My journey to the school for spies starts in the half-light of a waking city. I do not know where I am going and have only been instructed to meet my contact at a central London landmark. We travel by car, boat and train to a place where officers of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, the overseas espionage agency known as SIS, learn their craft. I am not allowed to describe it to you, but I can tell you this: it is giant and austere and the slicing wind makes my eyes water.

At the door, I am met by a small, cheerful woman with short, wavy blonde hair whose beaming welcome is at odds with the sterile eeriness of this place. Kathy, who is in charge of all intelligence operations by SIS officers and their agents around the world, ushers me over to a bank of armchairs next to a large window overlooking a paved landscape.

She jokes that when she was first offered a job at the agency, also known as MI6, her mother questioned whether she wanted to commit herself to something so “wacky and unfamiliar”. “My dad just said, ‘Go for it.’” This self-effacing northerner says she is “not particularly brave”. But she is one of the most powerful spies in Britain.

Kathy is one of four directors-general at SIS, each of whom reports to the chief, known as “C”. For the first time, three of them are women. They work in the most important and rapidly evolving areas of spycraft. Kathy is director of operations. Rebecca is the chief’s deputy, who oversees strategy. The most storied MI6 job of all belongs to Ada, who is the head of technology, known as “Q” after James Bond’s mastermind gadgeteer. I have spent six months interviewing them about how they reached the top in a traditionally male career and trying to understand what the life of a female spy is really like.

Since the chief of MI6 is the only member of the agency who is named or permitted to speak in public, and because all of them have been men, this is the first time that female SIS officers have ever spoken on the record. I have agreed to change their names and omit certain details to protect them and the sources they work with. They agreed to speak to encourage women applicants and correct the perception of espionage as a man’s game.

Woman wearing glasses and a black, turtle neck outfit inside an elevator
About the photographs: Eliza Bourner is a London-based photographer whose work creates richly cinematic psychological landscapes. For this issue, FT Weekend Magazine invited her to visualise scenes that reflect aspects of this article. These photographs do not contain individuals working in British intelligence or document MI6 equipment and locations. © Eliza Bourner

The low profile of these three senior officers is in keeping with the history of women in British intelligence. In the past, women have been overlooked, relegated to secretarial roles or, before the SIS era, deployed as “honeytraps” to ensnare or blackmail enemies. When Vernon Kell co-founded MI6’s precursor in 1909, he identified as his ideal recruits men “who could make notes on their shirt cuff while riding on horseback”. His views on women were less well-known, but it is said that he once commented: “I like my girls to have good legs.” Despite having proved themselves with significant skill and bravery during the second world war, women in MI6 and its sister agency MI5 struggled to progress and were not regularly recruited as intelligence officers until the late 1970s.

This misogyny was repeated and exaggerated in popular novels written by former spies such as Ian Fleming and John le Carré. The fictional MI6 officer James Bond gropes his secretary, spices his operations with extravagant liaisons and encounters few female spies, the most famous being the dowdy Russian counter-intelligence officer Rosa Klebb. Film versions of Fleming’s books made famous an entire genre of “Bond girls”, conquests rather than fully drawn human beings. Le Carré, best known for the cold war spy chronicles starring a gnomic intelligence officer, George Smiley, expresses a similarly two-dimensional view. His women are sirens who exert a potent sexual hold over male protagonists but have little to say for themselves. The one exception, “Moscow-gazer” Connie Sachs, is a caricature in the opposite direction — an eccentric with an encyclopedic memory who succumbs to alcoholism after being sidelined from the job at which she excels.

Sexist depictions are hardly confined to spy films, but they matter more in a profession in which mystery is encouraged and reality is classified. The perceptions built up through cultural references are, like so many aspects of the Bond legacy, double-edged. The films have built SIS a legendary brand, but their portrayal of ad-hoc killings and solo operations is far from accurate. For MI6, the historical absence of women is both a serious omission and a secret weapon. The UK’s main adversaries today — China, Russia, Iran and North Korea — are repressive societies with few women in positions of power. For the female spy, this weakness in the enemy is exploitable. Precisely because they are so likely to be overlooked, women have the potential to be the best spies of all.

