By Sophia Macartney
In celebration of Women’s History Month, I want to take time to reflect and appreciate the past, present, and future of women within the nuclear security field.
The Center has previously recognized women’s progress in the nuclear security field by celebrating women’s nominations by the Biden administration; recognizing the importance of women’s nuclear non-proliferation activism; hosting a podcast episode discussing sexism and racism in the nuclear weapons field; and highlighting four nuclear must-reads written by women.
We have also done a Women in Nuclear History blog series spotlighting a variety of women in nuclear history including Bella Abzug, who founded Women Strike for Peace; Rose Gottemoeller, the former Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security and former Deputy Secretary General of NATO; and Federica Mogherini, the former chief diplomat of the European Union who played a pivotal role in negotiating the Iran nuclear deal.
But this year, we want to reflect on the state of inclusivity and the importance of women’s perspectives in nuclear security policy.
To do so, I worked with the Center’s Program Coordinator Isa Martinez and Communications Associate Farah Sonde. The three of us compiled a list of questions to discuss with Ambassador Susan F. Burk, consultant on nuclear non-proliferation and NPT issues, Sharon Squassoni, member of the Science and Security Board of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists and the Russian Center for Policy Research, and Leonor Tomero, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear and Missile Defense Policy. Amb. Burk and Sharon Squassoni are also Center board members and Leonor Tomero is a board member for the Center’s sister organization, Council for a Livable World.
Is nuclear security a women’s issue? Why or why not?
Susan F. Burk: Nuclear security and the converse – nuclear insecurity – are national, international, human issues because of their potential to impact all people regardless of race, sex, and ethnicity.
Farah Sonde: Nuclear security is at its heart a women’s issue because it’s an everyone issue. Simply put, we can all die during a nuclear blast, and therefore we all have a stake in the problem.
Sharon Squassoni: I don’t think it’s helpful to genderize issues. Nuclear security affects us all. We need all hands on deck.
Leonor Tomero: Nuclear security is a women’s issue because it is about reducing the risk of nuclear weapons use and the risk of nuclear war which would forever change history and the world. Women have a stake in leading progress on these important issues.
Do you think there is a difference in having others speak to nuclear issues on behalf of women versus giving women a platform to speak to nuclear issues on their own behalf?
Isabel Martinez: Reading this, I can’t help but think of a quote from Valerie Hudson, “Virtually every dimension of national security is tied to whether women are subordinated or whether they are empowered.”
Farah Sonde: Making assumptions unbounded in fact about what women have to say instead of amplifying female voices is always going to be the inferior option… Research, I will add, is also not an appropriate substitution to having women speak for themselves.
Sharon Squassoni: Since women’s voices so often have been marginalized, it’s important to create platforms for women’s views. I’m in favor of allowing others to speak on behalf of those who cannot speak themselves (like young children) or who need to be protected, but women don’t fall into that category.
Leonor Tomero: Women should have a seat at the table and participate in decision-making, and safeguarding national and international security. Increasingly, women are proving how much they contribute to this field. This takes a concerted effort.
Why is it important to be intentional in including women’s and other excluded voices in the nuclear security field?
Susan F. Burk: Until the nuclear security community develops the “muscle memory” that results in automatic, routine inclusion of women nuclear professionals and other excluded voices, it will be important to remain actively “intentional.”
Isabel Martinez: Having representation at the policy and decision making table by the communities most impacted by nuclear weapons works toward breaking the cycle of harm, not to mention welcomes in new ideas and sustainable approaches.
Farah Sonde: Tapping into the intersectionality of people in this field and their brilliant ideas is going to give us a greater number of options, which we are sorely wanting for. But getting those options means being intentional. It means putting in hard work…
Sharon Squassoni: Without intentionality, it doesn’t get done. Even with the best intentions, it may be difficult. How many times have we heard that conference organizers tried to find qualified women but couldn’t?
Leonor Tomero: Much of nuclear doctrine and strategy has stagnated for decades and we need new voices, including younger generations, and ideas to inform decisions, increase creativity in how we think about nuclear security, and enrich national debate to improve nuclear deterrence and strategic stability.
Do you think there are barriers for women to find their space in the nuclear security field?
