Laura S. H. Holgate - Vice President at the Nuclear Threat Initiative

CV in brief  Education: Bachelor of Arts in politics from  Princeton University  and a Master of Science in political science from the  Massachusetts Institute of Technology   Full title: Laura S. H. Holgate, Ambassador (ret.)  Current role: Vice President, Materials Risk Management, Nuclear Threat Initiative  Holgate led the design and launch of Gender Champions in Nuclear Policy in November 2018, aimed at increasing the presence, visibility and impact of women in nonproliferation, nuclear deterrence, nuclear security, disarmament, nuclear energy and other related areas.

CV in brief

Education: Bachelor of Arts in politics from Princeton University and a Master of Science in political science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Full title: Laura S. H. Holgate, Ambassador (ret.)

Current role: Vice President, Materials Risk Management, Nuclear Threat Initiative

Holgate led the design and launch of Gender Champions in Nuclear Policy in November 2018, aimed at increasing the presence, visibility and impact of women in nonproliferation, nuclear deterrence, nuclear security, disarmament, nuclear energy and other related areas.

Here are her three pieces of advice:

  • Pick the General, not the war!

  • Change your mindset. A setback might just be a redirection to something better.

  • Be diligent; simply putting the work in is not enough, you have to make sure that your goals are aligned with the organization’s.

How did you become interested in nuclear security issues? Did you know from an early age that was what you wanted to do or was it something you stumbled into?

In retrospect, it feels like a straight line. At the time, there were lots of branches and roads not taken, so it didn’t feel quite so straight in the living of it . What really motivated me to work on this particular nuclear corner of global issues was the movie, “The Day After”, which came out in 1983. It was my freshman year of college and I had gone to college knowing I had wanted to do something international. My dad was an airline pilot and I got to visit a lot of places around the world that most suburban Kansas City kids didn’t get the chance to experience, so that gave me a little bit of wanderlust and a sense that the world was much wider beyond my little corner of it.

The issue that was really galvanising to me [at the time] was the risk of nuclear war. It was the middle of the Reagan build up, “the evil empire”, and the sabre rattling between Moscow and Washington. That fall of 1983 was when the Korean airliner had been shot down by the Russians and tensions were pretty high. Then there’s this movie, “The Day After”, that dramatised the aftermath of a nuclear attack, and it was especially dramatic to me because they picked my hometown to blow up.  

Was your home town really featured in a movie being blown up?

Yes, it was Lawrence, Kansas, just twenty miles down the road from where I grew up. It was certainly, by today’s standards, bad special effects and all that…I knew it was a movie but all the same I had to call home. It was really affecting. What’s really interesting is that – because this is the 35th anniversary year of the movie – a number of people have been telling me that their own story often begins with that movie, and I’ve even heard it affected President Reagan and helped him ultimately get to the point he got to with [Soviet Premier] Gorbachev after they got past the sabre-rattling phase.

Nuclear issues were very much “the campus issue” those years, with the Nuclear Freeze movement. I thought I wanted to be a Sovietologist because that seemed like the way to get involved in the challenges of limiting nuclear war, but it turns out I was really bad at Russian language and I got kicked out of class. I did more generic international relations work and actually ended up writing my thesis on terrorism. Not so much on the same terrorism we have now, but it focused on case studies of state-sponsored terrorism, insurgent terrorism, and a Palestinian terrorist group. It turned out to be pretty timely. I knew I needed a master’s degree to come to Washington to “make my fortune”, so I found a master’s program at MIT that had exactly the kind of courses I wanted to take on the history of arms control, the Pentagon budget, great power politics, etc. It was a very practical degree that I still find myself using.

Is MIT still granting degrees in national security studies?

The program still exists: it used to be called the Defense and Arms Control Studies program but now it’s called the Security Studies program. Believe it or not, some of the same professors are still there! But they’re still turning out super students. And for me, personally, it was the perfect program.

You mentioned that you thought you had wanted to be a Sovietologist, but then you were kicked out of your Russian course. How did you deal with being told “no” and cope with the setback?