Sexist depictions are hardly confined to spy films, but they matter more in a profession in which mystery is encouraged and reality is classified.

Four years ago, SIS launched its first television ad to recruit more women and ethnic minorities. It starts with footage of a shark weaving menacingly through the water, before panning out to reveal a much more benign scene: a woman and her young son looking at the predator from the other side of the aquarium glass. The final line is designed to dissolve the “otherness” of spies: “Secretly, we’re just like you.”

This is not strictly true. Spies aren’t much like the rest of us, and working at MI6 is a distinctly strange experience. You cannot tell anyone beyond close family who your employer is, and even they are not allowed to know anything about your day-to-day activities. You are supposed to turn off your phone long before you approach headquarters, the emerald ziggurat on Vauxhall Bridge in central London. Once there, you lock it away. You have limited access to the internet. The only contact with the outside world is made via landline. Because it is not secure, working from home is extremely difficult. So while the organisation encourages flexibility, this is limited by the reality that your working hours must be spent largely in the office. The domestic admin of daily life is unusually cumbersome. Complicated transactions like buying a house are, in the words of one intelligence officer, “a nightmare”.

When Kathy crossed the threshold of SIS headquarters for the first time three decades ago, her concern was more straightforward: was she up to the role? “Don’t worry, you won’t have to fire guns. You won’t be jumping out of any helicopters. This is not a James Bond job,” her interviewer said. Eventually, she was deployed to a war zone, working alongside the military, and trained to handle a firearm for personal defence. She tells me these two things as if there is no contradiction at all.

Her path into SIS was a standard one: she was in her twenties, had recently finished a literature PhD and was applying to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office graduate-training scheme for the second time. Kathy was diverted on to the spy track via a letter inviting her to interview for “alternative overseas opportunities”, which she was asked not to discuss with anyone. She had always wanted to be an ambassador, but was intrigued by this parallel organisation and the ways it forged bonds with strangers.

A woman wearing glasses going up a flight of stairs
© Eliza Bourner

She was not a natural fit. The stereotype of an MI6 officer is, according to civil service legend, an upper-class white man in beige chinos and desert boots. Kathy initially baulked at the poshness of the office. “There were not many people with regional accents,” she recalls, laughing. Each batch of new recruits starts together; most of Kathy’s cohort was from the more-prosperous south of England and had attended Oxford or Cambridge university. She had grown up in the north-west and gone to a local grammar school and a redbrick university. “I was a bit of a country bumpkin,” she says. “I had to learn how to use the Tube. I think I’d only been twice to London to the theatre with my mum.”

Kathy began in a desk job working on Iranian weapons systems, but progressed to roles running agents around the world. (Intelligence sources, collaborators known as “assets” in American spying terminology, are typically referred to as “agents” by MI6.) That meant being away from her long-term partner, who remained in the UK. The life she describes is exciting: travelling, learning languages, “getting under the skin” of new people and cultures. The work even more so. She recounts the days before biometrics, of making her way unnoticed from one country to another, often on foot, and changing disguises en route. Her favourite wig was a red Farrah Fawcett-style 1970s mane. Occasionally, she would wander around with £50,000 in her handbag, presumably to pay agents, but she does not elaborate. “It’s a really peculiar job,” she says.

Recruiting and managing agents overseas was not always easy, especially when the template for the role was cartoonishly male. “Early in my career, it felt as if there were particular ways of behaving and getting things done which felt challenging,” says Kathy. “There was definitely some machismo around the idea of the lone operator.” Then, as now, bonding methods that worked in male-to-male relationships didn’t in female-to-male ones. “I would not necessarily sit up drinking whiskey all night with an agent,” she says, explaining that she had to make things work on her own terms, such as inviting people to her home, which immediately establishes a degree of trust. At one point, she took up golf in an attempt to build rapport with a prospective agent who was obsessed with the sport. It did not go well. “My golf teacher, on lesson three, just said, ‘This is not your game.’”