Susan F. Burk: Yes, but there are fewer of them today and those remaining can be overcome… Accomplished women and others are finding more opportunities in the non-governmental area where demonstrated expertise and substantive accomplishment are opening doors for them. It is increasingly about “what” you know and not “who” you know.
Isabel Martinez: So much of the language around nuclear weapons policy is intimidating and exclusive. It does the double disservice of distancing the issues at hand from people, making nuclear weapons seem abstract.
Leonor Tomero: Nuclear deterrence and security, like many aspects of national security, has been a tough place for women… When I was in my 20s, a prominent and respected nuclear expert told me (in a room of 200 people in response to a question I had asked during a briefing on nuclear security): “You don’t know how the world works.”…Now with more experience and confidence, I understand the value of perseverance, and the value of sharing your point of view and ideas effectively and with grace. This is the price of participation in existential issues that matter…Giants of the field like Dr. Janne Nolan, Undersecretary Ellen Tauscher, former NATO Deputy Secretary General Rose Gottemoeller, Undersecretary Bonnie Jenkins, have made and continue to make immeasurable contributions to the field and demonstrated the value and power of women in leadership positions.
How has women’s role in nuclear security changed since you began your career?
Susan F. Burk: I started my career in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and could count the number of women professionals in my bureau on one hand. Senior leadership in OSD was essentially all white male. That and the influence of the military contributed to a very “traditional” working environment. I had the incredible good fortune to work for a ground-breaking woman who mentored me…This is a time of many more female role-models in the nuclear security field, and that is a good thing for women interested in this work.
Sharon Squassoni: Typically, women played supportive, advisory roles even though they were sometimes much smarter than the men in charge. Now, women are no longer explicitly or implicitly barred from the highest levels of government, although obviously discrimination still exists.
Leonor Tomero: There has been immeasurable progress in seeing women lead on nuclear security and bring new ideas to nuclear deterrence…the Biden Administration made a concerted effort to ensure women had senior leadership roles in nuclear security. Mallory Stewart and Alex Bell are among the most effective leaders who bring experience, intellect and ideas to the field (despite men referring to the three of us as naive when we were appointed)… And I now am honored to serve on the 2023 Commission on Strategic Posture of the United States where five of the 12 commissioners are women (compared to the 2009 Strategic Posture Commission that had 1 woman — Dr. Ellen Williams).
What do you hope to see in the future for women in nuclear security?
Susan F. Burk: I would like to see more women pursuing nuclear security, and peace/conflict resolution work anywhere there are opportunities to do so. We need more nuclear security (nonproliferation and arms control) experts supporting our legislators in the U.S. Congress.
Sharon Squassoni: Equity in power, pay, and respect.
Leonor Tomero: I hope we continue to make progress in forming and including new generations of women who will shape nuclear security.
What recommendations do you have for individuals looking to ensure a more inclusive environment for women in the peace and security field?
Susan F. Burk: “And so, lifting as we climb, onward and upward we go…”
This is a quote from Mary Church Terrell, a Black suffragist from Tennessee… By demonstrating a commitment to the nuclear security field through academic work, volunteering, internships/fellowships, finding a mentor in the field, getting published if you can, and engaging with other experts in the field to pick their brains on the issues, and on career options. This is the “climbing” part. But the “lifting” part is no less important. There will be more women in the peace and security field when those who succeed in getting there become a source of encouragement, information, advice, and support for those coming along behind them.
Sharon Squassoni: Don’t perpetuate the existing culture of exclusivity and secrecy. Place value on common sense and compassion over hypercompetition.
Leonor Tomero: We need a concerted effort to promote women in the national security field, from entry level positions to senior leadership. We must lift each other up in a field long dominated by men. This takes individual effort, focus and persistence.
The growth of women’s role in the nuclear security field is all owed to leaders like Ambassador Susan Burk, Sharon Squassoni and Leonor Tomero who exemplify the value of women’s perspectives in the field. Representation across all demographics, especially women, cannot be a reality unless it is done so intentionally and is a unified effort at all levels. It is the intentional effort of leadership, mentorship, inclusivity, and equity that will further assert women’s role and respect in the field. In the words of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, “Women belong in all places where decisions are being made.”