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Opinion | It’s Time for a Woman to Run the Defense Department

President-elect Joe Biden has begun to announce his intended cabinet nominees, and it’s an impressive and diverse group: his picks include an experienced African-American diplomat for ambassador to the United Nations; the first Latino nominated as homeland security secretary; and the first woman tapped to serve as director of national intelligence.

Mr. Biden has remained silent, however, about whom he might select as secretary of defense. For years, the betting has been on Michèle Flournoy, an under secretary of defense for policy in the Obama administration who is widely viewed as one of the nation’s top defense policy experts. But although Ms. Flournoy — for whom I worked from 2009 to 2011 — is reported to still be a leading contender, along with a number of other well-regarded women, there has recently been speculation that Mr. Biden may instead choose one of several men also said to be on his short list.

That would be shortsighted. If Mr. Biden nominates a respected and highly qualified woman as his secretary of defense, he would send an important and long overdue message — that the Defense Department’s old norms and biases weren’t a disservice only to women working in national security, but to the country.

The Defense Department has long been viewed as singularly inhospitable to women. National security leaders (nearly always male) have for years argued that there just weren’t enough qualified female candidates to fill senior positions in the Defense Department — an excuse that might once have had some validity, but rings hollow today. Over the last two decades, an impressive new generation of female defense experts has emerged.

There are now scores of talented women who have spent years mastering everything from military strategy to budgeting, logistics and acquisitions. In September, the Leadership Council for Women in National Security — which I co-founded and whose advisers include such luminaries as former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and retired Adm. Michelle Howard, the Navy’s first female African-American four-star — provided the Biden transition team with the names of at least four qualified women for every Senate-confirmed national security position.

If it took decades for a sizable pool of highly qualified women to emerge as potential senior Pentagon leaders, that’s no accident. For most of our nation’s history, overtly discriminatory legislation and Defense Department rules severely limited women’s ability to rise.

In recent years, even as other foreign policy agencies opened their senior ranks to women, the doors at the Pentagon remained largely closed. At the end of the Obama administration, for instance, women made up 41 percent of senior State Department officials, but just 22 percent of senior Defense Department civilian officials, according to a 2018 analysis conducted by New America.

In the uniformed military, gender equality has proved even more elusive than racial equality. Racial discrimination in the military was barred by a 1948 executive order, and the first African-American four-star general was appointed in 1975. In 1989, the first African-American chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was appointed.

But in the very same year the military was ordered to integrate racially, Congress also passed legislation mandating that women make up no more than 2 percent of military personnel — a cap that was lifted only in the 1970s. Even today, women constitute only 16.5 percent of the active duty force, and the first female four-star general wasn’t appointed until 2008.

Until 2015, women were also barred from serving in combat roles. This made it difficult for women to gain senior military positions, which go mostly to those with distinguished combat records. And since nearly half of all Defense Department civilian employees are military veterans who get preferential hiring, the same discriminatory policies that kept most uniformed women out of senior jobs also made it tougher for civilian women to be hired and promoted on an equal basis.

These laws and policies weren’t just unfair to women, they also diminished the country’s ability to develop smart, effective national security policies. Studies suggest that organizations with gender-diverse leadership teams outperform organizations with male-dominated leadership, and that diverse organizations are less prone to “groupthink.”

On average, women appear to have more collaborative leadership styles than men, and they’re also less likely than men to fall prey to judgment errors induced by overconfidence. Wouldn’t it be wiser to have more collaboration, less groupthink and less recklessness in our military policy?

The United States faces national security problems ranging from the pandemic to climate change, refugee crises and the rise of near-peer competitors such as China. These complex and interconnected issues require fresh approaches, not a reversion to old modes of thinking about defense policy.

If Mr. Biden chooses a woman as his secretary of defense, it will pack a uniquely powerful symbolic punch — signaling both his repudiation of the Defense Department’s history of sex-based discrimination and his intent to build the kind of diverse, innovative national security leadership team the nation so urgently needs.

Rosa Brooks, a professor at Georgetown Law and a co-founder of the Leadership Council for Women in National Security, is the author of “How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything” and the forthcoming “Tangled Up in Blue: Policing the American City.”

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