“We have to take on sexual assault and harassment and violence against women in the military,” President Joseph Biden said at the White House in early March. “Sexual assault is abhorrent and wrong at any time, and in our military so much of unit cohesion is built on trusting your fellow service members to have your back. There’s nothing less than a threat to our national security.”

At the same event, Vice President Kamala Harris emphasized the national security importance of recruiting and then retaining more women in the military. “Enforcing policies to protect women and ensure they are heard, and advancing more women on a fair and equal footing, will without any question make our nation safer,” Harris said.

Doumanis, who has worked during her career in the military as a sexual assault prevention and response advocate, echoed this challenge. “When I came into the Marine Corps in 2006, there wasn’t a whole lot of women leadership. Only about 8 percent of us are women overall, but when you look at recruiting numbers it’s a little more even. And then after that first enlistment, a lot of women drop out; they go and pursue other things,” she says. “Coming into the Marine Corps when I did the culture was a little bit negative toward women—a lot of derogatory comments made. And sadly my mindset was ‘Well, I’m not gonna be like that. Obviously there’s something wrong with those women. I’m going to be different.’ How naïve I was. As I got older I realized I was part of the problem. But I think the culture is way different now than it was back in 2006. Every year I see it getting better.”

At NSA, gender equality problems persist. An October report from the agency’s inspector general, for example, found that in 2019, female employees only received 14 percent of “individual retention incentives,” discretionary bonuses, even though women make up 41 percent of the agency’s civilian workforce. In 2018, almost 39 percent of the US intelligence community overall were women.

Stacey Barron, sections chief and technical director of the NSA Alternative Technologies division, joined the NSA out of college. “My office basically develops initial access vectors for adversaries so we can get foreign intelligence,” she says. “That’s probably as much as I can go into.” In other words, her department finds vulnerabilities in NSA targets’ networks, develops or uses digital tools to exploit the flaws, and gives other NSA hacking teams access to the targets’ networks to conduct espionage operations. They’re like the recon team that preps the keys to the door or the combination for the safe.

As a manager, Barron notes the importance in general of recognizing how stressful intelligence work is for everyone, regardless of gender.

“We do work assignments that can be very taxing emotionally sometimes,” Barron says. “If you’re working to support the warfighter, that can make you anxious, especially if things go wrong. So it’s very important to make sure that we’re aware of the people around us and their mental health.”

All three women WIRED spoke to said that opportunities to learn and grow in the military and at NSA are what kept them in government intelligence work. They listed the chance to travel, learn new languages, and receive advanced technical training as some of the advantages of staying in the field. And all of them spoke about their desire to both inspire and help change the culture for the women coming up behind them.