Empowering Girls in National Security
Women in national security have organized a powerful movement around inclusion, diversity, and the right to be secure in their pursuit of safeguarding America. The promise of a representative national security workforce is boundless, but much progress remains to be made. While women in national security advance a fairer playing field today, Girl Security is ensuring those girls interested in national security can pursue this unity of purpose with the same vigor as their male peers when they reach the new playing field.
I started Girl Security in 2016 to empower girls, from kindergarten through 12th grade, across the United States in national security. Responsibly empowering girls demands a robust approach. First, it requires that we — as an organization — make the case to girls that their engagement with national security matters during a period in which the field is assessing why it hasn’t sufficiently valued women, who represent more than half the U.S. population. Next, it requires us to forge a model that empowers every girl to engage with national security, first, and then advances those girls interested in national security through college to career. This requires public education, and not just for girls, but for schools, communities and families. While “security” as a condition is very personal, “national security” remains a foreign concept to many despite its regular appearance in headlines. Lastly, it requires, well, girls. Engaging girls requires that national security be somehow accessible to them. To do so, we must understand how girls think about security, and this begins with two simple questions: “What does national security mean to you?” and “How do you personally experience security?”
First, the most common response we have received from hundreds of conversations with women in national security over the last three years is that they wish a program like Girl Security existed when they were in high school or younger. In addition, we receive comments such as “I wish I had been trained in the skills I would need before college,” or “I wonder how my career might be different if I had a head start in high school.”
We also know that women remain underrepresented in national security, particularly in leadership positions, and that as with science, technology, engineering and math, attracting more women to national security requires that we expose girls to potential career paths sooner and support their entry into the field. However, “filling the pipeline” in national security is only meaningful insofar as the culture that defines it is not hostile to women; colleagues don’t pose physical or other security risks to women; and policies and systems exist to foster women’s advancement. Certainly, greater representation of women creates a higher likelihood of cultural change in national security.
More immediately, however, a shifting national security landscape provides an opportunity to genuinely value girls’ contributions today in advance of eventual participation as practitioners. Don’t fool yourself — we don’t need to sell the national security community on why girls and women matter. We need to sell girls on why they should contribute to a field where women have been historically marginalized despite their longstanding contributions.
Here’s the thing about how girls and women uniquely experience security: We have never had the benefit of taking our personal security for granted. From girlhood through adulthood, we endure constant physical and non-physical threats to our bodies and ourselves, some more destructive than others. We adapt accordingly, with varying degrees of difficulty. If we deemed each attack as a failure to secure ourselves, we could not thrive as girls, and then as women. Rather, we become highly resilient.
National security has long been the domain of men, and this domain has long been defined by the need to protect the physical integrity of bodies, buildings, and borders from attack. Protecting the physical integrity of the United States remains imperative, and women continue to play a critical role. However, a totality of security amid persistent threat of attack, such as misinformation campaigns designed to sow discord and undermine U.S. democracy, requires the broader skills of our citizenry. Resilience emerges as the frontrunner.
So back to those resilient girls who are also on the frontlines of national security threats at the intersection of the internet, the electoral process, and the future of our democracy: We need them.
Certainly, leading with resilience is only one of many contributions girls can make to America’s security. But valuing girls’ resilience provides an opportunity to engage girls from across the United States in national security around a set of shared experiences today. It also provides a foundation upon which girls interested in national security can be empowered from middle and high school to career.
What Girl Security Is Doing
Rather than lecture girls on potential career paths in national security, we’re employing specialized curriculum modules in K-12 classrooms designed by women in the field, adolescent mental health specialists, and girls. Yes, we want more women in national security, but we want more girls to understand how national security affects their lives and those of their families and friends. Our courses provide a foundational understanding of national security coupled with topical modules on national security ethics, counter-terrorism, and nuclear security, for example. They also expose girls to women in our mentor network who represent the various industries and interdependent fields such as foreign policy and international security.
In conjunction with the curriculum, we conduct simulations designed by women in the field and informed by their real-life experience in national security. The simulations are conducted in the classroom with teachers, administrators, and students playing critical roles. The simulations are designed to both affirm girls’ inherent ability to make decisions with limited information in a national security scenario and demonstrate how many complex outcomes might arise during any given event.
Additionally, we offer intensive training programs on specific national security skills to provide girls with advanced learning at an early stage. For example, in July 2019, we will host our first wargaming workshop with RAND Corporation.
We are also partnering with girls’ organization such as the Girl Scouts where we developed the first national security patch program, “Secure You, Secure America.”
What Girl Security Is Not Doing
We are empowering girls through education and training. We are not, however, inculcating girls with our interpretations of “national security,” or “peace,” for that matter. We are collaborating with girls to explore their own understanding of those concepts informed by their personal security experiences within the historical context of how national security has been defined for them.
Over the last year and a half, we observed girls forging an understanding of security that certainly departs from a practitioner’s understanding. In a letter to the National Security Council, students of one Massachusetts high school wrote:
While some may say our generation takes for granted our security, we say we are an untapped resource. Our generation will bear the responsibility of developing solutions to emerging issues such as net neutrality, AI and nuclear proliferation. We are a resource to be tapped, to be educated, to be engaged. We are not solely the reactive consumers of data we may appear to be, or even are at times. We have grown up in the wake of the attacks on 9/11.
What We’re Learning
There are girls interested in national security. For every 20 to 25 students (an average class size) who participate in our program, two to four students have a specific interest in serving in national security as military officers, intelligence analysts, lawyers, journalists, and even artists. “I want to fly fighter jets,” one said. “I want to profile terrorists,” another said. “I want to be a lawyer who works on privacy,” another said. In just one year, our first high school partner has placed five students in our mentor network and intensive training programs, consisting of two 90-minute in-class programs.
Girls seek context about national security. In the last year, our program has reached thousands of girls through high schools and partnerships with national youth organizations. Girls are obtaining their news primarily through Snapchat. During one of our simulations on election interference, one student asked our team: “If I register to vote, will I be killed by Russians?” These types of questions reveal a deep lack of understanding among girls approaching voting age about the reality of national security threats.
Teachers and administrators are also seeking context for how to foster civil discourse about these topics. When we begin our program in the classroom, we ask girls to identify their top three fears. They offer responses such as fear of a mass shooting, fear of another terrorist attack, fear of a nuclear bomb, fear of being raped or murdered, fear of open spaces. We then ask them how they make themselves feel safe, and they share responses such as “being with family,” “snapchatting with friends, or “just having my iPhones. Often, teachers are learning about girls’ fears and how they adapt for the first time.
After the program, girls with wide-ranging interests understand how very personal national security can be. Awakening their minds to that connection empowers them to engage in their personal lives as active citizens. The acknowledgment of their resilience (getting up the next day, getting dressed, maybe going to school) following some adversity in their lives is critical to their engagement with national security. For those girls interested in national security or related fields, they are introduced to concepts they will surely encounter in college or career.
Girls want to secure their country in different capacities. We should be fostering their engagement sooner and advancing their participation thereafter. We have seen what men can do alone in national security. We have seen what men can do in national security when women are either marginalized or underrepresented. Let’s build a national security workforce that reflects the nation it is securing. Let’s turn our attention toward girls, whose personal security experiences reflect precisely what the United States demands right now: resilience. Let’s engage them sooner. Let’s educate them to empower them. Let’s create opportunities for their leadership advancement. The United States will be more secure for it.
Lauren Bean Buitta is founder of Girl Security, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization empowering girls to engage with national security through education, training, and mentoring. www.girlsecurity.org / @GirlSecurity_