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Protecting America

Women leaders in the homeland security arena

In one of her most famous letters to her husband, John, Abigail Adams admonished him to make sure that “particular care and attention” be “paid to the ladies,” so as to make sure that they have “voice or representation” in the country’s laws.

While those words have long been an inspiration to the equal rights and suffrage movements of American women, they are also a powerful message of the role women want to play when it comes to safeguarding our nation’s freedoms and liberties.

For nearly a century, women have formally served the U.S. military in a number of critical roles. Equally important is the role that women have played in providing for public safety in cities, towns, and communities across America, but in the post-9/11 world, there are newer and equally impressive roles that they are playing that would make Mrs. Adams particularly proud.

Going remarkably unacknowledged and unheralded is the fact that significant portions of America’s leadership in its burgeoning homeland security apparatus are led by women.

From the two top federal positions at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS); numerous senior positions throughout the 220,000-person department; the leadership of the U.S. Congress as well as numerous state, local, tribal, and private-sector organizations; women possess some of the most visible and significant roles in America’s homeland security enterprise.

Starting at the top, Janet Napolitano, as the secretary of Homeland Security, has embraced without reservation the challenges of the most complex bureaucratic assembly of agencies and missions since the creation of the U.S. Department of Defense by then-President Harry Truman.

Charged by her boss, President Barack Obama, to improve the operational performance and efficiencies of DHS and keep the country prepared and safe for a range of threats, Napolitano is not alone in the discharge of her duties.

Surrounded by a strong supporting cast of political and career personnel, Napolitano is able to have her choice of talent, but it is worthy to note that her deputy as well as her leads for Intelligence and Analysis; Science and Technology; Intergovernmental Affairs; Legislative Affairs; Privacy and more are women. Each of them brings a wide range of military and humanitarian service, intelligence work, medical and research practices, government service, and other distinguished skills to the table.

While each of these DHS leaders is distinguished in her own right, the matter of their gender was never a source of public debate or concern among their respective Senate confirmation hearings or political appointments. Each of them offered an individual track record of achievement for debate and consideration. In the end, the only metric that mattered was the same metric every person in homeland security has to satisfy: “Can they do the job?”

The Burdensome Job Metric


It is worth noting that homeland security crosses many different professions and is an operational discipline of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” functions. Regardless of what action is taken to protect a critical infrastructure, share intelligence information, or prepare for and respond to a disaster, there will be those detractors who will most assuredly point out the “would’ve,” “could’ve” and “should’ves” to be done.

Napolitano’s predecessors in the role of DHS secretary, Tom Ridge and Michael Chertoff, experienced that firsthand and there has been no let up on her either. The same and often volatile criticisms about border security problems, frustrations with TSA screeners at airports, amounts of grant funding awards, and so forth have not gone away, nor have they been muted.

With any homeland security job comes the inglorious burden of responsibility for the good days when a range of threats are successfully mitigated and the bad ones when all hell breaks loose and everyone is looking to you for action.

Nancy Dragani. Photo courtesy of Ohio Emergency Management Agency

This is a charge with which emergency managers everywhere are familiar. Whatever can go wrong will go wrong, and being the person in charge means you have to find solutions to move forward. Those are facts that people like Nancy Dragani, the executive director of the State of Ohio’s Emergency Management Agency, deal with every day.

Tornadoes, floods, large-scale public and sporting events, and more are always on her agenda to be ready. Since disasters occur without any warning, it is her charge to have the people, resources, and plans in place to react, respond, and recover, and her leadership in these disciplines is also of note.

As the former president of the National Emergency Managers Association (NEMA), “a professional association of and for emergency management directors from all 50 states, eight territories and the District of Columbia,” Dragani’s voice is one of the most sought in the country when it comes to the country’s planning and preparedness needs.

In a 2009 presentation before the Heritage Foundation, Dragani noted with concern a pendulum shift toward an attitude of citizen entitlement. Instead of taking the individual initiative to prepare and respond to an emergency, it was her view that all too often people are expecting someone, somewhere to always take care of those steps for them. She noted disturbing behavior trends in these areas following the 9/11 attacks and the disasters following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005.

