Work in cybersecurity Within the United States intelligence community, one has to navigate a maze of male dominated fields. Inequalities persist, but three senior women at the National Security Agency and Cyber Command have offered WIRED rare insights into how these organizations have evolved and the hard work that remains to be done.
The agents of the NSA and Cyber Command are by necessity ignorant of the substance of their daily work and of their specific accomplishments. But speaking of their experiences as women in male-dominated fields, they could be more forthright, offering a rare window into their day-to-day lives working on U.S. intelligence analysis and international hacking operations.
Leila Doumanis joined the United States Marine Corps in 2006, first as a signal collection and processing analyst in Iraq and Afghanistan before returning to the United States. After a decade of climbing the ranks, she became an offensive weapons officer in cyberspace stationed in Japan and eventually a captain working at Fort Meade, where the NSA is also headquartered.
Today, Doumanis leads a 700-member combat support team for Marine Corps Cyberspace Command. Her military progression is exceptional not only for her speed – she is one of the most junior teams in her department – but for accomplishing it in a predominantly male field with few female role models in front of her.
“I have a seat at the table to discuss with our leaders the decisions to be made about what we are going to do in cyberspace,” says Doumanis. “And deep in my head – it’s very hard to put a finger on sexism – but deep in my head I still have this voice saying to me, ‘Would it be different if you were a man? Would they have listened if you were a guy? Sometimes it is difficult to overcome this.
This sentiment was shared by Command Sergeant Major Sheryl Lyon, who left Army Cyber Command in September to become the enlisted command chief of Cyber Command and the NSA. Lyon is the first woman to hold her post, in which she advises both agencies on matters affecting military personnel.
“As a woman in the military, I’ll say it, it’s a man’s world – again,” says Lyon.
“One of my first managerial positions as a sergeant major, all my peers were men, of course,” she says. “So being part of this team seemed insurmountable at first. In fact, a lot of them didn’t even know how to talk to me and we were getting ready to deploy and we had other missions going on. I always say you have to prove yourself twice and God forbid you mess it up because if you do you usually don’t get a second chance.
According to Lyon, some male colleagues acted as effective and crucial allies, but female role models were hard to come by; it was a difficult process over many years to reach a point where she felt her peers treated her as an equal.
Many of the stories the women have shared are almost universally recognizable in all professions, especially in STEM fields. And the army has an equivalent record, with urgent and inveterate problems still far from being resolved.
“We need to tackle sexual assault, harassment and violence against women in the military,” President Joseph Biden told the White House in early March. “Sexual assault is repugnant and reprehensible at all times, and in our military, unit cohesion relies heavily on the trust that your fellow duty members will support you. There is nothing less than a threat to our national security.
At the same event, Vice President Kamala Harris stressed the importance to national security of recruiting and retaining more women in the military. “Applying policies to protect women and ensure they are heard, and advancing more women on a fair and equal footing will undoubtedly make our safer nation, ”said Harris.
Doumanis, who worked during her military career as a sexual assault prevention and response advocate, echoed this challenge. “When I joined the Marine Corps in 2006, there weren’t a lot of women leaders. Only about 8% of us are women overall, but when you look at the recruiting numbers it’s a bit more consistent. And then, after this first enrollment, many women drop out of their studies, they go looking for other things, ”she says. “Coming into the Marine Corps when I did culture was a bit negative towards women – a lot of derogatory comments were made. And unfortunately my state of mind was, “Well, I’m not going to be like that. Obviously, there is something wrong with these women. I will be different. How naive I was. As I got older I realized that I was part of the problem. But I think the culture is a lot different from what it was in 2006. Every year I see it getting better. “