think that they were allowed in, because of the avenues that Girl Security opened up. And so this is things like their interest in climate change issues or food security issues. So just finding ways to make the world a better place from where they were sitting.

Scott: You brought us something that really struck me, which is that the experience of growing up female in our society with concerns about our own personal security can actually be an advantage in terms of sort of the vigilance that women might bring to this field. 

Padilla: Absolutely. And the founder talked about this a lot. The founder of Girl Security said that girls and women grow up in a state of constant threat to their personal security. And because of this, they innately and intimately understand security in a way that other people might not. And so for instance, there are people involved with Girl Security who are moms who have been trafficked, parents who have been detained by ICE, first-generation refugees who were resettled here post-conflict. So these are women who have experienced the repercussions of national security decisions that were already made. And they now want to be part of that solution. So it’s all about bringing new voices to the table.

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