Charlotte Gill

Britain’s spy agencies could do with a woman’s touch

I always knew security agencies were missing a trick with the ladies. Currently, less than four in ten workers in MI5, MI6 and GCHQ are female, which isn’t just embarrassing, but bad for national security; because women have the potential to be great spies. 

But things are about to change. Since 2015, intelligence services have been on a massive drive to get more women into the ranks, scouting around Mumsnet for older, patriotic would-be agents. GCHQ has even announced a competition to find 13 to 15-year-old girls for the industry, having realised the worth of social-media savvy young girls. 

I’m surprised it took the intelligence agencies so long to recognise the potential of women, many of whom bring a distinct skill set to the table that the services may not have properly investigated before. The trouble with MI5, MI6 and GCHQ services is that for too long, tests to get into the industry have been geared towards one sort of intelligence. Some might call it analytical; I call it male.

The MI5 entry tests are one example of this, which largely consist of deductive tasks, that draw upon the male preference for systems and systemising. The first stage, which I once flunked, consists of a verbal reasoning questionnaire, inviting participants to make quick comparisons about statements. It may surprise you to know that, even as a journalist, my brain fails on these sorts of pattern-spotting tasks, even the ones involving words. Here, generally, men may have the advantage; they have routinely been shown to perform better on mental rotation tasks – a similar type of comparison test.

Others have suggested that to be a spy you need to be good at collecting data, analysing data and presenting data.

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