In a Male-Dominated Administration, Pentagon Chief Seeks More Women

But critics are skeptical that Patrick Shanahan will fill senior Defense posts with female nominees after a series of resignations.

Acting U.S. Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan, left, gestures as International Institute for Strategic Studies CEO John Chipman looks on in Singapore on June 1.
Acting U.S. Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan, left, gestures as International Institute for Strategic Studies CEO John Chipman looks on in Singapore on June 1. ROSLAN RAHMAN/AFP/Getty Images

The Pentagon is still a largely male-dominated place, and Patrick Shanahan, U.S. President Donald Trump’s nominee for secretary of defense, is pushing hard to change that by filling top posts with female candidates, his chief of staff said.

But some critics are skeptical. “The Trump administration has created the most male-dominant administration since Reagan,” said Loren DeJonge Schulman, a former Pentagon official who now researches national security and defense reform at the Center for a New American Security. “The Defense Department is among the worst, if not the worst, in establishing women as leaders at all levels of the Department, civilian and military.”

Women have climbed the ranks of the U.S. national security world in recent years. Director Gina Haspel occupies the top post at the CIA. Of America’s five largest defense contractors, three are now led by women: Marillyn Hewson of Lockheed Martin, Phebe Novakovic of General Dynamics, and Kathy Warden of Northrop Grumman. Meanwhile, Leanne Caret is the CEO of Boeing’s defense business.

On Capitol Hill, women from both parties have driven new policies aimed at changing the military’s male-dominated culture. Texas Republican Rep. Kay Granger is the ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee after previously chairing its powerful defense subcommittee, and Republican Sen. Martha McSally and Democratic Sen. Tammy Duckworth, both veterans, have made their mark on the Senate Armed Services Committee.

But in the halls of the Pentagon, women have not kept pace. There are currently just four Senate-confirmed women serving in top U.S. Defense Department positions, and only one of six undersecretaries of defense is female. Overall, out of 53 positions confirmed or awaiting confirmation at the department, 46 went to men, according to the Washington Post’s tracker.

Shanahan, a former Boeing executive who spent three decades in the aerospace and defense industry, wants to close that gender gap, his chief of staff, Eric Chewning, told Foreign Policy.

“Shanahan comes from that environment, where he values having that kind of broad perspective,” Chewning said. “We are looking to bring on board a leadership team that reflects that broader thinking and diversity.”

But Shanahan is not off to a great start. Since he took over from James Mattis in January, the Defense Department has actually lost several of its highest-ranking women. Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, whose relationship with Shanahan was notoriously rocky, left her post at the end of May to be the next president of the University of Texas at El Paso.

Meanwhile Dana White, Mattis’s chief spokeswoman and one of the few people of color in the upper ranks of the Pentagon, stepped down in January. Phyllis Bayer, the Navy civilian in charge of energy, environment, and installations, resigned in March.

“When I was at Pentagon in 2009, the office that oversaw the [Quadrennial Defense Review] had a direct line of four women reporting to one another in leadership roles, up to Secretary [Robert] Gates,” said DeJonge Schulman, referring to the U.S. military’s main public document. “There is nowhere in the Department of Defense where that is possible today.”

DeJonge Schulman said she hears from former colleagues of “gross and open misogyny” from senior officials’ offices.

Shanahan is nonetheless charging ahead. To start, last month he chose Barbara Barrett, the former chairwoman of the nonprofit Aerospace Corporation who served in 2008 and 2009 as President George W. Bush’s ambassador to Finland, out of a handful of White House candidates to replace Wilson at the helm of the Air Force. (Trump was the one to formally announce her appointment.)

Barrett, who developed an interest in aviation as a child, is an instrument-rated pilot and trained as an astronaut. She has been a reliably Republican donor.

“What we really liked about her background is she is someone who has been active in the national security space for a while, with experience in both the private and public sector,” said a senior U.S. defense official familiar with Shanahan’s thinking.

Shanahan also plans to appoint Elaine McCusker to take over for David Norquist, who is expected to be nominated for deputy secretary of defense, as the Pentagon’s comptroller, the official said. McCusker is currently serving as acting comptroller. Similarly, Lisa Hershman, the acting chief management officer of the department, will likely get the nod for the permanent job, the official added.

Kathryn Wheelbarger, the acting assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, is also being considered for a top position, the official said. And Jennifer Santos, the vice president for Air Force and Defense Department innovation at Cypress International, a consulting firm, will take over Chewning’s old job as the head of the Pentagon’s industrial policy office.

The Pentagon has many empty posts to fill, including assistant secretary of defense for nuclear, chemical, and biological defense programs; the director of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation; the undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness; and more.

“Secretary Shanahan’s focus in building the team is in identifying the right assortment of experiences, skill sets, and personalities across the top of the Department,” said Shanahan’s spokesman, Lt. Col. Joseph Buccino.

Despite rumors to the contrary, Shanahan is not considering Mira Ricardel, who served as deputy national security advisor until she was reportedly ousted after a dispute with the first lady, for any top position, the official said. Shanahan and Ricardel overlapped at Boeing.

Shanahan wants to take advantage of the number of vacancies at the Defense Department right now to increase diversity, the official said.

“If you think about the DoD as a $700 billion company, that $700 billion company represents a very broad set of the American people,” the official added. “So we want to make sure we have a leadership team … that brings a diversity of perspectives and represents the U.S. military.”

But promises to bring more diversity to the Pentagon are not enough, DeJonge Schulman said.

“If Secretary Shanahan wants to make a dent in the severe deficit of women in his leadership team and the culture of the Pentagon, he has to do more than appoint one woman as secretary of the Air Force,” she said.

Correction, June 4, 2019: Texas Republican Rep. Kay Granger is the ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee and previously chaired its defense subcommittee. A previous version of this article misstated her role on the committee.

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman