Where MI5, MI6 and GCHQ once picked out new recruits by laying a discreet hand on the shoulder of students at Oxford and Cambridge universities, they are now being urged to use online forums such as Mumsnet.
“Women who have had children, who have brought their families up, they’ve got a different life experience — and I don’t think we’ve even touched that pool of people,” said Hazel Blears, lead author of the committee’s report.
“A lot of work that you do, in MI5 particularly, it’s relationships, it’s trust.
“If you’re an agent, it is a set of skills and competences that are not about rushing to the scene of a crime — you’re maybe working over a period of months and years to create relationships.”
Despite progress in the past 15 years, the report found that women currently make up just 37 percent of the intelligence workforce, many of them in junior roles.
And there remain “cultural and behavioural issues” that make it harder for women to advance to senior positions.
“It is clear to us there are those at middle management level –- referred to by some people as ‘the permafrost’ –- who have a very traditional male mentality and outlook,” said Blears.
“This can reinforce a management culture which rewards those who speak the loudest or are aggressive in pursuing their career and does not fully recognise the value of a more consultative, collaborative approach.”
– ‘It takes time’ –
Just as Judi Dench played “M”, the head of foreign spy agency MI6, in the most recent James Bond movies, there have been two British spy chiefs — Stella Rimington and Eliza Manningham-Buller, who both led domestic agency MI5.
But women currently hold just 19 percent of senior intelligence roles, compared to 38 percent across the Civil Service, the committee found.
Things are improving, and last year women made up 44 percent of new recruits to MI6 and 41 percent of new staff at MI5.
Communications monitoring agency GCHQ is lagging behind with just 29 percent — a problem Blears said was in part due to the difficulties of attracting women to a “really techy, geeky environment”.
The report recommended more encouragement and career advice for women to help them progress, and said those in operational roles should not be “sidelined” after having children. More help was also needed with childcare.
As well as trying to recruit more women, there has also been a push since the September 11, 2001 attacks to hire more agents from ethnic minority groups.
“If you look like me, then you can’t operate in the operational areas that we need to operate in,” former MI5 chief Jonathan Evans was quoted as saying in the report.
“So we are making progress… but it takes time for that to filter through the sort of hierarchy at the service.”
Britain is not alone in trying to diversify its intelligence agencies — a 2013 US report looked at how to get more women in senior management positions at the CIA, where women currently account for 48 percent of its workforce.
And last weekend a glossy French magazine published an in-depth report into the lives of female spies at foreign intelligence agency DGSE, the result of unprecedented access that was clearly intended to recruit more women.
The story in Figaro Madame focused on the excitement of the job but also the problems for the women — who make up 26 percent of the DGSE workforce — of juggling their highly secretive work with a family life.