WISE Women Encourage Inclusion and Retention in Technical Security Fields

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A few WISE women of the Diplomatic Security Service attended a graduation ceremony for new security engineering officers and security technical specialists on February 6, 2017, in Arlington, Virginia. (U.S. Department of State)
A few WISE women of the Diplomatic Security Service attended a graduation ceremony for new security engineering officers and security technical specialists on February 6, 2017, in Arlington, Virginia. (U.S. Department of State)

WISE Women Encourage Inclusion and Retention in Technical Security Fields

This Women’s History Month, you should meet the Diplomatic Security Service (DSS) Women in Security Engineering -- or WISE -- group! This group of women is working to create an inclusive and supportive infrastructure to mentor future generations of female security specialists.

Security Engineering and Computer Training Division Chief Celia Moorhead is spearheading the initiative. She hopes the group can serve as a support system for security engineering officers and security technical specialists posted abroad.

“When you’re deployed overseas, it’s easy to lose touch with what’s going on back at headquarters,” said Moorhead. “And when you’re a new hire, it can be difficult trying to navigate through the State Department and DSS.”

Twenty-one of 204 Security Engineering Officers (SEOs) at DSS are women – that’s roughly 10 percent. And only two of 144 Security Technical Specialists – that’s only about one percent -- at DSS are women.  While there are women at DSS and the State Department working in other STEM jobs -- including neuro scientists, enterprise architects, accountants, geographers, information resource specialists, and more -- these numbers are lower than the national average. According to the National Science Foundation 2016 statistics, while women make up about half of the total U.S. college-educated workforce, they only represent 29 percent of the science and engineering workforce. This research also shows that female scientists and engineers tend to work in social sciences and biological, agricultural, and environmental life sciences rather than engineering, and computer, and mathematical sciences.

Moorhead, a Security Engineering Officer herself, is aware of the uphill battle in finding women who are not only interested in the STEM fields, but who also have law enforcement expertise.

Moorhead said she was inspired to form WISE after attending the Diplomatic Security Senior Executive Leadership Forum in 2016 and a ladies happy hour where then-Assistant Secretary for Diplomatic Security Gregory Starr asked attendees to help recruit more women to DSS. She noted that DSS strongly emphasizes recruiting women into the ranks, but does not have an established program for retaining those hired.

“It’s everyone’s responsibility to encourage inclusion and retention,” said Moorhead. “WISE can help address this gap as well as connect and support women in the security field.” 

Security Engineering Training Branch Chief and WISE member Damaris Garcia noted that new employees express higher job satisfaction when they feel as though their colleagues care, and when they do not feel judged for asking questions or seeking advice.

“Women in security engineering are still few and far between, so women mentoring women allow our security specialists to talk specifically about challenges for women in the workplace and the Foreign Service,” said Garcia.

Jeanne Kinnett, director of the Facility Security Engineering Division at DSS, added that including women at all levels of the organization -- from recruiting events to formal business meetings to sidebar discussions -- would likely help with retention.

“Retention is directly linked to inclusion, which is perhaps the hardest culture for an organization to control,” said Kinnett.

A couple of challenges all Foreign Service Officers, including female Security Engineering Officers and Security Technical Specialists face during their careers are work-life balance and a high rate of travel. Garcia notes that individuals working in both of these professions are often responsible for several posts in a region, and may travel frequently to support overseas operations from domestic assignments. They might also serve in locations separated from their families.

Garcia offered a few suggestions that could help improve work-life balance for the female workforce, such as encouraging employees to attend professional and women’s organizational events. She noted that including DSS-sponsored daycare centers in more locations at which DSS employees work would be helpful. While daycare options impact all employees who are parents, according to a November 2015 Pew Research Center study, 64 percent of mothers in two-parent income households stated they do more than their spouse or partner when it comes to managing their children’s schedule and activities.

WISE is in its nascent stages. The group held its first brown bag lunch in January to gather input and ideas for the future of the group, and plans to hold quarterly luncheons in the future. The group drafted a charter and has begun to populate a resource-rich internal website that will include everything from job announcements and information to women in technology success stories, a discussion board, and more. The group also intends to sponsor keynote speakers and influential leaders, generate educational materials, and increase outreach to local schools to inspire future women security engineers and technicians.

“Right now, we’re focused on raising awareness of female Security Engineering Officers and Security Technical Specialists in DSS, and creating a welcoming forum for current and future female security specialists,” said Moorhead.

About the Author: Angela French serves in Bureau of Diplomatic Security's Office of Public Affairs.

Editor's Note: This entry is also published on Medium.com/StateDept.

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