Dr. Heather Williams

Lecturer in Defence Studies | King's College London

CV in brief   Education:  PhD  King's College London  | MA  The George Washington University  | BA  Boston University     Career so far:  King's College London |  Chatham House  |  Institute for Defense Analyses  (IDA) |  Department of Defense    Find Heather online:   King’s College’s profile  |  Twitter    Exclusive interview by Madison Estes, December 2016

CV in brief

Education: PhD King's College London | MA The George Washington University | BA Boston University

Career so far: King's College London | Chatham House | Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA) | Department of Defense

Find Heather online: King’s College’s profile | Twitter

Exclusive interview by Madison Estes, December 2016

What got you interested in your speciality areas of strategic stability, arms control, and trust building?

Russia has always been the puzzle I’m trying to solve. I started off as a Russian Studies major, and then I took one class on nuclear issues in graduate school and I was hooked. So much about nuclear and stability issues involve psychology where you’re trying to understand your adversary, which really appealed to me. Since I was coming to it with this heightened understanding of Russia and love of Russian literature, it was nice to see how that could be useful in a security policy context.

I got drawn to arms control because of that Russia component. Later, when I was doing work for the Department of Defense I saw arms control as this complicated, interesting puzzle and I thought, “I really want to try to pull this apart to understand it”. Why are the Russians saying this and doing that? Why is the State Department doing this in response?

I thought it’s so obvious that there’s a psychological component to  strategic stability. Whether you’re a realist or a constructivist, getting into the psyche of countries’ leaders and decision-makers is going to have an impact on international politics to some extent, as we’re seeing with Trump. Ascertaining the degree of that impact is difficult, but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t still try to tackle it.

Why did you come to the United-Kingdom for your PhD? What did you feel that you could get here that you maybe couldn’t get in the U.S.?

My PhD was on trust in US-Russia arms control and I wanted a non-American perspective. As I was coming at it with the American bias, I wanted someone to challenge my preconceptions.

I also wanted to work with somebody younger. I didn’t want my research to be influenced by Cold War prejudices or legacy thinking. I wanted somebody who had fresh ideas and would encourage me to challenge Cold War thinking. I found that here at King’s College London.

Starting out, I was never interested in doing a PhD or being an academic. I was going to be walking the halls of the Pentagon until the day I died. But when I was working at the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA, an independent, federally-funded research and development center), I got to a point where they told me, “You’re doing great work, but we can’t promote you unless you get a PhD.” So I thought, “I have a deep question I want to work on. I’ll just go do research and write a dissertation on this.” The plan was to go back to Washington when I finished my PhD, and then I ended up breaking all my rules, staying in London and becoming an academic. So much for plans.

Thinking about your past work with the Department of Defense (DoD) and then later working with them as an “outsider”, how were those experiences different?

One of the challenges as a government outsider- either as an academic or consultant- is that you can’t tell your government sponsors what questions to ask. There will be times a sponsor comes to you and says, “Here is the question that we have and the problem we’re struggling with”. You can only go back to them so much, if at all, and say, “With all due respect I think you’re asking the wrong question.” When you are in government, you have a more direct influence on policy and can ask the questions and decide what to do with the answers. If you’re outside, your influence is indirect but can still be very important in providing a broader perspective.

Outside of government, I liked how IDA was religious with its independence. It was never affiliated with one party or policy and consistently emphasized objectivity, balance, and responsibility. It was committed to contributing to deep strategic thinking in the DoD. As a general example of this, there have been times when I’ve worked on tasks and we have come back with an answer to a question that the sponsor might not like. That level of honesty is something that we really need in all government Departments and I see it is a big responsibility for academia, think tanks, and consultants.

You’ve spent time at Chatham House as a fellow. Was that experience helpful to your own work as a lecturer and researcher?

Absolutely. It had massive benefits. I got to engage with other think tanks, NGOs, policymakers, experts outside of academia- it was a very dynamic environment. I met people who are living, working, breathing these issues on a daily basis, like nuclear advocacy groups, not just reading and writing books about it. It was a big learning experience. My biggest takeaway was the importance of engaging with a diverse group of people. It influenced me in choosing to become an academic as I realised I could decide what kind of an academic I would be.