Her frank and courageous remarks were a sharp reality check for the public and emergency managers everywhere as to what the public expectations from elected officials, the media, and others should be when it comes to reacting and responding to emergencies in all their shapes and forms.

While she recognized the need for individuals to take greater responsibility for themselves and their families, Dragani is also quick to point out the critical advantages that collaboration and partnership bring to overall preparedness.

In an interview discussing the difference between men and women operating in the homeland security space, Dragani explained that while there “are no marked differences [between the two sexes] in this profession or any other one, you can’t be successful in emergency management without being collaborative and building partnerships.”

As to having those skills, she observed that “women by some degree are more nurturing than men, but that is true in most professions that women occupy.”

Dragani further explained that “the way we are raised means we are more collaborative and that trait carries itself forward in any profession we go into.”

Because of these conditions, the ability to collaborate and partner with others is something that “plays off of our strengths.”

In observing her own professional field of emergency management, as well as others in the larger homeland security profession, Dragani explained that “having those types of traits will bring women as well as men to the table,” and that those skill sets would lend “themselves nicely to anyone for advancement in this career field.”

Recognizing the Accomplishment, Focusing on the Future


Kristina Tanasichuk

In March 2009, Kristina Tanasichuk, who serves as the vice president of the Homeland Security & Defense Business Council, founded the group Women in Homeland Security. A professional organization based in Washington, D.C., but with an 800-plus-member, nationwide reach, the group was designed to “provide women with a forum to learn about the many facets of the discipline and to build the connections necessary for their own professional development and for the connections needed to understand the full spectrum of homeland security.”

In discussing the recently established group, Tanasichuk shared, “If you told me I would be starting a group like this back five to six years ago, I would have said that you’re crazy. As my career in homeland security expanded, I found a real dearth of women – I was often the only woman in the room. I found there was a real need for a place where women could come together to network and share what’s happening.”

Despite the fact that DHS and other major homeland-centric organizations were led by women, Tanasichuk shared that others felt there remained a need for an outlet for women in this arena. It was their view that too many of the professional portals from which significant portions of the homeland workforce come (e.g., the military, law enforcement, public safety) remain predominantly male outlets. That observation was only compounded by the fact that most leadership positions in firms with homeland security practices were held predominantly by men.

While proud of the fact that much of DHS’ leadership is female, Tanasichuk explained that in spite of these accomplishments, there still remain challenges that women encounter in working in this arena.

“Women communicate and organize differently” and “have different styles and approaches in doing the job [from men], but both can, and obviously do, get it done.”

She also observed that given the expanse of what encompasses homeland security and the diversity of positions and backgrounds of the people serving in it, there needed to be an outlet for women to come together and share what was happening while offering professional mentorship and support to one another.

“Homeland security is not yet a cohesive community. There’s a mix of military, emergency management, public health, transportation, cyber, infrastructure, and numerous other disciplines that must find a way to integrate and network as effectively as our iPhones. Women in Homeland Security offers the opportunity to network and contribute to that goal.”

When pressed to explain the difference in how men and women committed to the same homeland security objective, Tanasichuk explained that women by their nature may have strengths that are conducive to the homeland security/counterterrorism mission.

“Take terrorism as an example. If you don’t take a wide enough look at the continuum that leads up to a terrorist act, instead of just looking at the singular act of violence, you will never effectively deal with the problem. A common strength among women is the ability to multi-task and assimilate many disparate pieces of information – facts, feelings, hunches, experiences – to get to an answer.”

One of the women that Tanasichuk pointed to as one of the homeland security community’s most promising and public leaders is Washington, D.C.’s police chief, Cathy Lanier of the Metropolitan Police Department.

Appointed to her position by Washington, D.C., Mayor Adrian Fenty in 2007, Lanier’s job in leading more than 3,800 police officers is more than protecting monuments (a job of the National Park Service Police) and shepherding motorcades of dignitaries through crowded D.C. streets. As she described in several Washington newspaper profiles, it is about serving the people she was sworn to protect from crime and harm.

Washington, D.C.’s police beat is no different from those of other big cities. Murder, drugs, shootings, and other violence are part of the daily threat with which Lanier and her officers have to contend on a daily basis. All of those problems end up being put on top of policing a jurisdiction that is also one of the world’s top terrorist targets.

