Secret History of Female Spies in the CIA

By Wesley Fenlon

Female agents often made better field operatives and better statisticians, but it took decades for them to see the same promotions as male agents.

Spies are trained to blend in with a crowd, disappear in a foreign country, pose as just another person on the street even as they surveil their surroundings. But sometimes they'd blow their cover, giving away their identities, by making the smallest mistake. They wore the wrong kinds of socks. Apparently male spies weren't very good at paying attention to shoes and socks, but female agents in the CIA were. That was just one observational skill that helped female CIA agents spot foreign agents that their male counterparts would often overlook.

Another skill, according to Mother Jones' Secret History of Women in the CIA, was spotting foreign agents who pretended to shop in stores while snooping around. Apparently, fake shopping sticks out like a sore thumb. The secret history comes from recent testimonials of four CIA veterans, who had to fight through a male-dominated culture to become field agents and obtain higher ranking positions.

Mother Jones writes: "An internal survey from 1953 dubbed 'The Petticoat Panel' shows that while women accounted for 40 percent of the agency's employees at the time—better than the overall US workforce then, which was 30 percent female—only one-fifth of those women were above the midlevel GS-7 on the government's salary grade, which went to GS-18. Meanwhile, 70 percent of men in the CIA were higher than G-7, and 10 percent topped GS-14, a grade no women had reached at the time."

Image credit: CIA Museum

Spotting out-of-place socks was hardly the only thing female CIA agents did better than male agents. They made up 60% of the Agency's statistical analysis department, and during World War II the government preferred women as codebreakers and mapmakers. Women were better at the jobs.

In the 1960s and well into the 1970s, women were mostly relegated to lower level CIA jobs, even though some female field operatives had been highly successful during and after World War II. Virginia Hall, for example, was considered the most dangerous Allied spy by the Nazis--despite the fact that she had an artificial leg below one knee, which would seem like a deadly giveaway.

"Despite being some of the CIA's best agents and statisticians, female employees still have challenges to overcome."

Within the Agency, it was considered generally more important for men to be employed than women, and some supervisors claimed that women would leave the Agency at a moment's notice to spend more time with their family. A committee on gender issues helped things begin to change in the agency. Mother Jones writes: "The resultant memo suggested language to use when convincing male senior officials to promote women in the ranks: 'What kind of careers do you want for [your daughters]? Do you want to see their opportunities limited to the GS-07 or GS-08 level where the majority of women in the Agency remain today?' Alternatively, it suggested invoking the Equal Employment Opportunity Act of 1972: 'Women's lib is open to debate, the law of the land is not.'

The Agency is now 46 percent women, and the GS-13 to GS-15 pay grades are 44 percent women, more than 30 percent higher than it was in 1980. But things aren't equal: Only a fifth of the employees promoted to the senior level last year were women. Despite being some of the CIA's best agents and statisticians, female employees still have challenges to overcome. In 2012, "then-CIA director David Petraeus asked Madeleine Albright to head an advisory group aimed at upping the number of women in leadership roles," writes Mother Jones. "Albright's report recommends tamping down on harassment, pushing managers to help women subordinates climb the ranks, and promoting mentorship, among other findings."