Kathy argues that, counter-intuitively, it is in the most conservative countries that women sometimes have the upper hand. “When you’re playing into a culture which is particularly male-dominated, women tend to be underestimated and therefore perceived as less threatening,” she says. “That’s been an advantage for me, because sometimes those individuals won’t necessarily see you coming. And it’s about their perceptions of SIS. They’re not necessarily expecting a younger woman to bowl up to them.” This element of surprise, she says, “can definitely be a secret sauce”.

Shot of feet wearing loafers and a wig peeking out of a brown handbag
© Eliza Bourner

Getting close to strangers and keeping your work secret from friends requires deception. As a Catholic with a “well-developed sense of guilt”, Kathy found this particularly hard. “There’s a paradox at the heart of this job, because we’re deeply ethical, but we also have to tell lies. We’re doing that because there’s an outcome we need to achieve — it sounds really cheesy — for the greater good,” she says. “I do have a twinge every time I have to tell a friend what I’ve been doing and it’s not the truth.”

Most of Kathy’s close friends do not know she is a spy. Like all SIS officers, her day-to-day cover story is that she works at the Foreign Office. When asked about work, her tactic is to describe a role “so boring that they’re never going to ask you again. I think my poor friends feel sorry for me.”

There are times when pretending to do a policy job is untenable, especially when you are hosting guests during foreign postings. “Some of my friends are now aware of what I do because, at some point, it becomes implausible that I’ve got six mobile phones in my handbag. And one of them rings, and I’ve got to go out. And I say, ‘I’m really sorry, but I’ve got to leave dinner right now. I might not be back till quite late tonight, so here are the keys for the house and don’t worry.’”

The three spies I speak to are bound by multiple restrictions: the Official Secrets Act, which makes it a criminal offence to disclose classified information; MI6’s pledge that it will never reveal the identities of its employees or their agents; and their own eagerness to avoid repelling potential female recruits with gruesome tales. (MI5 was concerned about female applications plummeting after a 2002 episode of the BBC spy drama, Spooks, in which a young female trainee was plunged head first into a deep fat fryer, according to reports at the time.)

At some points, the spies are obviously holding back. Kathy, who worked in counter-terrorism during the height of Isis activity in Iraq and Syria, helped disrupt attacks targeting the UK. The details are classified but, when I ask whether she saved British lives, it is as if there is an emotional embargo too. “Yes,” she says hesitantly. “But I wouldn’t want you to think it was just me.” She is reluctant to take any credit for operations which, she stresses, were a collective effort. And she, of the three spies I speak to, bears the greatest responsibility for protecting the identities of SIS agents, “our most closely guarded secret”. Perhaps for these reasons, her responses seem the most censored. “I’m so lucky to do this job,” she says. “We’re all seeing the horrific images of Russia’s conflict in Ukraine. One of the things that keeps me going is that I know that we are contributing to combating the crises that the UK and our allies faced last year and will face next year.” With that, the subject of bloodshed on British soil is closed.

The historical archetype of a female spy is Mata Hari, the Dutch courtesan accused of gathering intelligence for the Germans during the first world war and who was executed by a French firing squad. But as early as 1945, Maxwell Knight — a wartime spymaster said to have been the model for Fleming’s spy chief “M” — tried to refute what he called a “longstanding and ill-founded prejudice” against employing women and dismissed the idea that sex played “an unsettling and dangerous role in their work”. He professed himself completely opposed to what he called “Mata Hari methods” and wrote in a memo to colleagues: “I am convinced that more information has been obtained by women agents by keeping out of the arms of the man than was ever obtained by sinking too willingly into them.”