At Chatham House, I had fundamental political disagreements with some of the people who were involved with my project, including some of those nuclear advocacy groups. But having those difficult conversations was beneficial and I have massive respect for those groups. It’s important to avoid unconscious bias as much as you can by talking to the other side. That is the whole idea behind Chatham House itself, so although I left for King’s, that principle stuck with me, I guess.

On a more personal level, it was the first time I had a female boss. It was a different experience and it was beneficial in a lot of ways. She’s a maternal figure who I am still close with.

You talked about the personal side of having a female boss for the first time. Going from DoD to a group that works with DoD, you were probably in a very male-dominated environment. How was having a female boss different?

Your description of DoD and IDA is accurate: it was male dominated. I worked with a couple women and we became friends as we naturally gravitated to each other with shared challenges and experiences.

No matter the industry you go into and the gender balance, sexual harassment happens. Inappropriate comments- or worse- happen. When I first started working in the Pentagon I had a few incidents like that and I felt like there was nobody that I could talk to.

When I worked at IDA, however, it was different. My colleagues were predominantly men but they proved to be a great support system and I always knew they had my back. After telling one of my bosses about a horribly misogynistic comment someone said to me at a conference, my boss said, “I really wish there were more women here for you to talk to about this.” So they got it. Whereas, when I went to work at Chatham House if something like that happened, I could go to my boss and she would say, “I know exactly how you feel. You haven’t done anything wrong.” That’s really all you want to hear at the time. She also said, “Whatever you want to do I’ve got your back on this.”

They were both very supportive reactions but it’s different when it comes from someone who says, “I know exactly how you feel and I’ve been through the same thing.”

Academia has a reputation for being difficult for women to break in to. What’s your take on that?  

King’s College is doing a lot better with this than some other universities, particularly with groups like WIWIP (Women in War and International Politics) under the leadership of Dr Susan Martin. It’s good we’re talking a lot more about gender balance, but it could be a whole lot better. Within the War Studies Department, we have about 20 professors and only one is a woman. In my department, Defence Studies, we don’t have a single female professor. This is a problem throughout academia and I think programs like Athena Swan- that promotes advancing women’s careers in higher education- is an example of increasing attention on this issue and is something the new School for Security Studies is working towards. There are some great women coming up through academia, so I’m optimistic this will change soon.

But in addition to some historical structural issues, I have realised that sometimes we women hold ourselves back. We are so self-critical of our ideas and writing that we often end up not submitting articles for publication, for example. We see all the holes in the argument rather than the originality or strengths of the work. At least I know that’s the case for me. The structure can improve to become more favourable to women, but we can also become braver and put out ideas out there.

Academia is more competitive than I expected, but I think that is a residual feeling that there are only so many seats at the table and only so many of them are allocated for women. One of my friends calls this type of thinking “pink on pink violence.” The thing is there is definitely plenty of work to go around and it is not a zero sum game, but you can see that competitive attitude in both men and women in academia. Even though it’s not as bad in academia as everywhere else that I’ve worked, I would like to see women interacting more and being more supportive of each other. WIWIP is a great start to that.

In some ways, academia is an ideal place for women to break glass ceilings because it is a somewhat flexible environment and more supportive. You can meet brilliant women like Dr Martin in War Studies or Dr Tracey German in Defence Studies, and get their advice. Academia is more work-life balance friendly than many other sectors. This isn’t just exclusively a benefit to women, of course, as I know a lot of men in academia who also want more time with their families and want to be at home with their kids.

What are the key skills that women who want to become academics need to be successful?

Number one, above all else, is publications, and that means creative ideas and really strong analysis. What that means in terms of skill sets is a bit more complicated. Obviously you have to have rigorous methodologies. You have to be well versed in your subject matter. You have to be a good writer. We all know those things.

There are some skills I have learned that are important but that we are not taught. As I said before, be brave. Put your work out there. Make a strong argument. My boss keeps telling me to, “Be bolder, I know you have this deep controversial argument within you. Just say it.” So be bold, but also be sure you can back it up.