It was certainly the worst grade I ever got, a C minus. But I think the saving grace was that I was also in a really high-level French class. I had taken five years of French by the time that I got to college and had lived in France for a summer, so I had pretty good French. So when they called me [imitates Russian accent] “language loser” I said to myself, “No I’m not. You’re the loser teacher”. At that point there was still so many options, it wasn’t a setback. Six years later, it was obviously the right choice not to have become a Sovietologist! All my Sovietologist friends in grad school had become historians overnight because there was no more Soviet Union.

Everything happens for a reason.

Or, serendipity. One of the two. But that did not particularly feel like a failure because there was no lack of ways that I felt I could make a difference. I got over it.

Did you ever think “I’m going to go be an Ambassador”? Was that part of your plan?

The ambassadorship was not part of the plan. I did know that DC was the place I needed to go to work on foreign policy and national security issues. After I finished grad school, I worked for a couple of years in what is now the Belfer Center and was amazingly blessed to have been there just as the program we now know as Cooperative Threat Reduction was being invented. I was the project coordinator (which is the lowest possible person on the project totem pole) for that project, which Ash Carter and Bill Perry were developing. As the Soviet Union started to show signs of crumbling, they started to realise very early on that if it did crumble that that would create a very new type of WMD challenge to the U.S. and our allies. The threat would then be not Soviet strength but Russian weakness, and the solution set would not be confrontation but cooperation. And in 1990, that was crazy-sounding.

The degree to which Carter and Perry were able to put unassailable analysis behind  that visionary recognition, and to do so early enough that they were able to catch the train that Senator Nunn was ready to drive because of his own experiences being in Moscow in the middle of the coup, talking to Gorbachev during his forced exile about what control he did or did not have over nuclear weapons, was critical. Nunn came back energised to try and do something, and recruited his frequent partner Senator Lugar to help. They were looking for something that could be a legislative vehicle and this notion of using U.S. resources, not just financial but also expertise and technology, to be able to work with Russia and other countries that had the leftovers of the Soviet arsenal to reduce those threats and in the long term, expand the model globally, was really an innovative idea. It was incredibly weird to Congress to have people stand up and say, “We should be sending money to Russia.” Though of course we weren’t actually cutting checks, but sending equipment, people, expertise, procuring services – but it was coming out of the Defense Department budget. It was a really bold idea, even though we seem to take it for granted today.

Are there any takeaways from that experience on how to get people to come along with a radical idea like that? Are there any lessons learned from being in the thick of that that you use now?

 To me the huge lesson learned is leadership over time. We had leadership in Congress in the form of Sam Nunn and Dick Lugar and the credibility that they had. They were incredibly well respected by all their peers and they were able to get other people in the room when Ash Carter came up to brief and explain, “Here’s the problem, here’s how we can fix it, and here’s the legislative vehicle for it.” Their leadership and insight in recognising a solution that could be used to address the problem they felt very viscerally, and their willingness to put their political capital on the table to get it done, was essential. And not just that one time because the very next year it had to be reauthorised and reappropriated. So it was a fight almost every year up until probably the last five or six years. Working with Russia has always been controversial on the Hill even though  it can be to our benefit. Secretary of Defense Perry developed the phrase “defense by other means” to help explain that this cooperation to eliminate WMD threats was an appropriate use of the Defense budget. And of course as the program grew and expanded, the State Department and the Energy Department started funding their pieces out of their own budgets and at the peak their budgets were many times larger than the Defense budget.

On the programmatic side of leadership, Ash became Assistant Secretary and Bill Perry Secretary of Defense, and he remained very interested. We briefed him once a month, everyone knew we briefed him once a month and that gave us some status. Whenever I was in a fight running the program inside the Pentagon, I could just raise it in the monthly meeting with the Secretary. They knew I could raise it in that monthly meeting, which made them not want to get into a fight with me that much.

So having top level support in a very visible way was helpful. Perry put his time into it. Not just in these meetings; he went on the road, too. He put his personal shoulder into it with his Russian, Ukrainian, Belarusian, and Kazakhstani counterparts, an action that was a smaller piece of a broader vision he had, which was that in the post-Soviet era it was very important to have direct defense-to-defense contacts with these new countries that were not moderated through Moscow. So it’s not just having the boss like what you’re doing but having the boss put visible time and their own voice and reputation into moving things forward.

