Recruit spies from Mumsnet, Parliament tells MI5 – but give them a 24-hour childcare service

Hazel Blears said some female recruits to MI6 had encountered outdated attitudes

It has long been known that every mother needs patience, guile and a knack of knowing when they’re being lied to.

So it’s perhaps not surprising that Britain’s secret intelligence services are now being urged to tap into the maternal skill set to recruit a new generation of spies.

A report from Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee, released yesterday, calls on MI5 and MI6 to use websites like Mumsnet to recruit mothers looking to get back into the workplace. Describing mothers as an “untapped recruitment pool” the committee said that such initiatives would help redress the gender imbalance among secret agents.

But it warned there was one other element needed for successful mother spies: the option for 24-hour childcare.

The committee pointed out that while the agencies had made progress on “gender diversity”, women still only accounted for 37 per cent of their workforce, compared to 53 per cent of the Civil Service. Among the senior ranks, only 19 per cent were women as against 38 per cent in the Civil Service. Labour MP Hazel Blears, who led the work on behalf of the committee, said: “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. 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.”

 

Ms Blears said that some women recruits at MI6 had also complained at some of the attitudes they encountered there. One recent recruit said: “I was told once during training by a role player that I could have used my ‘womanly charms’ to build rapport, which I found very frustrating.”

Ms Blears said the need for MI6 officers to be able to deploy abroad – sometimes at very short notice – could also be a problem for women with children. “If you’ve got children, finding 24-hour childcare is often very difficult,” she said. The report suggests the agency should look at providing childcare services onsite.

Ms Blears said the problem was exacerbated by the fact that the nature of the work they were involved in led many MI6 officers to form relationships within the agency. “If you’re both in that kind of work, then inevitably the pressure will be on the women perhaps not to be the first out into the field,” she said.

“I feel quite strongly that the agencies can plan better, even for emergencies. You can have plans in place; you can have childcare providers.”

She suggested that using websites like Mumsnet could help attract women with “valuable life experience” to join the agencies. In contrast, she said that spy dramas, like the BBC’s Spooks series, actually deterred women recruits.

“When they put Spooks on, the numbers of women goes down because it looks like such a terrible place to be; your life’s so horrendous,” she said.

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