There is also something that I wish was taught as a separate skill: the art and science of analysis. I think I just had one master’s-level course on it. This is something that I feel passionately about because no matter where you work, the number one skill in so many different fields is whether or not you can do analysis. It’s also important on a personal level as we’re confronted with so many different media stories and in this “post-truth” era. It is assumed this skill is taught as pat of general coursework in a specific subject, but from my experience, it needs to be taught as a separate discipline.

Lastly, another skill that is important within academia is being somebody that people want to work with. Everyone thinks academia is an ivory tower, and you sit in your cubicle by yourself 12 hours a day in your corduroy jacket without interacting with anybody. That is not the academia that I know.

Is there something you learned from any of those positions that you wish you had known before you started?

  1. "Always state your bottom line up front"
  2. "Don't sell the farm"
  3. "How to take care of myself"
  4. "Have heroes"

The first is something I learned in DoD, and that has served me extremely well. Whether you’re writing an article of giving a briefing, always state your bottom line up front. Part of my first job in the Pentagon was giving briefings. Early on, my bosses took me aside and asked, “You have no idea how to give briefings do you?” Their advice was: “no matter what, just state your main argument up front. Whoever you’re briefing might zone out after ten seconds or ten minutes, so just make sure he/she gets the main point.” It’s a small thing that is effective, whether you’re writing an essay, an article for peer review, or giving a lecture or a briefing in Parliament.

The second one would be, “Don’t sell the farm.” As women we can be eager to please and to help other people, which can include being giving with our work and time. I’ve had a couple incidents where I’ve shared ideas I was still working on and someone took it for their own and ran with it. I felt betrayed and a little bit dirty. I don’t think people always do it consciously, but it doesn’t hurt to be a bit protective of your work and your own time, because you can get pulled in a million different directions if you don’t set boundaries. To some extent, this is a casualty of collaboration, so it’s a balance of prioritizing openness while judging who you can trust.

Third thing I wish I had known is how to take care of myself. Some people know how to do this instinctively. They know how many hours of sleep they need, what to eat and which tasks to take on and what to say “no” to. I am not that person. I will say “yes” to anything professionally. Only around the age of 30 did I get better at setting boundaries, being more discreet, and protecting my time more. (Actually, I’m still learning because I still overcommit.)

My mentor from D.C. once said to me, “Heather there is a time and a place for work-life balance.” I was in the final year of my PhD and working full-time at Chatham House, so crazy busy, and he said, “This is not that time for you. And that’s okay.”  You need to know there is no perfect equation but no matter how much you are prioritizing work, you always have to take care of yourself physically and mentally.

I really appreciate what you said about work-life balance, where if you’re really passionate about what you’re doing it’s okay if it becomes more of your life because there’s a time and a place for it.

Absolutely! This is something that needs to come across to women a lot better and Anne-Marie Slaughter talks about it in her book, Unfinished Business. We are being encouraged more professionally than previous generations but there is still a pressure to “not work too hard”. I wish someone had told earlier me, “It’s okay to love your work.” I’m so grateful my friend said that to me.  If you feel a burning desire to have a family, then make those changes and choices. However if you don’t, if your deep burning desire is to write an essay, to do an interview, to write a blog post, do those things. If you want to do both, go for it, just find whatever works for you. Before I gave myself permission to love work, I would feel guilty for spending long hours at the office even though I loved it.

I love that feeling when you’re writing something and you’re sucked in to it, and you’re just not walking away from the desk until it’s done. Pulling at that thread of an idea and trying to solve some analytic puzzle. I love that about my work. I don’t want to be shamed for it. I would never shame anyone else for it.

One last thing that’s really important is to have heroes. Mentors are important but you need to have people who inspire you by their work and make you feel like you can achieve just as much as they did in your own way. For me, within my field, that’s Kori Schake at Stanford- I’m in awe of her analytic skills, but also she is so grounded and a great representation of American values and leadership. Another is Samantha Power (although I definitely don’t want to be ambassador to the UN)- she’s articulate, brilliant, principled, and tough but she also has her unique style. A final hero is in a totally different field, Marina Warner. She is so brave in her research and writing. I hope we in the field of security studies can find similar ways to challenge conventional wisdom and be ever-more inclusive of different disciplines and perspectives.