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gender, BLUF, national security

High Heels and Security Clearances

THE BABES BLUF examines the dynamics for women in the workplace.

Words: Kate Hewitt
Pictures: Amanda Vick

BLUF: Though women are often considered better leaders and their role in management often leads to higher profits, women are still significantly underrepresented and overly discriminated against in the workplace. Because of cultural biases and first impressions, a woman’s trustworthiness and credibility are often judged by her physical appearance, grooming, and even her voice in a matter of seconds. In male-dominated fields, like national security, these judgments create inequitable barriers to success. Change is coming, but progress remains slow.

Elizabeth Holmes, founder and CEO of Theranos is an enigma. Her story is remarkable and shocking, in no good way, but one thing often covered is her voice. The Stanford University dropout turned billionaire before being indicted for a series of fraud, dressed like Steve Jobs, and donned a fake, deep voice. Gossip about her “fake” voice has riddled the internet but the second I heard her speak in the HBO documentary about her scandal, I remembered something explained to me early on in my days working in national security: How you dress, how you sound, your hair and makeup — all of it will be overanalyzed. The person explained to me how research shows women who deepen their voice are more likely to be taken seriously in most contexts than those with a higher pitch. This is why nothing about Ms. Holmes’ voice the first time I heard it shocked me. On the contrary, I knew she was just playing the game. 

The game I am talking about is being a woman in the workplace, especially in male-dominated fields, and perceptions of credibility. Is this really an issue and if so, how many women experience it? Do a woman’s voice and fashion choices really impact her credibility? What can be done to break down those barriers? And what does any of this have to do with national security? Well, it’s 2022 and THE BABES BLUF has got you!


According to a 2019 study by Hired, 65% of women feel they are discriminated against in the workplace — and the data shows we aren’t wrong. The discrimination starts before we even sit down at our desks. For example, 60% of the time men are offered a higher salary than women for the same job. But new data suggests this may also be because 61% of the time, women ask for less than men — a stat that is slowly improving as women start to ask for more money (know your worth, babe). 

The current wage gap in America between men and women is currently at 3% (or 9% if you live in Boston, which is the widest wage gap market). As an aside, women of color still have it worse: The average American wage gap is 9% between Hispanic women and white men. In male-dominated workplaces, 48% of women believe they are treated fairly where they work when it comes to recruitment and hiring, and even less (38%) say women are treated fairly in promotions and advancement, as opposed to 79% in majority-female workplaces

Women are also more likely to feel workplace harassment and gender discrimination. Though most men recognize there is a gender gap in the workplace, the perception hits different for women. “When asked if they have felt discriminated against in the workplace in the last five years because of their gender, 65% of women said yes, compared to just 11% of men,” found Hired. Specifically, 40% of women pointed to the inability to be taken seriously by company leadership and 38% believed their pay was unfair.

While gender is the focus of our BLUF today, it’s extremely important to note that race places a pivotal role in the workplace as well. Among women, Asian females slightly surpass white women as the highest-paid. However, Black and Hispanic women are paid the least. The reality here matches the perception of experience where one in five women felt discriminated against in the workplace due to their racial identity. Stay tuned for the next few BLUFs that will address women, national security, and race!


First of all, we all judge. Everyone. All the time. 

A phenomenon known in psychology as thin-slicing helps explain how a human brain will observe a small section of an interaction, less than five minutes and sometimes only five seconds, to make conclusions about someone. The brain analyzes these interactions using macro traits: Liking, trust, competence, dominance, nervousness, warmth, likability, expressiveness, sympathy, and politeness; as well as, micro traits: Smiling, eye contact, open-handed gestures, fidgeting, stiff posture (reminds myself to sit up straight, sorry mom), to draw conclusions about someone. We may not even be able to articulate why we feel a certain way after an interaction or give specific details, due to how often and automatically all this is subconscious, which may explain why some data finds physical appearance and voice patterns to matter significantly when considering women’s credibility.  

Barriers to entry and success in national security are pervasive and difficult to break. Representation is much better in diplomacy than defense but still far short of equitable.

For example, wearing makeup and lipstick “increases people’s perceptions of a woman’s likability, her competence and (provided she does not overdo it) her trustworthiness.” More on the “provided she doesn’t overdo it” comment in a minute. Some of this could be the placebo effect of “look good, feel good” or the idea that women themselves feel more confident wearing makeup, possibly impacting external perceptions. A Proctor & Gamble study where subjects could not see themselves in the mirror before photos were taken found that women with makeup on were seen as more competent than those women without makeup on. Digging deeper into the study, however, unearths some interesting findings. 

In the study, 149 adults looked at 25 white, Black, and Hispanic female subjects aged 20 to 50, photographed either barefaced or in three other makeup looks (natural, professional, and glamorous)  for 250 milliseconds, which is the time it takes for us humans to make a snap judgment. Another 119 adults were offered unlimited time with the photos. *queue the eye rolls, team* The finding still held that women wearing makeup were seen as more competent than barefaced women, but perception shifted the longer someone had to evaluate the pictures. That’s right, the more “glamorous” makeup women eventually were seen as untrustworthy. 

A 2012 study found that shoes can be a good indicator to judge someone on. Participants were able to “accurately judge the age, gender, income, and attachment anxiety of shoe owners based solely on the pictures.” However, shoes might only explain the outward image a person wants you to see which, in some instances, differed substantially from reality. “Observers generally pick up on the image the shoe wearer is conveying, but in doing so they might be fooled.” 

