Intelligence community diversity lags at the highest levels

Although there have been some gains in the representation of women and minorities in the IC workforce overall, the highest ranks are less diverse.

The government's intelligence agencies are struggling to retain and promote their minority and women employees, a problem that top leaders say they're committed to acting on with initiatives ranging from including diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility criteria in employee reviews to attempting to identify and eliminate bias from internal hiring and promotion practices.

The urgency to act was something that top IC leaders agreed on during meetings held soon after taking office, said Avril Haines, Director of National Intelligence.

"Top of the list for which there was absolutely uniform support among every leader of the intelligence community, all of the people on this panel were part of that, were talented and diverse workforce," she told lawmakers on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence during a Wednesday hearing.

Although there have been some gains in the representation of women and minorities in the IC workforce overall, the highest ranks are less diverse.

In fiscal year 2020, minorities made up 27% of the overall IC workforce, part of an upward trend since FY 2016, according Haines' written testimony. Racial and ethnic minorities are about 37% of the civilian workforce, according to a 2020 Government Accountability Report.

The representation of women is about 39.3%, which is constant from the year before.

But diversity decreases the further up in seniority that you look in the IC, where you're less likely to find minorities, women and people with disabilities in senior executive levels. Past reports have shown that the IC's diversity is generally worse than that in the civilian labor force and federal workforce.

Overall, the percentage of minorities in the IC senior executive levels is only 15.4%, compared to 27% across the IC workforce writ large.

In the National Security Agency, for example, representation of racial and ethnic minorities, women and people with disabilities is about 10% lower than their representation in graded agency positions, according to the written testimony of National Security Agency Director Gen. Paul Nakasone.

The top reason people cite for leaving is the lack of promotion opportunities, she said.

But the IC doesn't apply exit interviews exhaustively across its components, something Haines says needs to change. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence also hasn't done a barrier analysis yet, something that Haines said is "overdue" and now in the works.

There's the question of whether or not known disparities between who applies and gets hired into IC roles are also baked into promotion processes, Haines said.

"We have attracted more minorities, for example, to apply, but we're not actually seeing them get hired… in the same percentages that they're applying," Haines said, referencing a 10% gap between minorities and other groups.

The IC needs to gather additional data to see if that gap is in promotion processes as well, she said.

Ronald Moultrie, Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence and Security, pointed to his own experiences on promotion boards.

"In participating in some of these boards as I have over many decades if you will, you hear comments, you heard questions, and you hear things talked about that aren't objective, they don't get directly at the qualifications of the individual," he said, continuing to "it was more that they get at would somebody's chemistry fit with another groups chemistry."

According to written testimony, the CIA and at the Defense Intelligence Agency are trying to parse evaluation systems and promotion machinery for biases.

The DIA, CIA and NSA are all also already or planning to begin reviewing their employees on the basis of diversity, equity and inclusion, according to submitted testimonies.

The ODNI has also created an office fully dedicated to DEI work and made other organizational changes, and the IC is hiring a chief officer for IC diversity, equity, and inclusion, Haines said during the hearing.

These actions are part of broader efforts to improve diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility in the ranks of the federal workforce. Biden has targeted the issue with an executive order and national security memo.

Committee chair Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) told IC leaders that "it is not enough to pay lip service to the goal. We must put forth a concrete strategy to build a truly diverse and inclusive IC and hold ourselves accountable to the goals we set."

His counterpart, ranking member of the committee, Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), said that these efforts were "woke obsessions" more suited to "faculty lounge Marxists, not our national security agencies."

"The IC…seems to be increasingly focused on issues that distract from that mission," Nunes said during his opening statement, characterizing the focus on diversity and inclusion as "an infatuation with left-wing dogma."

Democrats and those testifying pushed back.

"I think it is just fundamental to our success in the future that we actually bring that workforce forward because they're the ones that are going to need to address the challenges that we're facing," said Haines.

This article first appeared on FCW.