LCWINS Webinar #6: Race, Racism & Intersectionality

Notes from Webinar #6 (this session was not recorded)

There are only two women of color currently confirmed in 190 national security political appointments. Among Ambassadors (a total of 224 additional positions), there are seven women of color appointed, all of whom are foreign service officers.  Women of color are not well-represented among political appointees and that needs to change. This webinar was intended to help inspire and inform aspiring political appointees who are women of color and those who seek to be good allies.

These notes reflect the advice of the incredible women featured on our panel during their own discussion and in response to questions from the audience. This advice may contradict advice from other sources or be internally contradictory.

Helpful qualifications for political appointment can include:
  • Being active in politics.
  • Previously having served as a civil servant, foreign service officer, intelligence, official or military officer.
  • Private sector experience.

Women tend to self-exclude.  Don’t self-exclude. Don’t take yourself out of the running because you don’t think you check every box.  White men in particular do not self-exclude.  

How to survive Senate confirmation:
  • For the two women who faced Senate confirmation, the process was difficult and can get held up for a long time.
  • Keep in mind that political appointments are first-and-foremost political.  
  • Staff are very important during Senate confirmation - do not disregard them.  
  • Take every meeting seriously.
  • Engage your sponsors and know who they are throughout the process.
  • Even with help, confirmations can get held up. The process can take a year or longer (it took a year for both women).  
  • Through the process - you have to be honest. If there are concerns about your past, the worst thing you can do is lie.
  • The hardest part about getting younger people through vetting was their social media footprint. If you have issues with social media, address them now.
How to deal with impostor syndrome:
  • It does not help when your impostor syndrome is reflected back at you when people make disparaging remarks about how you attained a certain position or question your credentials.
  • Offensive statements can be demoralizing but can also be motivating.  
  • Be humble about what you do and don’t know.  Work hard to overcome any gaps.  
  • At the same time, know that you had the experience that would allow you to inhabit the position and to do it well. Conveying that to the organization and yourself can be hard, but necessary.  
How to succeed in the job:
  • Building culture is important. Learn how to navigate the building once you are there.
  • Civil servants can be hostile. Reach out early and often and find points of commonality.
  • Understanding the organization and learning the organization are important. That also prevents people from figuring out how to do an end-run around you.  
  • Build friendships with those who are in the whirlwind with you.
  • You do need to watch your back. There are going to be people who want your job in the department and outside.  
  • There is a stigma and assumption that political appointees are all high-wealth donors, which is of course not true. You may have to highlight your qualifications.
  • Be mission-focused and mission-oriented in your approach.  
How to be an ally:
  • Most allies were not black, because the people who could take the risk and spend the political capital weren’t black. There also weren’t a lot of women of color.  
  • An ally might not understand that race is having a role. Their ability to see it and believe it when it’s told to them is very important.
  • Resist at all times putting people into boxes. The federal government has a tradition of saying “this is a black position” or “they want a woman.” That language is problematic - making sure that you’re not informing majority candidates (e.g. white men) that their chances are lower. It’s harder than it was before, but now you’re competing on a real playing field and if you’re great you’ll be fine.
  • Proactively vouch for people, especially if you see or hear anything problematic being said about them, but even unprompted.  
How to encourage allyship and sponsorship:
  • It can be important to have a strong sponsor.  
  • If you don’t burn bridges and build relationships, allies will come forward when opportunities arise.  White men of both parties can be supporters.  
  • The national security community is small and tight-knit. The same people are coming and going among agencies.  You do not have the luxury of burning bridges. As a woman of color, everybody is going to know you.  
  • You are going to stand out because there aren’t a lot of women of color. Be good, be the person in your field who is reliable.  
How to maintain perspective:
  • You need to have a life outside this political process and your work.
  • As a good leader, you have to be greedy with the criticism and share the praise. That means that you need to build up the other portions of your life.
  • Have a hobby.
  • There may be times that you are in the depths of the job because it is so demanding and may not have time for other hobbies or friends.
  • Don’t take yourself too seriously and do things that bring you joy.  
  • Your partner is the most important decision you can make.  
  • Surround yourself with family support and/or friend support.
  • Be in an environment where you can hire people you trust on your staff.
How to bring other Black women along:
  • In government it can be hard.
  • Don’t look at one pipeline but various pipelines.  
  • Make sure hiring pool and interviewers and managers are trained.
  • Don’t apologize for who you’re bringing up. Be loyal and defend them. Make sure they also have the right credentials.
  • Allow for coaching along the way. Create pipelines that others can use to bring other people along.
  • You have to be intentional about it. Send them off to schooling/training, ensuring that they are prepared if you are in a position of power and able to do so.  
  • If there are things you can do and you know the Secretary will support you, go for it.