Excerpts from our interviews with the women who hold five of the U.S. military's top intelligence jobs.
Defense One asked five senior women in military intelligence about their careers, and the choices and challenges along the way. We asked why they chose intelligence as a career field, what institutional challenges and opportunities they faced along the way, and why some of them say they’ll likely never reach the highest military echelons: combatant commanders and Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Here are the women, and excerpts from their answers:
- Lt. Gen. Karen Gibson: Deputy Director of National Intelligence for National Security Partnerships at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
- Lt. Gen. Mary O’Brien: Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance and Cyber Effects Operations, Headquarters U.S. Air Force.
- Maj. Gen. Laura A. Potter: Commanding General, U.S. Army Intelligence Center of Excellence & Fort Huachuca.
- Rear Adm. Heidi Berg: Director, J2, U.S. Africa Command.
- Rear Adm. Kelly Aeschbach: Director, National Maritime Intelligence Integration Office/Commander, Office of Naval Intelligence.
From left, Lt. Gen. Karen Gibson, Lt. Gen. Mary O'Brien, Maj. Gen. Laura Potter, Rear Adm. Heidi Berg, and Rear Adm. Kelly Aeschbach.
Why did you choose to go into military intelligence?
Gibson: When it came time to choose your branch...it struck me that I could get closest to war fighting as a woman by choosing this field.
O’Brien: If you go back to the mid- to late-80s, when I was graduating from the Air Force Academy, a lot of career fields were still closed to women....Thirty years ago, intelligence seemed like one of the only career fields open to me where I could focus on my cognitive strengths without having to engage in the physical-strength debates that were going on at the time as they were debating opening up other combat-oriented career fields to women.
Potter: When I was in college, I studied Russian...and Spanish. I thought I was going to be a teacher at some point. At that time, it was the 80s, we had both the drug war and Cold War, and so I gravitated to intelligence because I wanted to still continue to study those two parts of the world and potentially use my languages.
Berg: It really was simply the attraction to international relations and understanding foreign cultures and languages. I service-selected at the Naval Academy straight into what we call information warfare in the Navy....It also offered a lot of flexibility, too, when I was having kids and the ability to have back-to-back shore tours. That flexibility is so important.
Aeschbach: I ended up in intelligence by accident....I went on my “first-class cruise” the summer before senior year, and I frankly did not have a good experience. So I came back from that experience and sort of went back to the drawing board on what else could I do in the Navy? I didn't have the eyesight to be a pilot. At that point, I learned about intelligence, learned about cryptology....I’m just really lucky that I fell into something that turned out to be a really good fit for me.
How much of your choice was personal preference, and how much the relative opportunity of intelligence to you as a woman?
Gibson: I just loved it. It was an opportunity to be involved in how we would fight, how the battle will unfold. I found it far more fascinating and really an opportunity to be closer to the heart of the action than being someone who's bringing up supplies from the rear or aiding the wounded in an aid station. It was a way to be at the heart of the fight. And I liked that.
O’Brien: Intel was appealing to me because I could use analytical skills. It was about gaining insight into our adversaries.
In the mid- ’90s, I ended up being assigned to a squadron that had a woman O-6 intel commander. That was the second base I'd been assigned to and really the first woman colonel of any career field that I had ever had any access to. She had one of the first enlisted women in intel to make chief as her senior enlisted leader — and we happened to have had five women company-grade officers. We intentionally chose to collaborate with each other instead of competing. That was...almost a bond we made with each other, and we were able to accomplish some really incredible things.
Also...there were a lot of really remarkable civilian women in the intelligence community. I felt like, if there's not a place for me in the military, there certainly will be a place for me in the civilian intelligence community.
Berg: There's a lot of things I like about it. One is the opportunity to really shape the decision calculus. Ultimately, when you think of how battles are won and lost, it is your ability to understand the enemy's intent, which allows you to ensure that you maneuver forces and you're able to outmaneuver. Intelligence can give you that decisive advantage....Your ability to be on the world stage, to be there for these enormous events in the history of our nation and the course of our nation and to influence it and be part of it....You're advising the commander, you're giving them the intelligence they need. And then eventually you're going on to command, yourself.
