Women in Security: “Right away I am being met with actual disbelief”

Senior women leaders in operational security discuss the innovations they’ve led, the challenges they’ve faced, and their hopes for the future of a changing industry

Recently Internews convened a roundtable of senior women operational security leaders to discuss the rapid changes in their field, how they got to where they are and, most importantly, how they ensure better understanding of risk.Their remarks have been excerpted for this article. Participants included:

  • Carmen Dreyer, Director of Security for ChildFund International
  • Denise Furnell, International Security Consultant, Risk and Strategic Management Corp, previously working for Ford Foundation and International Rescue Committee, among others._
  • Brooke Kassner-Matz, Manager, Global Security & Operations at Internews
  • Lisa Oliveri, Director of Global Safety and Security at Education Development Center
  • Christine Persaud, recent Senior Risk Management and Security Advisor at the Canadian Red Cross,
  • Beverly Roach, Security consultant previously working for the World Bank, the UNDP and CARE USA, among others.
  • Valerie Schaeublin, Senior Regional Security Advisor, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Every day, international non-profit workers navigate increasingly perilous environments to help people in areas of conflict and instability. As the challenges facing organizations have grown, so have threats against them. And while embassies and businesses most often keep their personnel behind high walls, utilize armed guards, or transport them in armored vehicles, aid organizations by their nature have staff among the people they are there to help.

Over the past decade, close to 300 aid workers have been affected by serious violence each year, according to the Aid Worker Security Database maintained by nonprofit Humanitarian Outcomes and supported with funding by the U.S. Agency for International Development. With increasing security threats and risks of violence to staff, the international non-governmental organization (INGO) sector has greatly increased attention to the role of Safety and Security.

In the early days of nonprofits and international aid organizations, NGO workers were generally less targeted and met with very different threats than organizations see today. Today INGOs can be perceived as extensions of governments, and this in turn has led to more concerns over security. In response to the shifting threat environment INGOs now face, the field of Safety and Security emerged in the late 1990s to support staff operating in difficult environments and challenging projects.

The INGO Operational Security Field was initially dominated by former military, police officers and health and safety workers—and virtually all of them were men. However, today the field of Safety and Security has become just as diverse as the people that need protection. “I think it’s a really interesting time to work in the [INGO] security field. There’s an appetite for creative solutions and new approaches to operating in dynamic environments,” said **Valerie Schaeublin, Senior Regional Security Officer at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. **Women have taken leading positions in the industry, assuming the helms of some of the largest aid organizations in the world.

These women have joined the incredibly complex field of professionals whose job it is to prevent kidnappings, respond to medical crises, carry out complex evacuations, implement robust security policies and procedures, and ultimately protect against a seemingly never-ending list of risks to aid workers. Their emergence and success in this field commands deep respect, but we must note, they have not had it easy.

Emerging into a primarily male-dominated field has been at the forefront of challenges these female leaders have faced. While Dreyer notes she and other female professionals have emerged and succeeded in the field of Safety and Security, they have had to navigate not being taken seriously in the field. In Dreyers’ pre-NGO career as a police investigator, sexism was rampant in the male-dominated field. She pointed to an instance where she led an investigative team on a high-profile case. After the case, the commissioner of police wanted to thank the team personally.

The INGO world has been equally challenging for these professionals. Being a woman in the historically male-dominated field has been a transition that was not immediately met with confidence and support. For Kassner-Matz, she was met with uncertainty from the moment of getting off the plane on arrival in an extreme risk location.

Kassner-Matz continued by saying that it took an office fire during one of her trips abroad to lead to a change in attitudes towards her. On the very first day of her visit to a remote field office, there was a small fire in part of our building. “I got there and our staff were actually throwing reams of paper on top of the fire to try to put it out. I quickly worked with the team to get it under control and minimize damage to the property. One person got a very minor injury, which I was able to treat in the office. The next day I had ironically already planned to lead a training on fire safety, first aid, and general operational security. That for me was my moment of a 180-degree shift, where I realized the staff were looking at me differently. It was like they stopped looking at me as this blonde girl and said ‘Oh she can lead, and she knows what she is talking about. Now we see why you're here.’”

