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The real-life Q is female: do women really make better spies?

The handing out of 007 gadgets was always owned by a man, but could women make better spies?

When MI6 revealed that its own version of Q – the techie genius Quartermaster – is female, it caused a great deal of excitement.

When Annie Machon joined the organisation, she said she discovered no gender bias; instead, the focus was entirely on skills for the job. She recognised, however, that her older female colleagues had experienced a very different climate back in the 70s and 80s.

One of these pioneers was Stella Rimington, MI5’s first director-general; another was Eliza Manningham-Buller. The shift these women represented was mirrored in the world of entertainment, with both The Night Manager and Homeland featuring female CIA leads, to great acclaim.

Espionage author and topic expert Nigel West was one of many unsurprised that Q is now a woman in real life. He explained that women tend to have better attention to detail, a stronger emotional intelligence and more advanced skills in chronological recollection, all of which are key attributes for a successful spy.

The Pipeline, an American training intelligence programme, has found through scientific testing that women also have the mysterious ‘sixth sense’ when it comes to feeling by instinct that they are being observed. Gender discrimination is no longer a problem for those working on behalf of Her Majesty’s Secret Service, with both GCHQ and MI6 now advertising directly for female recruits on Mumsnet.

A report carried out in 2015 by Hazel Blears, former Labour Party chair, found that although 53% of civil servants are women, they represent just over one-third of the staff in GCHQ, MI5 and MI6. This parallel also occurs in recruitment. In civil service, recruitment is half men, half women; however, in espionage departments, it drops to just 38% of women.

When carrying out her report, Blears found that sexism still exists, with women in the intelligence services tending to work in back office and support functions. This means that core functions of the agencies are still largely male.

Cameron Colquhoun, a GCHQ employee for six years, experienced a culture in which departments were typically male or female. GCHQ, she says, was known to be more male for its staffing preference, particularly when it came to cybersecurity, hacking or coding; however, the issue of women and a gap in coding skills is a broader one that concerns all businesses, not just the intelligence agencies.

This could explain, of course, why MI6 was prepared to ‘out’ its own Q recently at the Women in Technology awards, which could be the hotbed for future female recruits for the agency and hopefully a more equal future.

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