Did you have women mentors or role models?
Aeschbach: There were some women mentors, although I will say when you looked up, there weren't that many women, and there weren't that many women who ended up looking like me. I was really hard pressed, over time, to find other women who were married, who had children who were still at home. A lot of the women who were senior to me were single or they were married with no children or their children were already grown and gone. Although they were good mentors, they weren't living the life that I was trying to lead.
So it was really at the peer level that I felt like I had other women who were like me. We were all kind of cheering each other on and we still are connected as a group.
Berg: There were women that were out there and doing this. I didn't see that many who had families, especially bigger families. Michelle Howard [who commanded U.S. Naval Forces Europe] is one of those people who will forever be that astonishing leader, kicking in doors and taking really hard jobs, warfighter positions, and did brilliantly. The constant challenges that she faced along the way of having to re-credential herself and over and over and over again — and yet she continued to stay in and achieve the rank of four-star. She was just a hero.
Jan Tighe [retired vice admiral and former commander of Tenth Fleet and Fleet Cyber Command]....again, just another brilliant leader. [Retired Vice Adm.] Nora Tyson, she's the first female fleet commander [Third Fleet].
Potter: When I was captain at Fort Meade [in Maryland], I had an awesome mentor in the form of a woman named Cindy Jebb, who was a major at the time. She's now a brigadier general and the dean at West Point.
When I came back from that deployment to the republic of Georgia, we had the first female G-2 [director of intelligence] in the Army, which was Lt. Gen. Claudia Kennedy. I think she might have been the first female active duty three-star. As a young captain, I had to brief her on how that deployment went. It certainly was kind of an “aha!” moment for me to go in as a young captain, walking through the halls of the Pentagon, and ending up in Lt. Gen. Kennedy's office to brief her.
Do you mentor young women now? What do they ask you?
Berg: Young women who have reached out and ask for mentorship ask for engagement on life-work balance. How do you balance a family and a career path? I've had more male officers asking the same things now, which is terrific. I think that sends a good message.
Gibson: I mentor men and women pretty evenly. I have male officers who have sought me out throughout their careers for advice as well as as women officers. ...The key difference I would remark is men never ask me how to balance family or marriage or children.
Do you think sexual assault is more or less of a problem in military intelligence, and is the community doing enough to cope with it?
AESCHBACH: I had to deal with it unfortunately, more than I would have liked to, when I was a commanding officer. But I didn't encounter it as part of the intelligence community. I encountered it as part of being part of the Navy, the military, and, frankly, society.
I think we do have issues and we still have problems, but I think the Navy has moved to a place where we're very aggressive about trying to get after it. I see that more and more people, it seems, are comfortable over the last five or six years in coming forward and talking about what's happened to them or reporting it when it's happened.
I do think we have to be mindful because culturally and structurally, we still have larger percentages of men than women — but we draw people from our society and so in some ways, I don't think we have any more of a problem than what's reflected in the broader culture.
Berg: There have been massive improvements. Reporting spikes oftentimes reflect competency.
But oftentimes it relies on a commander who may have a very specific bias in the room. I think when it comes to sexual violence and sexual assault and rape, those criminal events need to be investigated and adjudicated within a criminal court system.
When I was in command, I remember an incident where we had a sexual harassment case and the immediate default was to move the young petty officer out of the office and shift her to another office. I said, “Does she want to go and leave the harasser in place?” I said, “Go talk to her again. I want to confirm this.” They came back and of course she hadn't wanted to go. She felt she was being pressured.
Potter: I don't think that there is a sexual-assault or sexual-harassment issue that is related to intel in particular; I think it has to do with the demographics of our branch....I'm actually very proud of how far the Army has come. We still have work to do because even one incident is unacceptable. But the Army has made quite a bit of progress.
