When asked what national security looks like to them, Lauren Buitta said girls across the country repeatedly described “Men in Black,” the 1997 science fiction movie about men in black suits and dark sunglasses protecting the world from aliens.
“Military, intelligence, spies, men sitting around tables in suits — those perceptions are very strong,” said Buitta, who in 2019 founded Girl Security, a nonprofit dedicated to increasing gender equity in the national security sector. “I think the field itself for a century has projected an image that security is power and physical strength. As a result of that, the role of girls and women in the security space has been pigeonholed and has prevented them from seeing themselves in this field.”
The national security sector — which includes the military, foreign intelligence and internal security — is recognized as one of the most powerful political sectors in the world and comprises a large percentage of the federal budget. Still, women account for about 20 percent of the workforce across the board, Buitta said. This is in large part due to a lack of visible role models, misconceptions about the career pathways available to young women and long-standing stereotypes about what the sector should look like.
There have only been two women to hold the position of U.S. National Security Advisor, the top advisor to the president on national security issues: Condoleezza Rice advised former President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2005, and Susan Rice advised former President Barack Obama from 2013 to 2017. The Biden administration has also made clear commitments to promoting gender equity and equality in this space by establishing a White House Gender Policy Council and the first-ever national gender strategy, which aims to advance equity in domestic and foreign policy.
Girl Security is one of the biggest players in the national security space, and does work similar to adjacent organizations, including Girls Who Code and Girls, Inc. Buitta added that the program is open to transgender women and queer and nonbinary people who present as femme. Since its inception a few years ago, Buitta said the organization has connected over 800 young women with mentors and graduated 75 fellows from a workforce training program with a 75 percent job placement rate. The goal is to graduate up to 600 annually by 2025.
“In our program, we set up how national security has historically been defined by certain parameters, and then invite girls and young women to say what they think national security should look like,” Buitta said. “They bring a much more holistic lens on the different security challenges that our world actually faces — and that includes issues of racial justice, food security, education and climate.”
Buitta said she first became active in the national security field after the September 11 attacks in 2001. She was hired by a Chicago-based think tank in 2002. About seven years into her career, she said she was sexually assaulted by her boss, and eventually left the sector for about a decade. Around 2016, Buitta said she noticed that there were still about the same number of women in the national security field as when she left. She then decided to create Girl Security. Buitta pointed out that in many ways, girls and women “grow up in a state of constant threat to their personal security.”As a result, she said, “They innately and intimately understand security, and so by bringing in more diverse perspectives — our world will be more secure.”
Buitta also argues the lack of gender equity is not only a workforce issue, it is a civic issue.
Each citizen spends about $2,400 on national security every year — if extrapolated that means women spend about $4 billion, according to “Resourcing the National Security Enterprise,” a recently published book.
“Women are paying for national security, but how much are they informed and how much do they understand about where their money is going toward a lot of these key issues that directly impact them?” Buitta said.
Buitta said that the mentees involved with Girl Security often “live the experiences that are the outcomes of our national security decision making.” As women, they bring their own experiences and ultimately a new understanding of security to the table.
“As women, we live this life every single day,” Buitta said. “Moms who have been trafficked, parents who have been detained by ICE, first-generation refugees who were resettled here post-conflict — and they want to be part of the solution.”
Caroline Covey, now 21, was a sophomore at Indiana University when she saw a newsletter in her inbox advertising a fellowship opportunity with Girl Security. As a student studying international affairs and Russian, Covey said she was struggling to find women mentors and decided to apply on a whim.
“I kind of always wanted to go into government work, but never really knew what my pathways were,” Covey said. “Especially for young students who don’t know too much about national security opportunities, everyone thinks you’re going to be a diplomat at the State Department. . . . . At that point, all I was hearing was that I could go into cybersecurity, but I wasn’t too interested in it.”
Covey said Girl Security connected her with mentors that showed her more possibilities and led her to her current work in the world of nuclear nonproliferation and weapons of mass destruction.
“It dawned on me that it was going to be difficult to find a community of like-minded women like me who wanted to break into the national security field but felt like we didn’t have a lot of people that we could look up to or talk to,” Covey said. “But the [Girl Security] program is a community of women who are passionate, a community that I can go back to and ask questions.”
After becoming involved with Girl Security, Covey quickly got an internship at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies and has another lined up with Boeing to work with missile defense systems and nuclear weapons.
Jada Howard, 20, a college student in the mentorship program, said she has been interested in working in the national security field since her senior year of high school when she took a class on terrorism in the modern world. When she stumbled across Girl Security “purely by accident” at a conference last May, Howard immediately signed up because she had been actively looking for a woman mentor in the field.
“In all of my career opportunities in national security thus far, I have consistently been the only woman,” Howard said. “I carry a unique perspective that had not been introduced yet.”
Howard said her mentor has already introduced her to several career paths that she would not have known about otherwise. She has also connected with other women in the intelligence community, gained confidence in her own professional abilities and learned about the “unique journey we as women have to take in order to succeed in this field,” Howard said.
Seventeen-year-old Sravya Kotamraju stumbled across Girl Security while she was scrolling through Instagram in late 2021 and applied “out of curiosity.” She said she had been interested in computers for as long as she could remember but knew that she wanted to explore the intersection between technology, language and geo-politics. She quickly became involved with Girl Security and has since managed an international hack-a-thon initiative to increase STEM accessibility among minority communities and traveled to South Korea on a study abroad trip with the U.S. State Department, where she met other women in the sector.
“Meeting other South Asian women excelling in this field through workshops and interviews gave me confidence, despite being someone you would not expect to see at the table,” Kotamraju said. “I felt like, at least for me, it didn’t seem like a viable option for a long time. . . . It’s kind of an unspoken thing that as a South Asian, you tend to go into engineering sciences or pre-med — and it was really nice to see that there are more than just the traditional pathways.”
If not for her chance encounter with Girl Security’s presence on Instagram, Kotamraju said she would likely not have even considered national security as a potential career path. Over time, she learned to think of national security as not just protection against foreign threats, but all stressors that have the ability to shake democracy, from the virtual to the environmental.
In the coming decades, Buitta hopes Americans stop calling it “national security” altogether.
“What does security mean to the individual?” Buitta asked. “How are we thinking about our nation? What does that look like in 20 to 50 years? We kind of half joke that it might be called national well-being or global well-being — something that more accurately reflects people and the types of challenges that we confront.”
Buitta said the future of national security is going to require more participation from the U.S. population in ways not seen in the past.
“Sole reliance on the military as our primary sort of national security strength is not going to work in the long-term,” Buitta said. “The types of threats we’re seeing orient themselves around cybersecurity and technology, global health and domestic terrorism — and none of these are siloed. . . . Not every American can go abroad and fight a war, but every American can be engaged in cybersecurity or climate change or the next pandemic.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the nature of Girl Security's relationship with organizations like Girls Who Code and Girls, Inc. Girl Security performs similar work, but has not partnered with them.