All the female spies I speak to, whether retired or in post, are frank about the hazards of prospective male agents misreading their intentions. Meetings with intelligence sources are held in hotel rooms and often on the move in cars. Both are awkwardly intimate locations. One spy who rose through the ranks of MI6 40 years ago told me that she tended to declare herself as a member of British intelligence far earlier in the process than a man might have done, in order to avoid any confusion. During her agent-running days Ada (now Q) would explicitly build familial associations. “It changes things. You can literally see it change in an agent’s eye. I will do it very openly, by saying, ‘I feel like I’m your sister’. ‘I can imagine you being my brother.’ ‘I really respect you as my father.’ You literally bring that terminology in.” (In the 2015 French spy drama, Le bureau des légendes, a young female intelligence officer who is attracting the amorous attention of an Iranian scientist uses the same technique. When she says he reminds her of her late father, the tension between them dissipates.)

“Don’t worry, you won’t have to fire guns. You won’t be jumping out of any helicopters. This is not a James Bond job.”

Claire Hubbard-Hall, a historian of espionage, blames popular culture for having unfairly “framed” the public view of women spies as “highly sexualised”. The academic — who is writing a biography of what she calls the “forgotten women” of British Intelligence, including the dauntless MI6 secretary who inspired Fleming’s Miss Moneypenny — says the word “secretary” was often used to disguise women whose roles evolved far beyond their nominally clerical rank. This explains the relative obscurity of women working on operations, and the deceptively low status of most female staff. The restrictions imposed on women spies also make them exceptionally hard to research. Until 1973, those who married had to immediately leave the service. As a result, many remained single and never had children — historians must search out documents such as diaries buried in family archives. Tracking down the real Miss Moneypenny has been, says Hubbard-Hall “like trying to find a ghost”.

Ada is not someone to be deterred by the lack of female forebears: spying was the only job she ever wanted. Growing up abroad, she commandeered the Usborne spycraft manual from her older brother, crossing out his name on the inside cover and writing hers firmly in its place. She and her friends learnt pigpen code, a cipher system replacing letters with symbols, and would leave notes for each other under flower pots. It was little surprise that, when she applied to the Foreign Office in her early twenties, she was identified as a candidate who might be more suited to SIS. A self-confessed “geek”, she fondly describes her first job in counter-proliferation as a combination of getting to grips with the “really deep science” of nuclear technology and having “incredibly close relationships with a number of different agents who were risking their lives to be able to share secrets with us”.

These agents lie at the heart of the human intelligence mission, informing on terror cells, weapons programmes and, increasingly, cyber warfare. While MI5, the domestic spy agency, cultivates sources within the UK, SIS officers reach across cultural, linguistic and religious divides. They ask people to betray their countries and governments. From the stalemate of the cold war to the post-9/11 focus on counter-terrorism through to today’s great power conflicts, this aspect of the craft has remained constant. Whatever new threats develop, it is unlikely to change. Your bond with your agent is unlike any other, intensified by jeopardy on both sides.

A gargantuan effort precedes initial contact with a potential SIS source. Requirements teams refine intelligence priorities. Data scientists comb through terabytes of information to find, in Kathy’s words, the “shimmering target” who might have the right access and, crucially, a motive to co-operate. Case officers strategise approaches, while operational risk experts plan how to get the right SIS officer in front of the person at the right moment. A team of former theatre professionals equip the officer with disguises. And after contact is made, technologists plot covert communications systems to allow agents to transmit secrets to officers.

This is where Ada and her team come in. Now in her forties, she was the first woman appointed to the role of Q at the director-general level. Tall and athletic with cropped blonde hair, Ada has a penchant for large glittering brooches in the shape of insects. These, she says, tend to draw anxious looks from industry contacts who suspect a camera or microphone hidden within. We meet in the Q lab, famously depicted in the Bond films as a cavernous underground workshop housing deconstructed Aston Martins, exploding cigarette boxes and, in recent years, giant banks of computer screens. Although I was kept well away from any prototypes during my visit, I am told that Q branch is still making high-tech “concealments” inside everyday objects, such as clocks, teacups, cufflinks and, indeed, brooches. When I ask Ada what everyday object she has used recently to hide a gadget, she says, “anything on this table, anything you can see in this room”.