What are some strategies to get that kind of top level buy in?

Well, certainly, visible outcomes are extremely helpful. In government, especially with the hard problems, the progress is so incremental that a lot of times people say, “I can’t measure moving from 10% likelihood to 5% likelihood that something’s going to happen, but I can measure my inputs. I can measure the number of trips I took, the number of dollars I spent, the meetings I had.” Those aren’t relevant. It’s really a matter of, can you bring a story forward of how the impact of whatever those inputs are is going to be meaningful in ways that the boss cares about? Depending on where you are in the hierarchy, one’s own boss is constrained by interagency policy. Everybody knows what the outcomes are that we’re trying to get at, so you need to be really clear about tying the outcomes that your program, your vision, or your idea has to the guidance that has been received of what the broader policy outcomes are supposed to be.

It’s important to demonstrate that you are putting in reasonable effort within whatever constraints you might have and you are doing what you can to move things along.

Right, but the importance is actually moving those things. They don’t care that you’re putting in reasonable effort, they assume that. If they have hired you, diligence is expected. Let’s posit that everybody is being diligent, but your diligence is paying off in unique ways that is getting your boss closer to the thing your boss is being measured on.

As a woman in Washington, with a wide range of experiences across the federal government, have you had any moments where you felt you were being treated differently because of your gender? If so, how did you cope with it?

I cut my bureaucratic teeth in the Pentagon, which largely is a good thing because the Pentagon is a very well-functioning bureaucracy. If you think you want to work in government, the Pentagon is a really good way to learn to be an effective bureaucrat. At that time I was young, a civilian, a political appointee, and female. So whatever disrespect I may have felt, it was sometimes hard to know which of those four attributes was motivating it.

When I first went to the Pentagon I was working in Ash Carter’s front office when Ash was Assistant Secretary. All of the Assistant Secretaries get a couple of political people they get to bring in by their choice and then they also have a military aide that usually has already been assigned to the office. The military aides are usually pretty senior and there’s usually a particular type of personality in that role. Of course in the early 1990s it was way more likely that they were male than not. I had a couple of instances working in our front office with the military aide, whose role was kind of like a chief of staff. One of the things I was responsible for was this piece of bureaucratic pain called the WAR, the Weekly Action Report, that went to Ash’s boss, the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy. My job was to compile the WAR from the six deputy assistant secretaries that sat under Ash.

The problem was that questions and issues that came out of the WAR would come down through the military aides. The Colonel in my office would hear from Ash’s boss’s General any issues they had with the document I was putting forward, so he would then come and pounce on me. It was like, “I either have this responsibility or I don’t, if the General has a problem with it or a question about it then he should be calling me, or you can do the WAR.” Of course, that was what I wanted to say but I didn’t say that. There was another junior military aide I had worked with before at Harvard and I bent his ear about this and he said, “Why don’t you guys just have a beer?”

So we sat down at 6:00 one evening when the rest of the office was empty and we each had a beer. I said what I found frustrating about the situation, and Colonel Keys said what he thought he was doing and what he wasn’t aware of doing. We agreed that we were both trying to serve the boss and that there were some things I knew about the boss that he didn’t because I had worked with him before, but there were also things he knew about the Pentagon that I didn’t know, and therefore we should learn from each other. It didn’t mean everything was perfect after that, but it did teach me that a direct approach can sometimes be appreciated. I think it raised me in his eyes as someone who could stand up for myself and as someone he didn’t have to push around to get respect for what he brought to the table.

Can you tell us why you were motivated to start your Gender Champions initiative and how are you getting buy in from the top leadership at the organisations you’re approaching? Where do you hope to see it go?

What got me involved is that it was a way to apply a tool (the International Gender Champions) that I had been asked to contribute to when I was in Vienna to a community that I knew well here in Washington. I had been working with groups like Women in International Security and other informal gatherings, having conversations within the community both formally and informally. Then there was the #MeToo issue and the ability of social media to call out instances in conferences beyond the community of the conference and say, “Hey, this isn’t okay”, like manels, so you become more sensitised to the ways which women are still not heard, not present, not as impactful as they could be in this field. I had mentioned it a few times at some meetings about the role of women in national security, nuclear policy, and so on and I said, “Hey, there was this tool that we did when I was in Vienna, maybe it could be adapted and applied to this nuclear policy world.” After I said that three or four times, Michelle Dover of the Ploughshares Fund said, “Can you come talk to me and Joe Cirincione (Head of Ploughshares Fund) about what you did in Vienna and how it might be applied in Washington?” 

