Homeland Security Is a Team Effort, Experts Agree

GW hosted a panel of four expert women in the security professions.

March 4, 2022

Three panelists and a host at the homeland security event

Clockwise from top left: panelist Maria Berliner, host Connie Uthoff, panelist Cynthia Strand, and panelist Kathleen Harasek.

By Greg Varner

Four women with noteworthy careers in homeland security served as panelists on Wednesday at a virtual fireside chat sponsored by three programs in the George Washington University’s College of Professional Studies: the master’s degree program in cybersecurity strategy and information management and the bachelor’s and master’s degree programs in homeland security.

The discussion focused primarily on the various opportunities for women in the fields of homeland security and cybersecurity, though men were not excluded from consideration.

“I think this is the best profession anybody can go into, men or women,” said panelist Maria Berliner, managing director of the RTG-Red Team Group and a GW professor of intelligence and strategic analysis.

Directors from the sponsoring programs were present to serve as hosts for the event. Elaine Lammert, director of GW’s master’s program in homeland security, acted as moderator, presenting panelists with a variety of questions from how they got into the field to what advice they might give women considering a similar professional path.

“This arena is constantly changing, whether it’s Ukraine or the rise of extremism in this country,” Lammert said. “There’s always a need for professionals in this field.”

With more than 30 years of experience in law enforcement, Kathleen Harasek, M.P.S. ’12, defines herself as an “adrenaline junkie” and serves as an adjunct professor in GW’s homeland security program. She retired from the U.S. Park Police, where she was responsible for the security of monuments, memorials and the National Mall.

“On 9/11/2001, the world changed,” Harasek said, “and law enforcement changed pretty significantly. They weren’t known as monuments and memorials any more—they were known as targets and icons.”

Ret. Rear Admiral Danelle Barrett left active duty in the U.S. Navy after three decades of service. Among her operational assignments were deployments to Iraq and on an aircraft carrier in support of operations in Afghanistan.

“People ask about the male-dominated environment,” Barrett said. She advised her listeners to “Focus on your performance, not your gender.”

Another panelist, Cynthia Strand, spent 35 years in the CIA and now directs global intelligence strategy at Primer.ai, a language processing and generation startup.

“The most important thing is to master your craft,” Strand said. “No matter what you are hired to do, do it to the absolute best of your ability.”

Once established, she added, professionals should then not hesitate to apply for positions that will require them to grow.

“We learn a lot when we’re uncomfortable,” Strand said, before stressing the importance of recruiting women.

“Wherever you can, lift other women up,” she said, adding that she and the other panelists “all agree that we stand on the shoulders of the women who came before us.”

Citing studies showing that women are far less likely than their male peers to apply for a position unless they feel qualified in every respect, Barrett said women should be less apologetic.

“Don’t be sorry, just disagree. Say, ‘I disagree with you and this is the other perspective I’d like to offer.’”

After reminding the virtual audience that everybody fails at some time or another, Barrett cited Walt Disney as an inspirational figure.

“He failed with his first try with Oswald the Rabbit,” she said, “but then he went back and changed the world with Mickey Mouse.”

The importance of looking at men as peers, not superiors, was emphasized by Berliner.

“They may know more in some areas than I do,” Berliner said, but she knows more than they do in other areas. “You have to be confident. You can’t expect any special privileges because you’re a woman. Speak up, but speak up with civility and respect. Be professional all the time and speak truth to power. Your views count, particularly if you are new, because you have a different perspective.”

Like the other panelists, Berliner emphasized the fast-moving nature of the security professions.

“The field is changing from moment to moment. Develop your expertise, but always look ahead and in the rearview mirror,” Berliner said. “You have to be a subject matter expert and also a generalist at the same time.”

The consensus view of the panelists is that we have entered a period of fundamental transformation, with technology evolving more and more rapidly, as security becomes more and more intertwined with other issues such as climate and migration.

All of the panelists encouraged people, particularly women, to join them in becoming security professionals.

“National security is a team sport,” Strand said. “No one organization is going to save the country. We all do it together.”