12/21/2012 01:12 pm ET Updated Feb 20, 2013

Half the Homeland: Mobilizing Women for National Security

Carrie Mathison, the fictional CIA analyst in the HBO series Homeland, and Maya, the operative in the film Zero Dark Thirty who is based on a woman who helped capture Osama bin Laden, have placed a spotlight on a huge national security issue in America: women in national security jobs. Unfortunately, while women have made great strides in the realm of foreign policy, they remain underrepresented across the intelligence, defense and security community.

Why does it matter? Men and women bring different types of experiences and perspectives to understanding, identifying and ameliorating potential threats. Adding more women to the security workforce is about mobilizing national security assets in our country -- and making the country safer. Women make up half the homeland, but they do not make up nearly half of the workforce responsible for protecting it.

It's an especially big problem in realms like cybersecurity.

In a speech last month, U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta warned of the potential for a "cyber Pearl Harbor." The potential for a large-scale cyberattack on American soil with physical ramifications and loss of American lives is a real one. Recently, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and other Washington, D.C. professional organizations and universities have ramped up recruiting and hiring for cybersecurity jobs. According to U.S. military officials, cyberattacks on critical U.S. infrastructure have increased 17-fold from 2007 to 2009. In 2011 alone, cyberattacks increased by 40 percent. In the 2013 defense budget, cybersecurity is one of the few areas of defense spending projected to increase.

But to effectively fortify American cyberdefense, recruiters must focus their efforts on recruiting more women for those positions. The U.S. can't afford to neglect the talent and brain power of half its population if it expects to compete with populous countries with advanced cybersecurity capabilities, such as China and Russia. A homogenous workforce precludes the innovative and creative thinking that's essential to the development of a new policy area, such as cybersecurity.

Unfortunately, the cyber ceiling could widen the already large gender gap. According to a 2009 report published by Women in International Security (WIIS), women only comprise approximately 13 percent of the Senior Intelligence Service, and between 21 and 29 percent of key agencies that grapple with national security matters, like the U.S. Department of State and U.S. Department of Defense.

The surge in cybersecurity could expand the existing gap since there are generally fewer women in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. As a result, there are fewer women in the pipeline with the specialized skills required for certain cybersecurity jobs. And there are also significant misperceptions about careers in national security and the backgrounds of value in this field.

The field is not only in need of computer scientists, engineers or those interested in analyzing nuclear weapons and tanks. Cybersecurity work requires men and women from a variety of backgrounds, such as international affairs, law, psychology and public policy. Awareness about the skills and backgrounds valuable in the cybersecurity realm might also help attract more women, since women have been underrepresented in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. The numbers are quite alarming. In 2010, The National Center for Education Statistics reported only 18 percent of computer science undergraduates to be women.

Educational programs, government initiatives and scholarships designed to attract women to foreign policy and national security are extremely critical and must continue to serve as the pillars of strengthening the talent, expertise and diversity of our security workforce. However, we should not underestimate the role that less conventional approaches may be able to play in this effort. For example, television, magazines, books and public relations style campaigns can potentially play into inspiring women to pursue careers in national security. For example, back in 2004, the CIA employed Jennifer Garner, the star of Alias, in CIA ads and recruitment videos. Currently, each week roughly 2 million people watch Homeland. Leveraging the recent popularity of shows like Homeland and the publicity surrounding the release of Zero Dark Thirty can also help spark interest in national security in the next generation.

Recently, I visited Levo League, a N.Y.-based startup with a mission that sets out "to elevate young women in the workforce by providing career resources needed to achieve personal and professional success." A group of young women working there all noted that Homeland has piqued their curiosity and that they have found themselves more interested in learning about national security and the CIA. There is quite a bit of evidence supporting the notion that television can actually play a role in triggering professional interests. For example, back in 1989, law school admissions applications spiked -- a trend which was attributed to the popularity of LA Law.

Similarly, pulling together a bipartisan dream team of inspirational and high-profile women who have served in leadership positions in technology and foreign policy to engage in a high-profile public relations campaign could help raise visibility on this issue. Featuring these women and involving high-profile women who have portrayed national security professionals behind the camera in an ad campaign or in publications targeting women could help garner national attention to this issue. Lastly, simply getting more young women from these fields into classrooms around the nation and more visible in the media would go a long way in inspiring younger girls to be security leaders in the next generation.

In the nearer term, shattering the security ceiling requires the immediate mobilization of women into these careers and being committed to working on the various obstacles that have contributed the gender gap in security over the last few decades. Women should take the lead in this effort by both encouraging other women and stepping up to the plate to express interest in this area. Protecting the homeland requires that we tap not half, but all of the best and the brightest.