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NGA chief operating officer discusses role of women in leadership

By Tim Little, Office of Corporate Communications

Ellen McCarthy, chief operating officer of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, addressed an audience of primarily Defense Security Service and Naval Criminal Investigative Service professionals at a Women’s History Month celebration March 28 in Quantico, Va.

The event commemorated women who have made, and continue to make, lasting contributions to national security while highlighting current efforts to increase the number of women in fields vital to intelligence and security.

In accordance with the event’s theme of “Women Inspiring Innovation through Imagination: Celebrating Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, or STEM,” McCarthy described past and present challenges for women pursuing careers in these fields.

“While it’s fair to say we have made good strides in recent years in seeing more women go into these areas, the facts are actually a little disturbing,” said McCarthy.

Citing a 2011 U.S. Department of Commerce report that found while women make up 48 percent of the U.S. workforce, they occupy fewer than 25 percent of STEM jobs, McCarthy encouraged women to “be brave.”

“Too often, as a senior leader in the IC, I see this growing trend in women, and in men, of not taking calculated risk out of fear,” said McCarthy. “Fear prevents us from having more of a positive influence in the workplace.”
McCarthy’s own bravery has taken her to often unexpected places, to include her current position as the third most senior leader at NGA.

“When I was a news reporter, my editor encouraged me to try working in the intelligence community,” said McCarthy. “It’s all about being willing to take a chance.”

McCarthy also highlighted the importance of developing relationships on an ongoing basis.

“I developed relationships with people in every job I had, and I kept those relationships throughout my career,” said McCarthy. “I never missed an opportunity to call someone up and say, ‘Hey, can you give me some advice on this?’”

Simply having programs that promote mentorship and networking is not enough, said McCarthy.

“I’m very happy to see that we have those programs in place,” said McCarthy. “But as leaders we need to encourage people to partake of them.”

McCarthy noted that DSS has had three female directors since 2004.

“They really led a pretty dramatic evolution at this organization,” said McCarthy. “I congratulate them and want to thank them for helping blaze the trail for the rest of us.”

McCarthy talked about other notable women in the intelligence community who reached the highest levels in their respective fields, but lamented the fact that there are still so few in top leadership positions.

“I’m pointing these women out because I can; there’s not a lot of them,” said McCarthy. “I’m hoping that we can come back in 10 years and we won’t have to list these names because it will be such a long list.”