I went over to meet them and we brainstormed for about half an hour and then they said, “Okay here’s $15k, go and do it.” That was in my “wandering in the wilderness” phase of not being fully employed and I said, “This sounds like fun”. So here we are, well more than $15k worth of my time but that’s fine because when I came here [to the Nuclear Threat Initiative], Secretary Moniz was super supportive of me continuing to advance this issue. We launched the Gender Champions in Nuclear Policy on November 14 and we have over thirty committed champions.

What appealed to me about this concept is that we’ve been doing what I call the “side out and bottom up” work of women building their own networks, mentoring, acquiring new skills, collaborating, and lifting up others and all of that, but if you’re really talking about organisational change you’ve got to start at the top. In the nuclear policy field, most of the people at the top are men, so you have to start thinking about male allies and having a way to ask them to be part of the solution and not just, you know, complain or send a mean tweet or something. And also, you have to think about how to make their commitment really concrete and not just, “Yes I support women and then…”. There’s all kind of things that don’t connect with that broad concept as opposed to saying, “Yes, I am going to be a champion for women.”

The word “champion” was picked specifically because it implies doing work. It’s not just “I believe in this” it is, “I am going to personally put my authority as a leader of this organisation in service of improving the gender balance within my organisation, within the things I can do and direct”. So that is one goal, to help them understand that they have a personal and active role here.

The second thing was you get to pick the things that you pledge because every organisation is at a different stage in their path towards gender balance. Some of them have already done a lot of work so they’re ready for some “graduate level” commitments.  Others have a long way to go, so they may need some more basic things. So what we did in the invitation package was give a whole set of sample pledges, not because it was a menu to limit the things that you could choose, but as inspiration to show some pledges other champions have chosen mixed in with some things that research has shown to be effective in improving gender balance and improving women’s ability to stay at work.

 What is an example of the types of pledges Champions can make?

Plugging some of the holes in the “leaky pipeline”, where you have near gender balance at the very junior stage but at the very senior stage you somehow lose it, is not a mystery. We know why those pipelines spring leaks and there’s research on how to plug those leaks as women progress through their career, so we offered some pledges that research has suggested can be useful. We’re not asking the Champions to make stuff up off the top of their heads. We’re asking them to think concretely about what specifically could be working within the culture of their organisations and based on the things they need to have happen.

A menu of options…

Exactly. And we’ll custom make a dish for you if you want!

Do you have any benchmarks or goals for Gender Champions?

The first benchmark was getting to twenty Champions. That was the point for us to plan a launch. Once we have a launch, then we can say, “Hey, we’re launching, do you want to join?” So now we’ve already gone from twenty to thirty just in the last couple of weeks, being able to say, “Yeah, we have a date, want to sign up and be a part of it?”. We initially reached out to forty organisations, so now we’ll probably reach out to another fifty. This is a rolling thing. The launch is just a way to say, “Look at this cool thing, come be a part of it” and part of the reason you want to come and be a part of it is all these cool people who already are.

We’re looking across the political spectrum and across the full range of topics under nuclear policy. Gender balance isn’t just for progressives. It’s not just about disarmament and nonproliferation but also nuclear energy, deterrence, force structure, anything to do with nuclear policy. And if you think you do nuclear policy, then we think you do nuclear policy.

If you could only share one piece of advice with WIFP readers, what would it be? 

“Pick the general, not the war.” It matters more who you’re working for than what you’re working on. I have found that to be very meaningful. In instances where I have been considering new jobs or moving from a job, a big part of why I move is to work for people I respect. In the instances of my career where I have really struggled, it is often because I’ve had a bad boss imposed upon me. I really believe that you have to be enthusiastic about the people you’re working for, and if you’re enthusiastic about them, you’ll be able to do a good job whatever the content of the work is.