“From Typist to Trailblazer” Panel Gives Insight on Women in CIA

Photo by Anna Weston '17 | The symposium, focused on the evolving role of women in the Central Intelligence Agency, discussed the womens’ personal experience involved in the organization.  

Anya Gruber '16 Assistant News Editor

The symposium “From Typist to Trailblazer: The Evolving View of Women in the CIA’s Workforce” occurred last Wednesday, October 30, at 4:00 pm in the Campus Center Carroll Room.

The symposium began with a welcome introduction with Joseph Lambert, the Director of CIA Information Management Services and opening remarks by Professor Brent Durbin of Smith’s government department.

A panel discussion followed, with a notable list of speakers including Jeanne Tisinger, CIA Director for support; Carmen Middleton, Director for the CIA Center for Mission Diversity and Inclusion; Martha Neff Kessler, a former senior CIA analyst and current DHS Ombudsman; and Abby Whitlow ’94, Executive Assistant to the office of the CIO.

In his opening remarks, Durbin discussed the history of women in the CIA as well as providing background on the 1953 “Petticoat Panel,” which he described as “the earliest effort in the federal government to [recognize] the role of women.” The Petticoat Panel was a committee dedicated to bringing the deliberate exclusion of women under scrutiny. Durbin also noted the long history of women fighting for their own right to work in high-ranking government positions.

At the symposium, there were pamphlets available that contained a more in-depth history of the Petticoat Panel, including facsimiles of original documents.

The evolving role of women in history and the workforce was also touched upon, in both the introduction and the following panel discussion.

The panel discussion began with a conversation about how far women have come in the CIA and the conditions necessary for change and progress.

Jeanne Tisinger shared the story of how she ended up at the CIA because of one senior officer’s “one small act of kindness,” allowing her to work a flexible schedule that afforded her the time at home she needed while starting her family. She added, “at the end of the day, I think it’s people who make a difference…those who extend a hand and pull others to the top.”

“You have to have a desire for change at every level,” said Carmen Middleton, “including senior officers and women themselves.”

Martha Neff Kessler added, “It depends on the attitude of the senior leaders.” She also noted “I think women themselves have made the difference…[they’ve been able to] grasp at men’s politics.” Kessler spoke about the importance of the performance and professionalism of women in the workplace, noticing this as a crucial factor in the success of women in governmental positions.

Discrimination in the workplace was also touched upon. The speakers generally agreed that none of them had been seriously affected by outright, blatant discrimination. Said Kessler, “I’ve never felt, as a woman, that I’m not being listened to.”

However, when men were polled on how they felt about women working beside them in government, the results showed “a lot of anger.” The panelists agreed that though women have come a long way, there is still much room for improvement.

Abby Whitlow ’94 was asked whether she thought being a Smith alum gave her particular advantages in the workplace. “At Smith, I learned how to find my voice, how to communicate…and learned how to collaborate and be a team member.”