Navigating the Government in Heels: Advice from Successful Govie Gals- Part 2


I am back with part two of this series! For my second post on this topic, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ms. Carmen Medina. Carmen is a truly remarkable and accomplished leader who served as the Deputy Director of Intelligence and Director of the Center for the Study of Intelligence, both within the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Carmen has also served in other high-profile agencies and calls herself a Rebel at Work—but I will let her tell you all about it!

Q: Tell us a little bit about you: Where you are from, when and where your career started and what you are up to these days

A: So I like to say I’m Puerto Rican by birth and Texan by nationality. I was born in Caguas, Puerto Rico. My father was a sergeant in the Army so we were always traveling. In addition to Puerto Rico, I lived in Oklahoma, Georgia, Alaska, North Carolina, and Germany before I was 11. That’s when we ended up in El Paso, Texas, where I attended middle and high school and even started college. So I like to think I’m familiar with two great Latin cultures–Puerto Rican and Mexican. I ended up on the East Coast (long story) and interviewed with the CIA recruiter while I was attending Georgetown’s MSFS program. Originally I was hired just for the summer but they asked me to stay. Now I’m retired from working for other people or in large organizations. I do a lot of speaking and writing on my two favorite topics: excellence in intelligence analysis and being a Rebel at Work.

Q: In your career in the government, did you ever feel like you were being held back in your professional growth?

A: Sure, I felt like I was not progressing as quickly as I thought I should, but I’m not sure you can say I was held back. I actually had a very successful career the first ten years or so, and then I began to argue that the CIA needed to change to reflect modern times. I was a bad and ineffective rebel and my career really suffered. Some of these were self-inflicted wounds. I also don’t think it’s a good idea to try to progress as fast as possible. It’s not about a competitive race to the top, although our culture leads us to treat it that way. I don’t think the passage of time is an appropriate metric for when you should get your next promotion–it should be about learning and experience, and that will differ by individual.

Q: What do you think is the most significant barrier to female leadership in the government?

A: I think the most significant barriers are the subtle and often subconscious barriers to entry, advancement, and influence. Let me give you an example. There is an internet meme right now about how men often ask a woman to smile, even in a professional setting. What’s that about? Do men ever ask other men to smile in that way? Of course not. This is an example of a very subtle attitude about how women should contribute to the workplace. They are expected to set the proper mood, to take care of all the social niceties, for example. This is a very common attitude still in many offices.

Another more serious example is the expectation that leaders should be strong and quick decision makers. Changing your mind or thinking long and hard about a decision are thought to be signs of weaknesses. There is a “strong man” default to how organizations should work that permeates everything.

Q: What will be the biggest challenge for the generation of women behind you and what advice would you give them?

A: The biggest challenge always is to be yourself. The mission always deserves the best of your abilities, not the version of yourself that is mediated by what you think others want. I’m hopeful that a lot of the particular challenges my generation faced will have faded and I can’t predict what the new challenges will be. But organizations will always make it hard for everyone–male or female–to be authentic. We will always have to fight that.

Michelle Rosa is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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I would love to hear how Ms. Medina earned the title of Rebel at Work. Did she relay any of those stories to you that you could share? Thanks!


Hi Kathleen, thank you so much for reading! Here is what Carmen had to say:
“Quickly what I would say is that while I was at CIA I became convinced in the late 1980s that digital technologies and 24 hour news would force the CIA to change its approach to its mission. They weren’t pretty receptive to my ideas and I wasn’t very smart in advancing them. Eventually it hurt my career as I got the reputation of being cynical and negative.

You also can visit or perhaps even buy the book Rebels at Work to learn more about rebel stories. “