Documents marked ‘SECRET’ being handed over
© Eliza Bourner

The extreme secrecy around Q’s operations is such that I am not allowed to describe any of it, even in the sparest terms. I can only observe that, given the scale of the tech threat posed by hostile countries, computers are very much in evidence. Espionage is increasingly conducted in the intangible, digital realm, using tools such as artificial intelligence. The team has its own distinct ethos, an entrepreneurialism known as “Q culture”. “You can’t talk about Q without smiling, and it’s not the film brand of Q. It’s that chutzpah, a belief that you can get stuff done,” says Ada. “It’s that exquisite balance of being really fun and deeply serious at the same time.”

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.)

As Ada describes it, the difficulties of working overseas with children are balanced by advantages. Unlike characters in films who jet off from London for urgent operations, most SIS officers are working in foreign embassies under diplomatic cover. A relatively small amount of their time is taken up with work that is operationally sensitive. “You’re given a lot of autonomy to work out how to do your job in whatever circumstance you’re in,” Ada says. “When you’re posted overseas you are, on the surface, living a very ordinary life. We get to do extraordinary things in the service of the country, but it’s really important that it looks ordinary.” Working abroad with a family has not held her back. “Being visibly pregnant can stimulate unusual conversations,” she says. “Some of the hardest negotiators have softened, talking about their hopes for their own children or the next generation.”

I suspect both male and female officers living overseas involve their families in more overt ways, such as during surveillance, far more often than they will admit. There are even historical precedents for children being present during sensitive operational duties. KGB defector Oleg Gordievsky was exfiltrated from the Soviet Union in 1985 by two British diplomats and their wives, one of whom had brought her baby. (While this has been widely reported, MI6 has never confirmed that Gordievsky was their agent.) When sniffer dogs gathered around the car at the border with Finland, the baby’s mother, concerned that they would detect the agent hidden in the boot, began a nappy change directly above where he was concealed. As she dropped the soiled bundle to the ground, the dogs fled in horror, according to an account by the author Ben Macintyre. Two decades earlier, in 1961, MI6 devised a plan for the Moscow station chief’s wife to collect intelligence from a Soviet military spy. She would meet him in a park, where he would offer the children sweets from a tin that also contained secret film canisters. When she got pregnant, a search began for another embassy spouse with “pram-age” progeny, the journalist Gordon Corera recounts. MI6 declined to comment on whether activities like these continue today.

It is hard to reconcile the family participation in these stories with the mental armour required for espionage. Ada admits that she has had to develop psychological resilience to cope with “difficult, sometimes dangerous” field work. “I have done some extraordinary things in extraordinary places. And I’ve had some difficult experiences, both professional and personal,” she says. “I’ve had times of trauma and come through the other side, with immense support from the service.” She says that, while admitting to these issues took courage, there are “no heroics” in MI6’s culture.

Rather than aping macho attributes, Ada says she has benefited during her career from being treated as a “third category”, neither male nor female. Whereas male colleagues exist primarily as “their job title”, she says, it is easier for her to create new and different relationships because, as a woman, the usual expectations “drop away”. This is useful when navigating the uncharted territory of the spy-agent relationship. “In the moments where you’re deciding to become an agent, you’re having to make thousands of risk-based calculations, but you’re not quite sure how to respond emotionally. There’s no etiquette. Ironically, it becomes a bit of a no man’s land.” In that space, women are really good at finding common ground, Ada explains. “We are the liminal ones.”

