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'Gender Equality Is Going Backwards': Why Britain Needs More Female Spies

Former spy Annie Machon told VICE News that she found a new UK government report "curious," as "MI5 certainly used to have 50-50 gender split in the 1990s."

by VICE News
Mar 6 2015, 2:15pm

Photo by Matt Dunham/AP

A British government committee has ruled that the UK intelligence agencies need to increase their ratio of female employees, and suggested that they attempt to recruit more female students in universities, as well as targeting middle-aged mothers on websites such as parenting forum Mumsnet.

In a report released on Thursday, titled Women in the UK Intelligence Agency, the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament found that while 53 percent of the UK civil service are women, only 37 percent of the current secret service are. At least 38 percent of senior civil servants are women, but this only translates to 19 percent of the senior civil servants in the intelligence agencies.

Former MI5 agent Annie Machon told VICE News that she found this report "curious," as to her knowledge "MI5 certainly used to have 50-50 gender split in the 1990s and, while most women were in clerical positions, there were a fair few female officers who did well, and indeed there have been two female heads of MI5 in the last 20 years."

She added that she had heard reports that the British TV spy drama Spooks had scared off potential female applicants over the past decade "because of the unrealistic violence."

Machon said that it was also interesting to "compare and contrast the fact that MI5 is now ranked by Stonewall in the 'top 10 UK employers' of homosexual staff. Just 21 years ago people were not allowed to work for the spies if they were gay," she said.

"So it seems that while sexual orientation equality has come on in leaps and bounds, gender equality is going backwards."

'This is not just an ethical issue: it is vitally important from an intelligence perspective.'

The three UK intelligence agencies — GCHQ, MI5, and the Secret Intelligence Service or MI6 — cumulatively employ over 12,000 men and women.

Hazel Blears, a Labour MP who worked on the report, wrote in the introduction: "This is not just an ethical issue: it is vitally important from an intelligence perspective."

The report stated that a lack of diversity would result in a workforce with "unacknowledged biases," which would affect the agencies' abilities to identify threats and define solutions. It also pointed out that greater diversity leads to "better intelligence analysis."

At present, it said, a predominantly male middle-management level that Blears called "the permafrost" were promoting those staff members who are the loudest and most aggressive — which can pose a barrier to women advancing. This group has a "very traditional male mentality and outlook," she added.

A table included in the report. Photo via screenshot from 'Women in the UK Intelligence Community.'

The paper also said there needed to be "a broadening of the range and scope of their recruitment."

In terms of ways to attract women to the profession, the report suggests setting up mentoring schemes for female undergraduate students, and setting up after-school technology clubs and summer camps for younger girls.

Older women could make great spies too, according to Blears, who stated: "Women or mothers in middle-age or mid-career have valuable life experience and may offer an untapped recruitment pool. The agencies should therefore use a broad range of mediums and include those specifically aimed at women and mothers — such as Mumsnet."

When VICE News told Machon that the report suggested that Mumsnet might be a good place to recruit, she responded with: "Good grief!"

Related: Mass internet surveillance by UK's GCHQ was unlawful after all, secretive court rules. Read more here.

Machon also noted that recruitment drives were much more covert when she was initially hired. "Back in the 90s it was still very secret — either an approach at college or a suggestion to those applying to the Foreign Office that there 'may be other jobs more interesting,'" Machon said, before adding that she experienced the latter. "Now it is all much more open, with explicit adverts and the website tests."

There have been several women in high-level management at the British agencies, including two director generals of MI5. Stella Rimington was director general of MI5 from 1992 to 1996, and the first woman to ever reach the top job. She is now an author of spy fiction. Eliza Manningham-Buller also held the role between 2002 and 2007. 

The image on the front page of the report. Photo via screenshot from 'Women in the UK Intelligence Community'.

The report's release quickly inspired several engaged discussions on Mumsnet itself.

"If they need someone whose special skill is getting melted chocolate down her dog-haired jumper and not noticing, I'm their woman," a commenter called "BreconBeBuggered" posted.

"I would LOVE to be a spy. Like actually LOVE it. And no one would suspect me. I am too boring and frumpy," sliceofsoup said.

ScrambledSmegs was less enthusiastic. "Well I'd be happy to offer my services and risk my life for the security of my country, but I do need to be back at 3:15 to do the school run. And we have ballet on Wednesdays, swimming on Mondays, and tots swimming on a Friday. But apart from that my timetable's free. Call me!"

Related: Northern Irish child abuse survivors want alleged MI5 collusion properly investigated. Read more here.

ShatnersBassoon questioned the reasoning behind hiring people through the internet: "Yes, people who can't help but type their every passing thought into an online forum would make great spies," she said.

Further debate over the exact qualities that would be necessary for security roles included Pantone363's comment: "MI5 just in case you are reading this, additional skills also include: I'm a mean poker player; I have 6 points for speeding (clearly an advantage in a get away scenario)."

Several posters said that they had now taken the MI5's Investigative Challenge, which tests a potential applicants "use of information and analytical skills."

A look at MI5's website shows that candidates must be aged over 18 and born or naturalized British citizens. According to an active list of job postings, languages currently in demand include Russian and Mandarin Chinese.

One job description goes on to say: "Discretion is vital. You should not discuss your application, other than with your partner or a close family member, providing that they are British. 

"You should also make them aware of the importance of discretion. You should not post on social media sites about your application or discuss it with anyone else at this stage. You will receive further guidance during the recruitment process."

Sir John Sawyers, a former director of MI6, told the Financial Times in September that spies are "normal human beings, public servants doing the best possible job we can for our country." Sawyers himself said that he was originally recruited in Nottingham, through his university students' union. His first undercover posting, in 1980, was in Yemen.

Related: This woman was awarded $685,737 after learning her boyfriend was an undercover cop sent to spy on her. Read more here.