Do you see women in military intelligence essentially gaslight their own experiences by downplaying the gender-based challenges that they face — perhaps in an effort not to appear weak?
Gibson: I think there's a big generational gap. I grew up saying I haven't been sexually harassed, and then — it might be a survey and they'll say, “Have you ever been subject to this, this, this…?” “Did this ever happen to you?”
Oh, yeah. All that stuff happened to me! Oh, you mean that was sexual harassment? It was kind of — it would only count as sexual harassment if it crushed you. If it defeated you. But if you got through it, it wasn't sexual harassment, right?
My daughter, who joined the Army 20, 25 years after I did, filed some legitimate harassment complaints. It made me feel like, “Wow, did I just lack the courage to say something?” Because that stuff happened to me and we just went with it.
I think the #MeToo movement has really highlighted older women's experiences in the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, where it was considered part of the operating environment. It was the price of doing business. It was what you expected to put up with.
I think that young women today, and men perhaps, are more sensitized to what is unacceptable behavior.
AESCHBACH: I think those of us who are more senior — frankly, we're more accustomed to a lesser standard. Maybe it didn't occur to us to be as critical at certain points. But I have been really fortunate that I have not had in my career had anything really egregious happen to me.
OBRIEN: I actually collect studies about these kinds of issues. I hear the same thing: Some women say, “Oh, I've never seen it. I've never experienced it.” Sometimes I think, “You just didn't know.” It was happening, you just didn't know.
The increase in research in this field is helping us have a vocabulary to actually talk about the diversity studies that prove that the bias facing women in the workplace is real.
Some women may think if they complain or talk about these things, that it will be a sign of weakness, that they can't hack it in this man's world. And I think others think, “it's all in my head,” because they didn't have a vocabulary to talk about it.
Berg: I think that is a brilliant observation because there is that sense of, “Don't make waves. If you get identified or pigeonholed for being a person who is advocating for women's issues and only women's issues…”
But I think there is that fear sometimes that you get overly identified with gender and less identified with the career path and the professionalism and all the other kind of accomplishments that you want to be identified for.
POTTER: When I reflect on my own career…I can't think of an instance where there was a deliberate case of sexism where, “I'm not picking you for this job because you're a woman.”
I think women in the ’90s, we probably tried harder because we wanted to ensure that wasn't going to happen. I often wonder — this would be hard to prove with any sort of empirical data — but I often wonder if there is any correlation that there might be some underlying subconscious expectation that we were not going to get selected, and so therefore we tried extra hard. I don't know if there's any of that, but I can remember wanting to make sure that I kept up with my male peers in every respect because I wanted to be considered competitive for jobs.
What gender-based challenges did you face as your career advanced?
O’Brien: I don't drink coffee. I don't like it. I've never liked the taste of it — and I never learned how to make it. So when I showed up at my bomber wing as a lieutenant and they're like, “You're going to be the coffee girl” — well, no, I'm not. I don't drink coffee. You really don't want me making the coffee.
I had my first child when I was a legislative fellow for Ike Skelton [former Democratic congressman from Missouri’ in my 30s, and I had my second child while I was a sitting squadron commander in my mid-30s. A lot of the gender-based challenges there arise out of stereotypes that people just assume about women. There was a lot of whispering: "Is she still all in? Is she still all in?", questioning my commitment to the Air Force and my career. I would have to openly and explicitly counter that.
Gibson: I definitely have seen an evolution of attitudes towards women from the time I joined in the late ’80s. People would openly, to your face, question, “Why are you here? You're taking a slot away from men.”
When I was a young officer in Alaska, we had an infantry brigade commander who refused to take women [on military exercises]. He was allowed to strike all the women from the deployment roster to go to an exercise in Arkansas and we had to come up with other [male] service members to fill that.
AESCHBACH: The first job that I went to, a P-3 squadron out in Hawaii — right before I went out there from intel school, a sister squadron had a scandal where the female intel officer was having an affair with the operations officer. She got fired and was replaced by a man, a male intel officer, and the operations officer was also replaced.
