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Why SIS’s Nora Bensahel signed #metoonatsec

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Distinguished Scholar in Residence Nora Bensahel

On November 28, more than 200 women in the national security field signed the #Metoonatsec Open Letter on Sexual Harassment in National Security, which calls for the field to “take a comprehensive set of actions to reduce the incidence of sexual harassment and abuse in the workplace.” The women who signed identified as survivors or allies of survivors of sexual harassment, assault, and abuse. One of those women was Nora Bensahel, a distinguished scholar in residence at the School of International Service and a US defense policy expert at the Atlantic Council.

Following her signature on #Metoonatsec, Bensahel published a personal article sharing her own eye-opening experiences with gender-based inequality and harassment in the field. She describes herself as lucky, having only experienced a few minor—albeit disturbing—instances. That very same day, Time announced “The Silence Breakers,” people who have come forward to report sexual misconduct, as their 2017 Person of the Year.

We asked Bensahel to further discuss this pivotal moment for women and her thoughts on the #metoo movement, and what ultimately inspired her to share her personal experiences in a male-dominated field.

In your article, you explained why you chose to sign the #metoonatsec letter. But what made you decide to share your experience in such a public way? What do you hope readers take away from your article?

I was struck by how much attention the #metoonatsec letter got and I felt like it was a very important step forward. But I also realized that the details and the reasons why I and the other women who signed weren’t necessarily apparent. A number of my colleagues were disturbed to see so many women sign the letter, but I realized they had no idea why, because many of us have never talked about our experiences. I felt that sharing my own story would help educate people about the scope of the problem and help to move a solution forward.

What kind of responses have you received to your article?

I have been overwhelmed with the outpouring of positive support from friends and colleagues, including some people I’ve never met before who have reached out to thank me and tell me how much my article meant to them. But I did receive one response that proves why articles like mine are important. The man who was responsible for one of the specific incidents I mentioned wrote me a note congratulating me on publishing the article and telling me he had shared it on Facebook. I am absolutely, positively convinced he has no idea at all that one of the stories was about him. The fact that he did something in the past that mattered enough to me to include in this article—yet he cannot recognize himself in it—is exactly why the culture needs to change.

Why do you think women are speaking out about this in ways they never have before?

I think that one of the key catalysts for the whole #metoo movement, not just in national security, was that Donald Trump, despite having bragged about assaulting women in the Hollywood Access tape, got elected. That, combined with the extent of the revelations about Harvey Weinstein, made many women realize that they needed to take action to change the status quo. And as more women speak out, even more women feel empowered to do so. One of the reasons I wrote my article, for whatever small bit of good it did, was to help ensure that this is not part of our culture that just gets covered up.

In your article, you describe an “ongoing tax” that women pay in their careers. What habits have you adopted that others can too to reduce this tax?

I’ve been fortunate that these issues are not on the forefront of my mind on a daily basis—but they certainly are a part of my professional life. One strategy I’ve adopted is to try to call out that behavior on behalf of others whenever I see it. As I wrote in the article, it’s fairly common for me to share an idea that gets overlooked, but when it’s repeated by a man, suddenly it’s brilliant and insightful. When I see that happen to another woman, I will go out of my way to say: “Yes, that’s a great idea that Jane had earlier” to try to give credit where it is due. It’s much easier for me to do that now that my career is established, and occasionally I’ll feel comfortable enough calling that out when it happens to me. But if you’re more junior and vulnerable in your career, that is obviously much harder to do.

How often are you the only women, or one of very few women, in the room for meetings?

It happens regularly, especially when I’m meeting with senior military leaders. It’s a bit better if it’s a meeting with the broader national security community, but it does happen regularly. I’m almost always aware of how many women there are in the room and often find myself counting them without realizing that I am doing so. I know many other women who find themselves doing that as well. I once made a small tally list on the piece of paper in front of me, and then realized that the woman sitting next to me had done the exact same thing.

We’ve focused on the downside about being a woman in the national security field, but are there any positive aspects?

Yes, and to me the biggest one is that I tend to stand out to people, precisely because there are not that many women in the field. Standing out isn’t always a good thing, of course, but it does help people remember who I am. At this point in my career, it’s fairly common for people to come up to me after a presentation to tell me that they remember hearing me speak in the past—sometimes many years ago. They remember me because I am a woman and I don’t look like everyone else in the room. Military people don’t often encounter female civilian defense experts and that’s been a benefit to me.

There is also a very strong sense of community among the women in this field to help other women, especially those who are more junior. The generation of women before me in the national security field worked very hard to establish that culture, and their values have continued on. That’s not always the case in other fields and it’s something I both appreciate very much and work hard to maintain.

In your article, you mention fear of backlash as a result of women coming forward—can you elaborate on that?

I fear two kinds of backlash. First, I fear a general backlash from men (and some women) who say that this has turned into a witch hunt, especially as the number of very prominent men who are caught up in this seems to increase every day. I worry that many men will feel defensive, as though all men are being targeted, and that they will try to swing the pendulum in the other direction against openness and accountability. On a more individual level, I fear that even very well-meaning men, who really do want to help and encourage women, will alter their behavior in ways that unintentionally hinder progress. I worry that they will become afraid of working too closely with women, because they may fear allegations against them or are unsure of what they might have done in the past. I do understand some of their concerns, because this is a very confusing time when both men and women are trying to absorb the sheer scale of the problem and navigate the shifting boundaries of what constitutes acceptable behavior. But I fear it will make men more cautious in working with and helping women, even subconsciously, which would move things in exactly the wrong direction.

You mention in your article that men should proactively mentor, sponsor, and provide opportunities for women if there is to be change. What else needs to be done?

Women certainly need to continue speaking out and sharing their experiences, but women’s voices alone are not going to change the culture. Men are going to have to be the ones to lead the charge, because in most situations, they have more power than women. It is the powerful who need to say: “Harassing and abusing women is absolutely unacceptable, we will investigate every allegation fully and completely, and we will call out this behavior whenever we see it.” That’s what sustainable change will require.

What do you hope to see come of this movement?

It has already sparked a national conversation that I could not have dreamed of a few months ago and that conversation needs to continue. Men and women both need to be open and honest about the huge scale of the problem, the challenges it poses, and how to achieve lasting change. That won’t be easy, to be sure, but I believe that some of the recent progress is irreversible and that we will continue to move in the right direction.


Want more? Bensahel has commented on and discussed gender issues for War on the Rocks and for Center for New American Security (CNAS).