Female spies on the rise as intelligence services look to boost diversity

MI5, MI6 and GCHQ make strong progress on female hires, after a report by MPs warned all three intelligence services suffered from a "male mentality"

By Jonathan Owen

23 Jun 2016

The proportion of women working in British intelligence has risen during the past year, according to recently released government figures, with MI5, MI6, and GCHQ on a mission to recruit more female staff.

Women accounted for 46% of people taken on by MI5 last year, up from 29% in 2010. At GCHQ, the number of applications from women last year was 40% higher than previous years. 

In the Secret Intelligence Service, known as MI6, 41% of new recruits in 2015/16 were female. Although this was down from 45% the previous year, MI6 has increased its female recruitment target for 2016/17 to compensate for this.

ISC criticises ‘male mentality’ of security services
Civil service has lost “next generation” of female leaders – ex-Home Office chief Helen Ghosh

The surge in women being taken on by British intelligence has been prompted by a report by parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) last year, which called on the government to address the gender imbalance in the security services. 

Less than four in ten workers in MI5, MI6 and GCHQ are female and a “very traditional male mentality” puts women off from rising to senior positions, said the ISC report.

In its response, released late last month, the government stated: “Since the publication of the ISC’s report, all three agencies have further increased their focus on all aspects of diversity, including gender diversity. This work has been supported at the highest levels, with all agencies now having board level gender diversity champions.”

“Staff diversity in the security and intelligence agencies is crucial — not just for reasons of fairness, but also to ensure the best talent and range of experience is in place” - Intelligence and Security Committee chair Dominic Grieve MP

Britain’s security agencies “have continued to target middle-age and mid-career women for recruitment” with website Mumsnet one example of where jobs have been advertised. 

In addition, the intelligence services “have run programmes of ‘unconscious bias’ training which explore strategies for increasing inclusive behaviours”. This approach became part of the MI6 induction process in April this year, “helping to embed desired behaviours from the outset”.

Women still only account for around one in four senior positions within MI6, GCHQ and MI5.

Flexible working, mentoring schemes, and informal support networks are among the ways in which the security agencies are seeking to retain and promote female staff. 

There are signs of change. In 2016 47% of applicants to MI5’s senior manager scheme were women, up from 38% in 2014. 

Britain’s intelligence services “support gender diversity at all levels within their respective organisations and actively promote a diverse and inclusive culture”, according to the Government’s response to the concerns raised by the ISC last year.

Commenting on the progress being made to increase the number of women working in the security services, Dominic Grieve MP, chair of the ISC, said: “Staff diversity in the security and intelligence agencies is crucial — not just for reasons of fairness, but also to ensure the best talent and range of experience is in place to enable the agencies to respond to the threats which we face today.”

He added: “I welcome the fact that the agencies have engaged seriously with the committee’s recommendations regarding women working in the intelligence community and are making progress towards becoming more representative of the communities they serve. The ISC will continue to monitor progress on gender balance and other aspects of diversity. There is much still to be done.”

Read the most recent articles written by Jonathan Owen - ONS officials vote to strike over in-office rule

Share this page