My squadron that I was going to, the spouses club, the women, went to the commanding officer and asked that I be redirected somewhere else, and that the new male intel officer come because they were getting ready to go on deployment and they wanted the male officer to deploy with the squadron.
They'd never even met me, but they heard a woman was coming and they moved to have me set aside from my job.
My commanding officer said, “No, she's coming to the squadron.” But when I got to the squadron, the XO (executive officer) had me into his office, and he bluntly told me these atmospherics and concerns and said, “I understand you have a fiance, and that's good. I just don't want you getting into trouble with anybody and make sure you keep your door open if anybody comes by to see you." He gave me his rules that nowadays, if someone spoke to you that way, would just be completely unacceptable.
We had a different lens at that time, different avenues for how we raised issues or concerns.
Berg: I think a lot of it is: if you want to be competitive in your career field, particularly as we went through the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, you had to deploy to be part of that. Those deployments start to effect a toll on families, just as it does for your male counterparts who are going out there.… My first deployment, 15 months, an unaccompanied command tour in Bahrain, 15 months where there were three kids under the age of six. And my husband at that time had never taken them to a doctor’s appointment. It was really difficult for us to adjust. But equally, there were some great things that came out of it. The girls have a different relationship with their dad because they spent so much time with Dad as a single parent.
The gender issues that come up — the discrimination, the small fights — I think this happens whether you're a CEO or whether you're an executive in any industry. You could be at Google or IBM and have these same issues. It's just gender relations writ large, particularly where you have a very disproportionate minority and majority.
The good thing in the intelligence field on the civilian side with their bigger agencies — it is a much more equal mix than you will see anywhere else walking the halls of CIA and DIA. There are enormous numbers of senior women leaders and that has an impact, I think, on the uniform branches as well. When you go into the special operations world or in general purpose forces on the infantry side, where folks have less experience in working with women, it’s kind of like, “All right! I've just stepped back a decade!”
Potter: I think some of the countries in the patrol base that I led were very surprised that the patrol base leader was a woman. Some of them had never worked for or with a woman in uniform. So it was just an interesting dynamic. I didn't have any, you know, mutinies.
What was your experience balancing family with career and what do you advise young female officers now?
Potter: The one thing when I mentor women coming up in the ranks: motherhood is really important to me. I think there's some people who have this idea that, “There is no good time to have a child.” “They're going to give me a bad evaluation or discriminate against me or not support me as much.”
I was six months pregnant when I took battalion command. I had a very, very supportive male brigade commander and my two-star commander above him. I try to mentor women that my experience is that if you're competent at what you do, motherhood and Army life are not incompatible. You can have a child and still have a very successful career.
AESCHBACH: I have two boys who are in high school right now, and I have the good fortune that my husband has been very comfortable, for the most part, staying home....Some of it's luck. I had the good fortune of meeting my husband when I did, and we didn't have any difficulty having children either. There are some factors you don't necessarily control.
Berg: It's really important to realize you can balance a family and a military career....I've got three, 18, 16, and 13. You have to plan for it. During one three-year tour, I popped out two kids because I wasn't sure if it was going to be a deployment or sea duty past that. As it turns out, I then went to grad school at Oxford, brought the two kids — a four-month old and the two-year-old — which is not a fun proposal. I strongly recommend grad school without small children.
Gibson: What I tell them is: You have to have a willing and supportive partner.
If you're dual military or even if you're not, you have to always know at any given time: Who is the main effort right now and who is the supporting effort? Because you can't both be the main effort at the same time. When it's 17:30 and someone's got to go to the daycare center, who goes? Because the other one's job that year is more important.
I also advise people who are thinking of having kids to just have kids. There's no perfect timing — just do it and then you're gonna make it work.
Brag on yourself a little bit. What’s your most badass story?
Potter: I have one thing but it probably is not an unclassified topic, so I'm going to steer away from it.
Berg: It's classified!
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