British spy agencies usher in era of Jane Bond as women come to fore

MI5 is using gender-attraction strategies to boost female recruitment

Life imitates the movies, sometimes. Actor Judi Dench took over as "M", the fictional head of the British secret intelligence service in the James Bond series in the mid-1990s, just about when the crusty, male-dominated attitudes in the agency began to crack.

Today, nearly 40 per cent of new entrants to SIS, the domestic service MI5, and the Cheltenham-based Government Communications HQ (GCHQ), are female.

"The heads of the agencies hate [the TV series] Spooks", former Labour minister, Hazel Blears says.

“It showed the agencies to be such awful places that applications from women fell off a cliff every time it was shown.”


Blears has spent the last year investigating the challenges facing female intelligence officers, looking at everything from childcare difficulties, life after returning from maternity and promotion.

Describing these officers as “amazing, creative” people, Blears warns that glass ceilings remain: 37 per cent of the agencies’ total numbers are women, which is “considerably smaller than the figure of 53 per cent for the civil service as a whole”.

Recruitment habits

The agencies have changed recruitment habits, which once involved simply “a tap on the shoulder” in an Oxbridge quad. Recently, for example, they stopped seeking 2.1 degrees from all candidates, men or women.

Instead, they now accept 2.2s. "And they have found that they are getting a far more diverse group of candidates as a result," says Blears, a member of Westminster's Security and Intelligence Committee.

"I first came across the MI5 advert in the Metro. The wording made me think I had the suitable skills," says a recent recruit, influenced, perhaps, by the fact that the ad included an image of a woman.

MI5 uses “gender-attraction strategies” to boost recruitment, including “a day in the life” video on its website showing the efforts of a female intelligence officer to balance a home life with work.

SIS, meanwhile, advertises in lifestyle magazines, and on social media, “so that they might catch the eye of someone who would not necessarily have thought of a career in intelligence”.

Matters are improving: 41 per cent of MI5’s recruits last year were women, up from 29 per cent in 2010; while 36 per cent of those joining SIS – better known, perhaps, as MI6 – are women, though female applicants are proportionally more likely to be chosen.

Maternity leave is a particular issue. One female officer, frustrated by a lack of information, set up a Wiki page that collated the experiences of women in the service who had previously taken maternity leave.

“[It] was full of useful information,” said a later colleague.

Maternity leave

However, the agencies are trying, with different degrees of success. Some allow women on maternity leave to keep office passes and IT codes so that they are not kept out of the loop as they were before. One does not, however.

Women need to be encouraged to maintain ties, Blears argues. Last year, MI5, for example, hosted its first “Maternity, paternity and adoption” event at its Thames House headquarters on Millbank, just down river from the Houses of Parliament.

Under new rules, female officers can return to the jobs they occupied before giving birth, but many of them feel that the agencies want them in “corporate roles, such as HR”.

Management believe the rules are explicit and clearly advertised, but social expectations intervene, says a female SIS officer, who faced “implied restrictions” on what jobs she could do when she came back to work after having a baby.

Often, men were trying to be helpful: “‘Oh, you wouldn’t want to do that job, there’s too much travel for a mum’,” she quoted one.

“I found these assumptions – largely made by husbands with stay-at-home wives – galling.”

Each agency offers childcare vouchers to staff, but they fail to meet London costs. Meanwhile, none of them – even GCHQ, which has a large estate – has nurseries in their offices.

However, the sensitivity of the information that crosses the agencies’ desks creates its own problems.

“I can’t work from home . . . I would really like to be able to do this at least one day a week,” says another officer.

Equally, a life in the shadows means some problems will be difficult to overcome.

“Being a case officer based in London requires going abroad to meet agents – it is the definition of the job.

“There’s not much the office can do to change this. Support from other halves for childcare, therefore, is crucial to the careers of SIS officers if they need to travel, or to work long hours in London during a crisis,” says another officer.