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Pitt Group Advances Women’s Leadership in International Security

Four women pose next to a banner for Women in International Security
Some students have dreamed of working for the State Department or in the intelligence community since childhood. Others feel a calling to advance peace and safety across the globe.

With the creation of the University of Pittsburgh chapter of the international Women in International Security (WIIS), both groups now have a resource to get guidance from experienced professionals in those paths.

WIIS (pronounced “wise”) will kick off its fall 2020 activities with a weeklong virtual conference, “Peace and Security During Uncertain Times,” on Oct. 5. Each night, panels of scholars and practitioners will address some of the globe’s most pressing challenges, from climate change to arms control to global health. Registration is required to access the event, which is free and open to the public.

The Pitt chapter of WIIS was co-founded in 2019 by Karin Warner, a professor in the School of Nursing and retired Navy officer; Julia Santucci, a senior lecturer in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs and former national security official; and Sandra Prigg-Monteverde, assistant director of the Ridgeway Center for International Security Studies. It was one of 24 ideas to be awarded funding as a 2019 Pitt Seed Project.

Women—especially women of color—are traditionally underrepresented in international peace and security fields; WIIS seeks to change that. Established in 1987, WIIS is a global organization designed to help advance the careers of women in international peace and security through networking opportunities, training, mentoring, events, and by supporting research and efforts to impact policy. WIIS chapters are inclusive to all genders but the effort to advance women in leadership roles remains at the forefront of its mission.

Once the Pitt chapter was approved last year, its team got the ball rolling by connecting with student collaborators Kelsey Brennan (GSPIA ’20), Rachel McGrath (GSPIA ’20) and Jessica Sprouse (NURS ’20). They began with an October 2019 launch event, a discussion on children and terrorism and a career panel featuring women working in international security.

Next week’s virtual conference is the first event WIIS has hosted since the spring semester was disrupted by COVID-19 and shelter in place orders.

“When it comes to women in leadership, the national security community has a long way to go,” said Santucci. “The CIA has achieved gender parity in its workforce, but they represent only about 36% of senior intelligence officers. The Department of Defense is below 40% in the civilian workforce. When you look at the military, women comprise about 16% of those in uniform. The average in the federal government overall is 43%, so women still have not achieved total parity,” said Santucci. 

Statistics on representation of women of color are hard to come by, but those that have been released publicly tell a troubling story, said Santucci. For example, African American women are only 3% of foreign services officers at the Department of State.

A multidisciplinary approach

Student leaders said the Pitt chapter places a high priority on raising awareness about the organization among students outside of GSPIA.

“It’s really easy to get into your box, especially in nursing,” said Sprouse, one of last year’s student collaborators. “You’re in the whole nursing world but there are so many things outside of that world that we don’t get exposed to. My hope with this is to expose people to so many other opportunities they could have, especially with most of my class being women.”

Sprouse said she might have remained in that box if she didn’t start working with Warner to conduct research on how the discovery of oil in Nigeria impacted the country’s security issues. 

Taylor Broshar, who is pursuing a master of public and international security focused on human security, is part of the current WIIS leadership team. She said it took an international experience to tie her interests to a specific area of international security.

“As an undergraduate I did an internship with a member of parliament in London. That was in the fall of 2016, at the peak of the refugee and migration crisis on the ground. That was what sparked my interest in refugee security and working to understand what causes these waves of migration,” she said.

McGrath, who studied security and intelligence studies for a master of public and international affairs, said Sprouse and Broshar’s experiences show how important it is for WIIS to introduce the interdisciplinary nature of the field to students who may be viewing it through a narrow lens.

“Security is not only on a state level,” McGrath said. “Helping people to see security in this wider context is what WIIS is doing.”