Britain's MI5 finds women spies hard to lure

Britain’s security service MI5 is keen to bring more women on board as it launches a new recruitment campaign this week—the latest stage in a drive to double its size.

The domestic spy agency, around 1 800 strong at the time of the September 11 attacks on the United States in 2001, has swelled its ranks to more than 3 000 and expects to reach 3 500 by the end of next year.

But despite being able to point to two recent female leaders, it is struggling to attract women recruits. While women make up around 47% of all employees, they account for only 38% of new applicants.

“We need to get that increased so we’re not going to have a problem further down the line,” said a security source. “We have to reflect the diversity of the UK to do our job properly.”

The nature of surveillance work, for example, requires a healthy balance between male and female operatives to keep track of suspects without attracting attention.

In an unusual initiative, MI5 last year placed ads in the female changing rooms of health clubs in a bid to find women surveillance officers—a physically demanding role involving shadowing suspects for hours at a time by foot or in a vehicle.

This week’s campaign will include ads on London buses and underground trains as MI5 seeks to fill a range of jobs from caterers to drivers, intelligence officers, linguists, surveillance officers and technology experts.

Applicants face screening by a recruitment agency to weed out dreamers and no-hopers. Then they must pass an initial assessment centre, an interview with an MI5 recruiter, a day-long barrage of tests at agency headquarters and a final selection board. In parallel with the final stages, they are subjected to six to eight months of security vetting.

Reflecting the shift in focus from Northern Irish guerrilla groups to Islamist militants, MI5 also recruits increasingly from Britain’s ethnic minorities, who make up some 8% of all staff.

It is especially interested in fluent or native speakers of languages like Arabic and Urdu.

While its staff numbers have expanded, the agency says the threats it faces have sharply increased too.

Its then head, Eliza Manningham-Buller, said last November that her officers and the police were dealing with some 200 groupings or networks and some 1 600 identified people “actively engaged in plotting or facilitating terrorist acts here and overseas”. - Reuters 2007

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