When Men Hold Top Positions, How Much Can Mentorship Help Women?

The career of one female national-security professional offers some insight.

American troops marching
Carlo Allegri / Reuters

In the field of national security, there’s a clear deficit of gender diversity: Just 34 percent of senior-level career positions—which account for many of the top jobs at the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security—are held by women. The underrepresentation of women in national security isn’t just a problem in terms of optics—it’s been argued that a lack of diversity also skews policy, which matters greatly given the real human cost that can come with the decisions national-security professionals make every day.

Radha Iyengar is a national-security expert who is currently a senior economist at the RAND Corporation, a policy-analysis think tank, and is a co-host of a national-security podcast called Bombshell. Previously, she held positions at the Department of Defense and the Department of Energy. Her career has involved working on everything from evaluating stabilization operations in Afghanistan to preventing and responding to sexual assault in the U.S. military. Iyengar says that her mentors, former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict Michael Sheehan and former Deputy Secretary at the Department of Energy Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, have helped to guide her career.

For The Atlantic’s series on mentorship, “On The Shoulders Of Giants,” I spoke with Iyengar about her experience making a career in national security. The conversation that follows has been edited for length and clarity.

B.R.J. O’Donnell: How would you describe the gender dynamics in national security right now?

Radha Iyengar: If there is a woman in the room, it’s not objectionable, or even weird, but if there are no women in the room, there is not a group of men sitting around thinking, “Huh, there are no women here. We should fix this.” I think that’s the margin along which we need to make progress.

O’Donnell: What role do you think mentorship is playing, in terms of either exacerbating or closing this representation gap?

Iyengar: There are a lot of people, like me, who are perhaps not super senior, but are getting to be older than we would like to admit, that really benefitted from having mentors and want to pay it forward.

Also, you have this mental picture that you want a mentor who is like you, and making the same life choices as you. It turns out, what you want is a mentor who really wants to mentor you. You want a mentor who is willing to listen. You want someone who is on your team, and just a little bit closer to the goal, so if you can’t quite get to the goal yourself, they can help you. And it’s great if that mentor can be someone who looks like you or sounds like you, but it doesn’t have to be.

Radha Iyengar (Courtesy of Radha Ieyngar)

O’Donnell: What kind of professional guidance do you wish that you had more of?

Iyengar: You know, I’d say that the thing I wish I’d had more of was people to give me advice on what to wear, to be perfectly candid. In Afghanistan, when I first went there, I was with a lot of men, and a lot of military people. And they had uniforms, and that’s well prescribed,  but what is the civilian equivalent of a uniform? And that is so difficult when there are not a lot of other people that look like you. I think for me, being a non-white person who at least to many Americans and even some Afghans might look like a person of Afghan descent, I was asking myself,  “What do I need to wear to indicate that I am American, with the American forces and not an Afghan collaborating? What nonverbal signals am I sending out, and how are those relevant in this setting?” It was something that I didn’t appreciate until I was there. And so there are a lot of little things like that, certainly in my cohort of women in national security, everyone can relate to.

O’Donnell: What role did mentorship play in shaping your own career?

Iyengar: I’ve had the good fortune of having two very good mentors. When I got into government, Mike Sheehan, who hired me, was just tremendously supportive. He took seriously this idea that if you want to have good people, you have got to make it worthwhile for good people to work for you. So it was the first time I really saw this sort of proactive mentorship in play, and it really imprinted on me.

And then I went over to the National Security Council and I had the opportunity to work for Liz Sherwood-Randall, who really is tremendous. And she had two things that I tried to take home with me: She expected and demanded a certain standard of you, and she expected that all the time no matter what. But the flip side was, when you met those standards, you got the goal—it wasn’t like somebody was constantly moving the goalposts. So I was fortunate to get tremendous opportunities working for her, if I met the standards that needed to be met. And I think for me, that really helped me to develop.

O’Donnell: What was it like being mentored by Assistant Secretary Sheehan when you were working at the Department of Defense?

Iyengar: Mike is a pragmatist. He will tell you what he thinks. A little bit like with mentorship from Liz, you’ve got to take it on the chin. He was a Special Forces guy, and he was at NYPD as a counterterrorism chief there, so if he’s inviting me to talk about something at a meeting, there is a lot of signal value to other people around that table. And having someone be able to do that, and do it entirely on your merits and value to the system, is empowering.

O'Donnell: You’re an economist, a national-security expert who has worked in and out of government, and now you are a podcaster. There probably aren’t many people who’ve had that exact path. How did you wind up on this trajectory?

Iyengar: My former boss from the White House and the Department of Energy, Liz Sherwood-Randall, would say, “Life is not linear.” Having these measurement and evaluation skills and a rigorous empirical framework let me tackle every problem I thought seemed interesting, and that has let me have a slightly wandering, but very interesting, career path.

O’Donnell: Podcasting seems like a surprising addition. How did that come into the mix?

Iyengar: After the 2016 presidential election, my co-hosts—Erin Simpson and Loren DeJonge Schulman—and I were talking about what we could do to widen the conversation on national security. It just felt like the same people were saying the same things to each other over and over again. We wanted to make this really wonky space accessible.

O’Donnell: How would you say that working on counterterrorism efforts at the Pentagon with Special Operations personnel has changed the way that you work?

The Special Operations community is interesting, because in many ways it’s an extreme version of the military. It’s mostly really intense, super fit, super capable men. And they deeply value expertise. I used to joke that the way to get in is just be useful.

You can be you—you don’t need to pretend. Look, nobody wants me to airdrop in somewhere and kick in a door. That is not how I am useful. But, if you want to figure out, “Can we get some authorities here, and some funding to get an operation going, so we can kick in those 18 doors?,” talk to me, and I will figure that out for you.