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It's no secret that when it comes to keeping mum, women will always make the best spies


Jessica Chastain who plays the agent who tracked down Osama bin Laden in 'Zero Dark Thirty'

Jessica Chastain who plays the agent who tracked down Osama bin Laden in 'Zero Dark Thirty'

Cate Blanchett

Cate Blanchett


Jessica Chastain who plays the agent who tracked down Osama bin Laden in 'Zero Dark Thirty'

Yet again spies are being dragged kicking and screaming into the modern world. The "permafrost" men of intelligence middle management are being instructed to thaw out and let in more women.

It's taken a woman to tell them. Hazel Blears, chair of the UK's Commons Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC), has overseen a report which says that MI6, MI5 and GCHQ must employ more women, and if they do so they'll get better results.

The "very traditional male outlook" which still dominates the services means agents today are likely to share "unacknowledged biases". In other words, they're sexist diehards who don't understand how today's world works and can't do the job properly.

Women "with life experience" should be more widely recruited, the ISC reckons, as well as mothers, for whom shopping bags and prams would provide the perfect "cover".

This has predictably caused a stir, both inside the service and on Mumsnet - where some members reacted with hilarity to the idea of becoming snoopers in "chocolate-smeared tatty jumpers".

In fact the ISC proposal is a statement of the obvious. In 1989, when I used to report on the intelligence services, I had a scoop. It was that MI5 was going to look beyond Oxbridge for recruits. Some learner spies were to be taken on from "red brick universities".


This tentative modernisation of intelligence culture followed the Spycatcher scandal, when former MI5 officer Peter Wright published an inside story of British intelligence failure and double-dealing.

After his revelations, nobody wanted to join. Taking on more women was thought to be one answer even then.

Since then, there has certainly been change. MI5 has had two female director-generals - Stella Rimington and Eliza Manningham-Buller - but the proportion of women in senior ranks remains low and neither MI6 nor GCHQ has ever been run by a woman.

The devastating failures of MI6 in the run-up to the Iraq war brought about a new recruitment crisis. Whether women officers would have been better equipped to ask the right questions about Iraq, or to spot that Saddam was duping them, is impossible to say.

But as we watch the spread of Isil and the recruitment of young women as jihadist fighters, the case for bringing women into the intelligence services is more overwhelming than ever. This is not the first time that the value of women as intelligence officers has been raised. When, in 1940, Winston Churchill was looking for ways to help the French resistance, he created the Special Operation Executive (SOE), and authorised the recruitment of women to drop behind enemy lines.


A woman riding around occupied France on a bicycle, he thought, would attract less attention than a man.

The male officers who trained these young women were often sceptical about their abilities.

They were too "innocent" or "girlish" to be of use. But it soon emerged that many of the SOE women were as resourceful and courageous as any man and resilient under fire and under torture, too. The senior SOE woman staff officer, Vera Atkins, who helped recruit these SOE women, never had any doubts that they would be as successful secret agents as men. Atkins also took on women with children. Violette Szabo left behind a young daughter when she dropped by parachute into France. The film 'Charlotte Gray' was based on the heroics of these same women.

They worked instinctively, were steely, and the best judges of human nature, Atkins believed, herself becoming one of the most influential staff officers in SOE.

She would certainly have agreed with Maurice Oldfield, director of MI6 in the 1970s, who once said "intelligence is about people and the study of people" - study in which women so often excel. Yet, as the ISC report rightly acknowledges, it is not enough to recognise the value of women as intelligence officers.

The challenge is how to make the job attractive to them. The very culture of the intelligence world immediately alienates most women.

Even former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher had a healthy scepticism of "the service", keeping it at arm's length.

The report describes a culture that "rewards those who speak the loudest or are aggressive in pursuing their career" and adds that women who have children are quickly sidelined.

Instead the service should support such women and promote their talent.

The idea of recruiting mums as spies is easily ridiculed.

But successful companies worldwide are increasingly turning to mothers with young children, offering them attractive contracts with flexible hours.

We also know the "enemy" is using more women. It is time the UK intelligence services did the same. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Sarah Helm is the author of 'A Life in Secrets' and 'If this is a Woman', about female spies and prisoners in World War 2.