A woman stands behind curtains and peers into the darkness outside the window
© Eliza Bourner

Baroness Meta Ramsay orders a cup of Earl Grey tea and urges me to try a scone. We’re sitting in the House of Lords’ Pugin room, a wood-panelled chamber with Victorian Gothic wallpaper in curling ropes of red and gold. Ramsay is a former SIS intelligence officer now in her eighties, although the agency will neither confirm nor deny that she ever worked there. She was head of MI6’s Helsinki station at the time of Gordievsky’s escape and one of only two women who rose to a senior rank in the 1970s and 1980s. In her elegant purple cardigan, lilac blouse and amethyst brooch, Ramsay is rather like a kindly Scottish grandmother, except that her stories involve considerably more danger. She is discreet, but beneath her tales of life in the service there is real anger about the way women were treated. Both she and her great friend, Daphne Park — a fellow senior SIS officer who died in 2010 at the age of 88 — led distinguished careers but failed to reach the highest ranks. This, they suspected, was due to their gender.

Ramsay speaks in a soft Scots burr which rises audibly when I ask about SIS’s record on female officers. She feels particularly aggrieved that Park, a life-long intelligence officer who held SIS postings in Moscow, Lusaka, Hanoi and Ulan Bator, did not progress to the most senior levels. (MI6 would neither confirm nor deny it had employed Park.) “There’s no doubt in my mind that Daphne should have been at least one rung up as the deputy chief position. I can say that without any equivocation,” Ramsay says, tapping a lacquered pink fingernail on the table. Park, described unkindly in one obituary as looking “more like Miss Marple than Mata Hari”, resigned early from the service in 1979, having told a friend that she would never be promoted to SIS chief because of her gender.

By the early 1990s, Ramsay was rumoured to be in the running for the post of C, although shortlists are never publicly acknowledged. Privately, she thought the promotion of a woman to that role would still be “quite impossible”. She retired and later began a career in politics, becoming a foreign policy adviser to John Smith, Labour leader at the time. She observes that while many talented women such as Noor Inayat Khan excelled in the Special Operations Executive, a wartime secret service and sabotage unit set up in 1940, there was a long period afterwards when women ceased to be employed as intelligence officers at all. Ramsay recounts an episode in the 1970s when she came across a woman she thought would make a “perfect” agent-runner. She telephoned the head of recruitment to discuss the prospect, who told her they weren’t looking for women. “He said, ‘It would take an extraordinary gel’ — and it was the ‘gel’ that got to me — ‘to be an intelligence officer’. And I said, ‘Well, it would take an extraordinary boy too, but it hasn’t stopped you recruiting males!’”

Since SIS has yet to appoint a female chief, cultural depictions of spying have now proven more progressive than reality. It was nearly 30 years ago in GoldenEye that Judi Dench first appeared as M, the head of MI6, opposite Pierce Brosnan’s Bond. In their first meeting, she accuses him of being “a sexist, misogynist dinosaur, a relic of the cold war”. “If you think for one moment I don’t have the balls to send a man out to die, your instincts are dead wrong,” she tells him over a glass of neat Bourbon. SIS is also lagging behind MI5, which appointed its first woman director-general, Stella Rimington, in 1992 and its second, Eliza Manningham-Buller, 10 years later. Both experienced plenty of misogyny on the way up. Rimington writes in her memoir that the closest women ever got to agents in the early days of her career was tidying the safe houses and keeping them stocked with groceries.

Manningham-Buller, who has a bracingly no-nonsense manner, tells me the sexism she experienced during the 1970s was born of an infuriating paternalism. “You needed to protect the little dears. You didn’t want them to do anything dangerous,” she says. “There was a presumption that no self-respecting target, such as a KGB officer or a terrorist, would ever agree to be a human source run by a woman. Of course, apart from anything else, quite a few of the sources you want might be women in the first place.”

“I’ve had times of trauma and come through the other side, with immense support from the service.”

In fact, Manningham-Buller soon found that being a woman had operational advantages. On one occasion, she was brought in to help debrief a Russian intelligence officer in the US who had refused to speak to any of her colleagues. “He clearly thought I was a nonentity, and he started boasting about all the things he’d done,” she says. Exploiting the prejudices of your opponents can give you the upper hand. During her first visit to Russia as MI5 director-general in 2003, Manningham-Buller asked to use the bathroom and was amazed to find that Lubyanka — the headquarters of Russia’s FSB security service — had no ladies’ loo. “If your own organisation doesn’t have any women, except in a clerical capacity, you can’t imagine that other people might,” she says.