In a recent profile, Washington Post columnist Courtland Milloy opined that in her nearly four years of service, Lanier had transcended both race and gender in serving what is a highly demanding community. With public approval ratings that exceed any of D.C.’s local government officials, including that of her boss, the mayor who put her into the top police position, Lanier observed that, “When I put on this uniform, I am not white, nor am I a woman. I am the po-lice.”

In the same profile, the Post’s Milloy recounted the frustration and anger that Lanier had with him over his public questioning of whether a white woman could lead a police force in a mostly black city.

Cathy Lanier. Photo courtesy of the Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Police Department

Lanier, not one to back down from such questioning, was quick to point out that, “I thought more people would be interested in the new police chief’s policies and crime-fighting strategies than in her race and hairstyle.”

For all of her confidence and success in operating on one of the most public of police beats, the sad fact remains that of all the police chiefs serving in the United States today, only 1 percent of them are women.

In comparison, Dragani, part of the emergency management field, estimated that within the State of Ohio where she works, between 30 and 40 percent of the emergency management directors are women.

Dragani also explained that, “the field of emergency management and homeland security is so broad that anyone who has an interest in any of the professions it offers will find something that fits their skill set. Whether male or female, you can explore all of those options as they become available.”

A trend that gave her even more hope and promise for the future was that as “the [emergency management] profession becomes more professional and more people intentionally go into it, rather than back into it as many people have from other career positions, more and more women are going to find these positive opportunities. That will cause that [employment] curve to increase even more.”

She also proudly noted that more women are being promoted into leadership positions in emergency management and homeland security and that in itself is very exciting to watch.

“The rules are changing daily and this is an easy field to break into,” but having the right skill set is what matters the most when determining future success.

That is where Tanasichuk hopes her group can help. “We have to take people like Cathy Lanier, Janet Napolitano, and others and show people that we can do these jobs and do them well. That means not just celebrating that they are at the top of their game, but also supporting others coming into these professions to let them know that they too can succeed.”

If present history is any indicator of the leadership qualities that have been recorded in given professions, there is a good indication that when the history of America’s homeland security enterprise is written, it will have a resoundingly impressive feminine presence.

Below is a listing of some of the key roles women are playing in America’s homeland security apparatus. They include:

  • Janet Napolitano, Secretary, DHS
  • Jane Holl Lute, Deputy Secretary, DHS
  • Vice Adm. Sally Brice O’Hara, Vice Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard
  • Dr. Tara O’Toole, Under Secretary for Science and Technology, DHS
  • Caryn Wagner, Under Secretary for Intelligence and Analysis, DHS
  • Juliette Kayyem, Assistant Secretary, Office of Intergovernmental Programs
  • Gale Rossides, Deputy Administrator, Transportation Security Administration
  • Chani W. Wiggins, Assistant Secretary, Legislative Affairs
  • Sue Ramanathan, Deputy Assistant Secretary, Legislative Affairs
  • Connie Patrick, Director, Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC)
  • Mary Ellen Callahan, Chief Privacy Officer
  • January Contreras, Ombudsman, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services
  • Dora Schriro, Special Adviser on Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Detention & Removal
  • Janet Woodka, Federal Coordinator, Gulf Coast Rebuilding

In addition to these senior federal positions, women also occupy some of the most senior roles in Congress over homeland security issues. They include:

  • Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, Ranking Member (and former Chair), U.S. Senate’s Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee
  • Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., Chair, Subcommittee on Disaster Recovery
  • Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., Chair, Adhoc Subcommittee on Contracting Oversight
  • Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif., Chair, Subcommittee on Intelligence, Information Sharing and Terrorism Risk Assessment
  • Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee, D-Texas, Chair, Subcommittee on Transportation Security and Infrastructure Protection
  • Rep. Yvette Clarke, D-N.Y., Chair, Subcommittee on Emerging Threats, Cybersecurity, and Science and Technology
  • Rep. Laura Richardson, D-Calif., Chair, Subcommittee on Emergency Communications, Preparedness and Response

This article was first published in 100 Years of Women in Law Enforcement.


Richard “Rich” Cooper is a Principal with Catalyst Partners, LLC, a government and public affairs...