The challenge of having to work incredibly hard to prove oneself despite the odds against you was a common sentiment amongst this group of women. Many felt achieving higher degrees and having impeccable credentials was necessary so that male detractors would have no choice but to accord them respect. For Roach, she found herself working on a Master of Science degree while simultaneously handling operational security in Afghanistan, oftentimes completing her assignments by candlelight. “I was sitting in my living room and had papers all over the floor for an assignment I was working on when there was suddenly an attack.” She knew she had to take charge. “My operations center kicked into action. But I had this assignment due at the end of the night, it was actually for a crisis management program that I was taking. I sent a message to my professor, and I said, ‘Look I'm sorry, I just can't get the assignment in tonight. I hope you don't mind. You probably saw on the news [that the hotel was attacked].’ He wrote back with, ‘Let's just call it on-the-job training.’”

For many of these women, having to get buy in and trust from fellow staff was not immediate and required having their**operational security capabilities physically put to the test to garner trust and respect**. Furnell was handling operational security in Kabul, Afghanistan when a Taliban bomb severely damaged the house she was living in – while she was there. Being in the role of Safety and Security, she had to not only be concerned for her own safety, but also manage the organizational response, having just had her home blown up. Of the moment, Furnell said “It was one of these ‘street cred’ moments for me – not just with the international staff on the ground but also with the headquarters staff and national team. From that point forward it was like if I said we do it, we do it. If I said we don’t, we don’t. Got a lot less argument after that. Literally battle tested.”

There are a multitude of strengths that this group of professionals brings to the Safety and Security community. With the INGO sector being more diverse then ever, having a woman, or a member of the LGBTQ community, or a minority group in charge can actually make people more safe. Being a female in the field has provided for a unique level of trust to be built with staff and more open communications with security focal points of different genders, ethnic groups, sexual orientation, and more.

Staff of different profiles face different threats and have different concerns. Having female security professionals can help bridge this gap and understand threats better that may not be regularly discussed. As Roach said, “There are so many things that can happen physically or psychologically in the workplace or environment that are different for women. There are things that will happen to women that just don't happen to men: street harassment, that crazy guy in that plane who puts his hand up your leg, creepy hugs in the office.” All INGOs work with many different cultures and groups of people and having a diverse security team only strengthens the ability to identify risks to staff and better support them.

Similarly, Oliveri has found that staff have felt more comfortable sharing concerns with her and that**being a female in the field has helped to bridge the gap with stuff due to relatability and breaking down gender misconceptions**. She said “When I had the opportunity to teach self-defense or evading physical harm techniques, the level of engagement and response from female participants in particular was very positive and empowering. Even participants who had some type of self-defense training in the past made it a point to say they enjoyed having a female-led course because it stressed different strength level and sizes.”

Persaud witnessed firsthand in Sri Lanka and Darfur how having a female security professional helps in learning about the threats and concerns staff may face. “In Sri Lanka it was women among the national staff that felt threatened. Every time they would go through SLA-controlled checkpoints they would be sexually harassed, and no one was picking up on that. But they eventually took the initiative and pulled me aside and told me everything. In Darfur, a national staff member was posted in a guest house with other men which posed incredible security risks because of her religion. She she had been afraid to speak up, because the office was managed by a man and every other leadership position was in the hands of men.”

However, Safety and Security is no longer solely about physical safety. There are increasingly sophisticated digital threats to operational security that these female professionals are navigating today. Kassner-Matz’s team navigates beyond traditional physical security concerns, especially as personal and professional lives blend on digital devices. Of the growing operational security concerns as a result of digital security, she said “Border security checkpoints are becoming a greater concern. Increasingly, laptops and devices are being taken to another room and being searched. It is really hard for travelers to know how to navigate that. You cannot just push back at immigration or security authorities. Our community is now having to go a step further by ensuring open and comfortable conversations with staff on digital security when traveling so concerns can be shared and mitigation measures implemented before they board that plane,” Kassner-Matz stated.

In the coming decades, there is no doubt that the field of Safety and Security will continue to become more and more diverse. Roach points to one of her proudest moments in the field being her early advice to a young Pakistani woman who wanted to pursue security – it would be hard work; Roach told her she would have to seek more training and a master’s degree – and ultimately, years later, Roach watched as the woman achieved every goal. For the women in the field now, being role models and ensuring that there continues to be a future of women in the field is integral to continue supporting staff of all types and seeing the evolution they hope for in the field.