Former White House and Pentagon Adviser Talks to Women's Leadership Conference

Julie Smith explored working in the male-dominated field of Washington policy and politics.

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GSPM Interim Director Lara Brown (l) led a conversation with former deputy national security adviser to the vice president Julie Smith at the Women's Leadership Conference on the Mount Vernon Campus. (William Atkins/GW Today)
April 02, 2017

By B. L. Wilson

When Julie Smith walks into a room related to her work as a senior fellow at the Center for New American Security, a think tank focusing on national security and defense policy, there may be two or three other women. Yet that is an improvement over her years at the Pentagon: A decade ago she was often the only woman in the room for discussions about U.S. security and policy.

At the Women's Leadership Conference on George Washington University’s Mount Vernon Campus on Friday, Ms. Smith spoke to a room full of students, faculty and staff—nearly all women—about being a leader in a male-dominated field.

"I did find myself during the Obama administration, the almost four years I spent in the Pentagon walking into many a meeting, finding myself the only woman in the room," said Ms. Smith, who was principal director for European and NATO policy in the Office of the Secretary of Defense before moving to a position at the White House.

It wasn't much different when she traveled to Europe, the Middle East and Asia with her boss, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates. The delegations greeting them almost always were all male.

The 18th annual conference sponsored by the GW Women's Leadership Program, "Exploring Politics and Policy in the 21st Century," came together in the aftermath of women's worldwide protests the day after President Donald Trump's inauguration.    

Collette Coleman, the assistant dean for the Mount Vernon Campus and the Center for Student Engagement, introduced the morning conversation between Ms. Smith and Lara Brown, the interim director of the GW Graduate School of Political Management.

"We believe the current climate in our world demands a higher level of engagement of all people. The World Bank has a population of women in the world resting at about 49.6 percent," Ms. Coleman said.

Aside from the conversation with Ms. Smith in the morning, the conference offered sessions on fund raising, networking and international work. Out of 120 registered this year 49 were students.

Ms. Smith said research shows that government agencies like the CIA, for example, recruit women in almost equal numbers, but that's not reflected in mid-career and senior-level positions. In some instances, she said the research found blatant sexism and discrimination, men promoting men.

"I walk into a conference, and someone will say, 'You're going to love the spouses program.' " She said she then has to explain, " 'I’m not here with my spouse. You're going to have to file that under keynote speaker.' Stuff like that happens regularly. We're up against real bias. We've got work to do."

Often it’s women up against themselves, she said. "You’d also see cases, where women self-selected not to go for the promotion, not to apply," Ms. Smith said.

Dr. Brown said she found a similar situation in elective politics, self-doubt and "an ambition gap" that holds women back. "They say, 'Oh jeez, maybe I'm not qualified enough.' " On the other hand, she said, "Young men who have political ambition, typically when they hit about 35, they just say, 'I’m running.' "

Both women urged the audience not to overthink things and constantly question themselves about whether they've said or done the right thing. "Honestly, no one else is thinking about you," Dr. Brown said. "They have moved on."

Ms. Smith acknowledged that the work-life balance in a position where she put in 16-hour days, seven days a week was challenging. As professionally rewarding as serving as deputy national security adviser to Vice President Joe Biden was, she bailed.

"There were many times I was out the door before my son woke up and in the door after he went to bed. Many days I didn't see the whites of his eyes," she said. "It was very painful."

When Ms. Smith, who now has two sons, returned to civilian life, she said she sought and eventually found a job that provided more flexibility. But she said that women have to have the confidence to ask for it.

"You can have it all but not at the same time," she said.

The two women also concurred that these days the public does not view the world of public service, of politics and policy, in a good light.

"Our system of government is a system of government that is limited. Everyone has limited and shared powers," said Dr. Brown. "You come [to Washington] to try to move things a little bit, just a little bit over the course of your whole life."

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