Elliott school professor leads effort to address sexual harassment in national security field

Updated: Dec. 8, 2017 at 4:15 p.m.

Courtesy of Jenna Ben-Yehuda

Jenna Ben-Yehuda, an adjunct professor of international affairs, co-authored on open letter calling for strong sexual harassment protections in the historically male-dominated national security industry.

After a slew of high-profile allegations of sexual assault and harassment captured national attention, one professor in the Elliott School of International Affairs decided the issue needed to be addressed in her field – national security.

Jenna Ben-Yehuda, an adjunct professor of international affairs, co-authored on open letter calling for strong sexual harassment protections in the historically male-dominated national security industry. The letter collected 223 signatures when it was published Nov. 28.

The letter demands the industry address “serious gender imbalances” in senior leadership positions and calls for mandatory sexual harassment and abuse training across the field, as well as multiple channels to report abuse without fear of retribution. It is titled #Metoonatsec, a reference to the #MeToo movement, which sprung up in response to the recent rush of sexual harassment allegations against men in media, entertainment and politics.

“Many women are held back or driven from this field by men who use their power to assault at one end of the spectrum and perpetuate – sometimes unconsciously – environments that silence, demean, belittle or neglect women at the other,” the letter reads.

Ben-Yehuda said she wrote the letter with Nina Hachigian, the deputy mayor for international affairs in Los Angeles, and the two collected signatures over the week of Thanksgiving. Ben-Yehuda said that even though the holiday was not an ideal time to draw attention to the letter, the response was still “overwhelming.”

“This is happening to women everywhere,” she said. “We wanted to lend our voices in solidarity and change the conversation in the national security workspace.”

Women who signed the letter had either personally experienced harassment or knew someone who has, she said.

“Everyone knows somebody,” Ben-Yehuda said. “That’s really what we want to draw attention to.”

At least 38 percent of employed women have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.

Ben-Yehuda, a former State Department official, said the national security field is dominated by men in top positions. The culture surrounding sexual harassment in the workplace “sidelines” talent from the workforce, especially in places where women are less represented, she said.

“It’s a threat to our national security,” she said. “When you take talented women out of the workforce, you’re losing language skills and specialized training at the cost of the taxpayer.”

The letter points to a report by the Foreign Service Journal that found that women in the U.S. Foreign Service are still routinely passed over for promotions to senior positions and many end up leaving the industry altogether.

Ben-Yehuda and Hachigian circulated the letter to groups like the Women Ambassadors Serving America and the Department of Defense, as well as to women serving in the U.S. military.

“We just didn’t want this major moment of national reckoning on sexual misconduct to pass without hearing from voices in the national security community,” Hachigian said. “We wanted to make sure those victims knew they were being heard and supported.”

Deborah Avant, a professor of security and diplomacy at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver who signed the letter, said part of the struggle is realizing the prevalence of sexual harassment and the importance of workplace education to clearly identify and define it.

“I think this is an issue that all of us have dealt with all our lives without thinking of it very much,” she said. “The fact that people are talking about it now, you realize we have to be making it not part of the landscape.”

Nora Bensahel, an expert at American University’s School of International Service, said the letter has made her male colleagues more aware of what women experience in the workplace. Bensahel said there have been more conversations about sexual harassment in the workplace among her colleagues as a result of the letter, conversations she hopes will continue.

“For so many women in this field, and many others, we just don’t talk about it,” Bensahel said. “We just have assumed for a very long time that that’s the price of being a woman in the field.”

This post was updated to reflect the following correction:
The Hatchet incorrectly reported Ben-Yehuda’s former role in the national security field. She is a former State Department official. We regret this error.

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