Hair length and color is also a factor on which we (and I mean women) get judged on. Short hair can be seen as being both confident and daring. Yet, this is more among women than men who, in multiple studies, prefer longer hair. Could it be due to evolutionary factors of child-rearing?  And what about hair color? Well, if you’re blonde then first you were fun but then Hillary Clinton came along and in 2002, 76% of women interviewed believed the first woman president would be blonde (so, you’re saying there’s a chance!). Recent research seems to be slimming (perhaps a sign that no one should be giving a sh*t about my shoe or hair choice) but a 2010 article explained how hair color, length, bang, and part choice, styling, etc., all of it changes the perception of women. Want to appear preppy? Side part. Serious? Straight hair. High maintenance? Over-styled. 

A 2016 study found a correlation between women dressing well and being paid better at work. The study found that “attractive individuals earn roughly 20% more than people of average attractiveness.” However, when controlling for grooming, the gap closes. The “beauty premium” can be made up based on clothing, hair, makeup, and other grooming. 

And then there is the voice. It is true that pitch-based on sex impacts perceived trustworthiness. In a 2016 study, listeners were more trusting of higher-pitched female voices in economic and mate poaching contexts but trusted lower-pitched female voices more in general. The findings were significant enough to prove how voice pitch alone influences perceptions and trustworthiness — and why I am sure Holmes knew exactly what she was doing. Fun fact: Men were perceived as more trusting across the board when having higher-pitched voices. 


Yeah, being a woman in the workplace (or world) is hard. If a woman’s worth and credibility are judged by men and most of your colleagues and superiors are men, it goes without really saying that male-dominated fields exacerbate that difficulty. Enter: National security. 

Barriers to entry and success in national security are pervasive and difficult to break. According to a 2017 CNAS report, the number of women in the workforce has increased but they are either leaving government service earlier than their male counterparts or not being promoted at the same rates. In the military, only 16% of enlisted personnel and 18% of the officer corps are women. While strides are certainly being made, the barriers to climbing the ladder as a woman apparently also include credibility factors that men simply don’t need to worry about.

Representation is much better in diplomacy than defense but still far short of equitable. The report also states: “At senior levels, women have approached 40% of assistant secretary and above positions at the State Department in recent years, while at the Defense Department that number hovers closer to 20%.” Of some major recognized US leadership positions, only three women have ever served as secretary of the State Department, two as secretary of the Homeland Security Department, one as the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, and one as Vice POTUS. Former President Donald Trump appointed more white men to his first cabinet (18) than any president since Ronald Reagan, who had appointed 17. On a broader scale, 80% of the people running for federal government were men.


What really happens when women work in national security and politics? Well, women (even in small numbers) legislate differently than men. For example, women legislators tend to prioritize economic and political dynamics that directly or indirectly affect women. They also place a higher priority on women’s rights. And women don’t just prioritize differently, they flat out get more done. Studies have found that liberal female legislators co-sponsored double the amount of bills related to women’s health and women (conservative and liberal) are almost twice as likely to get a bill enacted compared to men. (Not) shockingly, women also do a better job at getting money from Congress back to their districts — 9% more funds than male legislators. Yup, districts run by women receive on average an additional $49 million bucks. 

In the past decade, 131 countries have passed 274 legal reforms in support of gender equality like eliminating violence against women, childcare, and universal healthcare. Research indicates that legislation on gender equality, like those passed in the previous decade, have directly impacted the rising number of female legislators around the world. Equal representation of women in leadership and national security positions, therefore, has a significant effect on how half the world is both represented and governed — and it doesn’t just impact policies at home. Increased women in leadership offers possibilities for reform globally to reduce and abolish discriminatory laws against girls and women.


As nice as it would be to argue for more women in leadership across the board without the double standard of beauty, sometimes money matters just like a lower octave. From a corporate standpoint, women and diversity is profitable. Companies in the top quartile for ethnic and racial diversity in management were 35% more likely to have financial returns above their industry mean, while companies with gender diversity were 15% more likely to have returns above the industry mean. And when it comes to leadership effectiveness, “when leaders rated their own effectiveness, men tended to rate themselves higher than women. But when other people did the rating, women were seen as significantly more effective than men.”

I take no comfort in writing this BLUF. To the contrary, I find it infuriating that my competence is being judged and my paycheck being determined not necessarily by my work ethic or quality but instead by my “Linkin Park in the Dark” nail color. However, to both play and dismantle the game, a girl needs to know the rules. And once you do, you can change them.

That’s all for this one, babes.

No pressure. No bullshit. Just, THE BABES BLUF.

THE BABES BLUF (bottom line up front) is a different kind of current affairs and lifestyle blog that talks about issues in a way women (and men!) can relate to and enjoy. To read more from THE BABES BLUF, visit and subscribe to never miss a #BLUF, and check them out on Twitter or Instagram. For more THE BABES BLUF pieces, see here.

Kate Hewitt


Kate Hewitt currently works in national security and is the founder of THE BABES BLUF, a current affairs and lifestyle blog with a monthly column for Inkstick Media. Previously, she was a Herbert Scoville Jr. Peace Fellow and Research Assistant with the Foreign Policy program at The Brookings Institution focused on nuclear security and strategy issues. She also served as a Community and Organizational Development Adviser in Peace Corps Moldova and held internships with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Energy Northwest. Kate was a recipient of The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ Rieser Award (2018), an N Square Nuclear Security Innovation Fellow (2018), and a Farsi Foreign Language and Area Studies Fellow (2017). She has authored articles, reports and book chapters on national security, foreign policy, and the importance of women in STEM and national security — the latter of which is a passion of hers that she exercises by sitting on the Board of Advisors for Girl Security. She holds an M.A. in Global Studies from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a dual-BA in Political Science and Philosophy from Gonzaga University.


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