Helen Warrell interviews three top female British Secret Intelligence Service officers about what it’s really like to be a woman in a world of espionage. It’s not a surprise that female spies experience misogyny and sexism on their way up, while pop-culture depictions in Bond films and Le Carré novels enforce sexy spy and secretary stereotypes. This is the first time that female SIS officers are going on the record; Kathy, Ada, and Rebecca (which are not their real names) agreed to speak with Warrell to help recruit more women and ethnic minorities to apply. The women are tight-lipped about some areas of their work, which makes this insightful and fun read all the more fascinating.

Still, it is not a job with universal appeal. While Q branch now has more women than men at senior levels, they are under-represented in the department as a whole. Ada is keen to change this, but the wider shortage of women in science and engineering makes recruitment more difficult. She is not from a technical background herself. Her strength is operational expertise honed on a series of overseas postings, where she learnt Arabic and ran agents, including in war zones. For some of this time she was also raising a family, which presented unusual practical problems. At the start of one posting, she was given an armoured car and became the first officer in the service to ask where the Isofix points were so she could insert her baby’s carseat. “There was a lot of scratching of heads and people saying, we haven’t had a request for one of those things before,” she says. “And actually, it turns out it’s very difficult to do.” (They did, eventually, find a way.)

Cheri Lucas Rowlands

Cheri has been an editor at Longreads since 2014. She's currently based in the San Francisco Bay Area.