Contrary to what middle-aged men might think after a lifetime of watching James Bond and Mission Impossible movies, in the real world women, not men, make the best spies. This long read in the FT from a former MI6 (also called Special Intelligence Service or SIS) explains why this is so [hint: it has nothing to do with women looking attractive or being ‘honeytraps’]. We suggest that you read this engrossing piece in its entirety to appreciate the impact that smart, driven women have had on MI6.

Here is the first reason why women make good spies: “The UK’s main adversaries today — China, Russia, Iran and North Korea — are repressive societies with few women in positions of power. For the female spy, this weakness in the enemy is exploitable. Precisely because they are so likely to be overlooked, women have the potential to be the best spies of all….
…it is in the most conservative countries that women sometimes have the upper hand. “When you’re playing into a culture which is particularly male-dominated, women tend to be underestimated and therefore perceived as less threatening,” she says. “That’s been an advantage for me, because sometimes those individuals won’t necessarily see you coming. And it’s about their perceptions of SIS. They’re not necessarily expecting a younger woman to bowl up to them.”

Secondly, spying is increasingly a super cerebral job where PhDs and emotional intelligence are more useful than muscles or guns. The FT article describes an MI6 agent, Kathy, in the following way: “When Kathy crossed the threshold of SIS headquarters for the first time three decades ago, her concern was more straightforward: was she up to the role? “Don’t worry, you won’t have to fire guns. You won’t be jumping out of any helicopters. This is not a James Bond job,” her interviewer said. Eventually, she was deployed to a war zone, working alongside the military, and trained to handle a firearm for personal defence. She tells me these two things as if there is no contradiction at all.

Her path into SIS was a standard one: she was in her twenties, had recently finished a literature PhD and was applying to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office graduate-training scheme for the second time….
Kathy began in a desk job working on Iranian weapons systems, but progressed to roles running agents around the world. (Intelligence sources, collaborators known as “assets” in American spying terminology, are typically referred to as “agents” by MI6.) That meant being away from her long-term partner, who remained in the UK. The life she describes is exciting: travelling, learning languages, “getting under the skin” of new people and cultures. The work even more so. She recounts the days before biometrics, of making her way unnoticed from one country to another, often on foot, and changing disguises en route. Her favourite wig was a red Farrah Fawcett-style 1970s mane. Occasionally, she would wander around with £50,000 in her handbag, presumably to pay agents,…”

Thirdly, basis our reading of this piece, a critical part of spying seems to be forming deep relationships with a range of people across countries and across a range of cultures. Women seem to be able to do this better than men. Using the experiences of a spy named Ada, the FT says: “A self-confessed “geek”, she fondly describes her first job in counter-proliferation as a combination of getting to grips with the “really deep science” of nuclear technology and having “incredibly close relationships with a number of different agents who were risking their lives to be able to share secrets with us”.

These agents lie at the heart of the human intelligence mission, informing on terror cells, weapons programmes and, increasingly, cyber warfare. While MI5, the domestic spy agency, cultivates sources within the UK, SIS officers reach across cultural, linguistic and religious divides. They ask people to betray their countries and governments. From the stalemate of the cold war to the post-9/11 focus on counter-terrorism through to today’s great power conflicts, this aspect of the craft has remained constant. Whatever new threats develop, it is unlikely to change. Your bond with your agent is unlike any other, intensified by jeopardy on both sides….

Data scientists comb through terabytes of information to find, in Kathy’s words, the “shimmering target” who might have the right access and, crucially, a motive to co-operate. Case officers strategise approaches, while operational risk experts plan how to get the right SIS officer in front of the person at the right moment. A team of former theatre professionals equip the officer with disguises.”

In short, to be a world class spy you need to very intelligent, emotionally astute and hardworking. MI6 finds that women fit the bill better than men and they are not the only ones to think so.

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