Fran Townsend Reflects on the Lack of Women in National Security and Tech Roles

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Frances Fragos Townsend is the executive vice president for corporate affairs at Activision Blizzard. Previously, she spent over 25 years in public service, culminating as President George W. Bush’s chair of the Homeland Security Council. Townsend gained valuable experience throughout her illustrious career, which prepared her to be at the top of her game for the American video game holding company. 

“I think people would be surprised that the same skills that are required to succeed in a corporate environment are the same skills necessary in the government environment,” says Townsend. “It can’t be about you as an individual. The mission is too important for egos to get too involved.” 

Townsend also sees similarities when it comes to gender bias within the two sectors, namely the dearth of women in high-ranking positions. It’s evident within the male-dominated environs of the gaming world and the hallowed halls of Capitol Hill.
Historically, only a handful of women have held influential positions under both Democratic and Republican presidents. 

“I find this to be interesting since the issue is not particular to a single political party,” Townsend says. “I saw it during the Clinton administration. Madeleine Albright was secretary of state. Janet Reno was attorney general. Jamie Gorelick was the deputy attorney general. And I saw it during the [George W.] Bush administration — even more so, frankly. President Bush had a female White House counsel, Harriet Miers. Condoleezza Rice was the national security advisor and then secretary of state. Margaret Spellings was over at the Department of Education. Those are powerful people. And so now it’s funny that at varied senior ranks in the political and policy community, it seems much more typical to find some competitive women and also women, who are very senior in the ranks of national security.” 

The secretary of defense has never been a woman, nor has the director of the CIA or the director of the FBI. 

“In that respect, there are places yet to go. I’m optimistic we’ll see it in my lifetime,” says Townsend. “While they’re very senior positions, they’re much more operational. And I think that’s a road yet to be traveled for women. I think they will. I think you’ve now got competent, qualified women who’ve got the kind of experience necessary for those positions.” 

While women are outnumbered by men in both the technology and security sectors, recent numbers make Townsend hopeful. According to a 2020 Government Accountability Report, women made up 39% of the intelligence community in 2020.
(Among the growing ranks is Avril Haines, the director of national intelligence and the first woman to lead the U.S. intelligence community.)

Does Gender Affect Job Opportunities? 

There is a misconception in the tech and national security industries that men are better equipped for the job.  “I think we’ve just assumed it’s a natural bias toward men in these industries,” Townsend notes. “In the national security trade, it is partially because women need to have the right kind of experience to be truly competitive for those positions. More and more now, you see women in senior roles, including the career ranks, which you didn’t before, whether that’s at the CIA or the FBI, with the kinds of experience that will position them to be competitive, and I think that’s great.”

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In Townsend’s professional experience, men and women tend to approach the demands of the job quite differently. “Women can be aware of getting to the strategic answer, the strategic result, and are less proprietary about how they get there, whereas men are often very proprietary in how they get there. They do want to get to the strategic result, but they tend to be more proprietary about getting there. That means, in my experience at least, women are incredibly pragmatic. For instance, who gets the credit? Sure, women want to get the credit when they’ve been part of producing a result, but they’re very willing to share it as long as they can get there. I think that’s an advantage for women — women give credit away because they’re willing to share credit with all those who contributed to the results,” she explains. 

Frances Townsend Makes a Name for Herself in Public Office

As an intelligent, motivated teenager, Townsend earned the distinction of being the first person in her family to earn a diploma for graduating from high school. She worked as a waitress and held down a campus job to put herself through college. Her perseverance paid off, and in 1982 Townsend graduated cum laude from American University.

In 1984, Townsend received her Juris Doctor from the University of San Diego School of Law. She began her career serving as the assistant district attorney in Brooklyn, New York, a year later. Three years later, she joined the United States Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, focusing on white-collar crime cases and international organized crime. After busting mob bosses, Townsend served as the assistant commandant for Intelligence for the U.S. Coast Guard before being appointed to Homeland Security by President George W. Bush in 2004. “First and foremost, I looked at the threat information. That was the primary thing I did every day. The president made it very clear that my primary responsibility was to stop the next attack,” recalls Townsend. She held that high-pressure position until 2008.

Townsend has spent decades breaking down barriers and blazing new paths, allowing more women to find success in the tech and security sectors. She accomplished all of that while raising her two sons with her husband, lawyer John Michael Townsend. Townsend was actually on maternity leave with her newborn second son in New York City on the morning of 9/11. “The spirit of resiliency in this country impressed me,” she says. She’s also proven to be resilient time and again. “Fran says exactly what’s on her mind,” former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has said about the Blizzard Activision executive.

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In her spare time, she also gives back to the community that she’s worked tirelessly to keep safe. She also keeps herself entertained via games like Call of Duty and Candy Crush. Townsend is the co-chair of the Council of Foreign Relations’ pandemic preparedness task force. She also sits on the boards of several nonprofits, including the Atlantic Council and the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Frances Townsend Relates to the Struggles of Working Mothers

Townsend understands the difficulty of juggling work demands and motherhood that many women face, which often hinders them from applying to high-ranking positions. She hopes that her story can inspire others to step into leadership positions in traditionally male-dominated industries. “During the course of my time with Homeland Security, during those almost five years, I would travel to Saudi Arabia, in particular, at least four times a year. I’ve been to Afghanistan and Jordan, Yemen, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait. I’d leave the West Wing at eight or nine o’clock in the evenings. And Saturdays were workdays in the West Wing,” recalls Townsend. “I was very fortunate because I had two small children. I had worked out that I would come in on Saturdays if there was something to do, a threat or something important, or an intelligence brief that I needed to participate in. But people, gratefully, were very respectful of the fact that, with two small boys, Saturdays are days of soccer and baseball. And so, I needed to try and make an effort to be at home.”

Fran Townsend Foresees the Glass Ceiling Shattering

Hillary Clinton once said she, and those who voted for her, put “18 million cracks” in the glass ceiling. Today, it is indeed on the brink of shattering as more women follow in her and Townsend’s footsteps and ascend to positions of power in industries traditionally considered boys clubs. “I think it’s a much weaker glass ceiling, but, as I mentioned, there are places that women have not gone. Those roles tend to be more operational. I’m referring to the senior operational jobs like the FBI, CIA, and secretary of defense,” shares Townsend. “But I think that we can get there in my lifetime.”

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