As a high school senior in southern Maryland, Sonya* was intrigued when a recruiter from the Central Intelligence Agency visited her school. She wasn’t sure about college, since none of her immediate family had earned a degree, but the benefits and opportunities the recruiter presented seemed attractive.
So on her 18th birthday, Sonya took a polygraph test as her entrée into the agency. Thirty-one years later, she’s now leading a diversity initiative that seeks to further empower women within the CIA’s ranks.
The CIA is currently working on 10 recommendations to boost the number of women at high levels of the agency, including establishing clear promotion criteria, expanding the pool of nominees, and providing actionable and timely feedback.
These recommendations, Sonya says, benefit all officers—not just women and minorities. In March of 2013, the CIA published a report on its efforts to recruit more women into its workforce and particularly into higher-level management positions. The report noted that women made up 46% of the agency’s overall staff, but only 37% of the senior-level GS-15s. Through surveys, the report found that women, in particular, valued intentional career development including formal guidance on how to reach the next level.
“The net effect of many agency women not getting actionable feedback and not tapping fully into informal networks can be a career that stalls prior to consideration for senior leadership,” the report concluded.
“I was a single mom, working full-time and I needed a program that fit my lifestyle,” Sonya says. “It was a great match.”
For Sonya, her path through the CIA has been supported by managers, sponsors and mentors who saw potential in her, she says. At the start of her career with the agency, she realized that to progress she would need a college degree. Through Strayer University, she earned her bachelor’s degree in information systems over three years, finishing in 1998. During that time the CIA allowed her to work 20 hours a week at her job and devote 20 hours a week for one year to her education.
Sonya moved into a recruiting role for the CIA’s Directorate of Science and Technology, to recruit engineers and computer scientists. She also served as a diversity recruiter in which she conducted outreach to diverse professional organizations and student groups, increasing awareness of agency employment opportunities. That also served to meet an agency goal of hiring a workforce that reflects both the diversity of the United States and also countries around the world in which the agency conducts its work.
When Sonya discusses the agency with external audiences, she often emphasizes the benefits of the agency to include flexible work options and puts an emphasis on a work-life balance. Those are benefits that allowed her to progress through the agency, tackling high-profile jobs including as a program manager for two CIA Director’s Executive Advisory Boards. Currently, she serves as the lead in the CIA Director’s Advisory Group on Women in Leadership.
“The Director’s Advisory Group Report is not just about women, nor is it about investing in women to the disadvantage of men,” she explains. “Rather, it is a message of the need for gender equity so that we optimize the talent of all employees. We found that the issues highlighted in the DAG Report are actually workplace issues that affect everyone, but tend to impact women more.” In the workplace, men often apply for jobs even if they don’t have every qualification listed, while women tend to take themselves out of the running if they can’t check every qualification box.
“Similar to the private sector, women sometimes make decisions to take themselves offline,” Sonya says. “We tend to opt out of some opportunities when we think we don’t have the experience, but we should be promoting ourselves and our talents.”
Especially by using those recommendations the CIA is enacting in a widespread way: mentoring, flexibility and practical feedback. “Change for me began because someone gave me an opportunity,” says Sonya. “They saw my work ethic. People here value what you bring to the table and that has had a huge impact on me.”
The CIA partners with schools like Strayer University across the US to attract diverse talent.
*In accordance with agency policy, the CIA has declined to provide Sonya’s last name.