On the surface, Thames House, where MI5 is based, has a better gender balance than MI6. Women now make up 47 per cent of its staff compared with only 37 per cent in Vauxhall, according to last year’s figures. However, MI5’s median pay gap, at 19 per cent, is considerably higher than that at MI6, where it is 7 per cent. (By comparison, the UK private sector pay gap is 20 per cent.)

Even though the services have come a long way since the days of Daphne Park and Meta Ramsay, inequalities persist. A 2015 report on women spies by parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee quoted a range of anonymous women in the intelligence community discussing the office environment. One said that while there was a genuine desire for diversity among those at the top and bottom of the organisation, there was a “permafrost” at middle-management level which maintained “a very traditional male mentality and outlook”. Another working mother described “implied restrictions” on what jobs you could do after having children. These were often presented by men who assumed they were being helpful saying things like, “Oh, you wouldn’t want to do that job, that’s too much travel for a mum,” the woman said.

This is reminiscent of Rimington being told by her boss in the 1980s that, while she could run some agents, he would not allow her to recruit any relating to the deadly terror threat in Northern Ireland. He told Rimington: “A family needs its mother.”

It is a crisp, chilly day when I meet Rebecca for one of her bridge walks. The deputy head of MI6 categorises dilemmas into either “one-bridge problems” or “two-bridge problems”. The former can usually be resolved on the circuit from SIS headquarters, down Albert Embankment, left over Lambeth Bridge and back along the tree-lined colonnade to Vauxhall. More serious matters, usually intractable “people” issues, require her to continue down past the Archbishop of Canterbury’s palace and the Covid-19 memorial wall all the way to Westminster, before weaving back past the Houses of Parliament and Victoria Tower Gardens. As we walk, I am struck by Rebecca’s irrepressible chattiness. She is in her mid-fifties, with a round face, angular Cubitts spectacles and searching green-brown eyes. Her interest is intense, but unthreatening. I wonder how many people have found in this warm beam of curiosity something safe and familiar.

Curiosity about people is what drew Rebecca into spying in the first place. She is not at all brave. She “can’t do heights” and is “not mad keen on aeroplanes”. Given her vertigo, she does not even particularly like bridges. “I would not walk towards danger,” she says. “That is not me. I’m the one who, if the little rowing boat gets rocky, says, ‘Everyone out of here. This thing is going to sink.’ But I’ve realised there is physical bravery and there’s courage. And they’re quite different things.”

When Rebecca was pulled out of the Foreign Office application process in her early twenties and asked whether she wanted to be a spy, she was wary. In a large regency townhouse in Carlton Gardens, where she was invited for tea, a genial gentleman described what the job would involve. “I thought . . . the thing this chap is describing sounds quite exciting. And not in a James Bond derring-do, exciting way. I remember thinking, the psychology of this thing sounds really interesting,” she says. “The major premise of the office was to go out and bridge a cultural divide with somebody, to get that foreign person to tell us things that they wouldn’t tell a diplomat.” She asked him why potential sources would do that, noting she wouldn’t do the same. “He said, ‘They do it because it’s the right thing to do and it aligns with who they are, and you’re the person who’s found that out.’” The pitch was irresistible, and she joined in a “heady rush”.

An open, black suitcase with a passport and other items
© Eliza Bourner

There is something pure in Rebecca’s view of spycraft. She seems uninterested in the theatre, the deceptions, the disguise. “One of the reasons why I don’t actually watch many of these films . . . [is that] I get halfway through and I just think, oh my god, this is so boring! If they actually really knew, it’s so much more interesting!” she says. “It’s quite dull to be draped all over someone and flashing all your bits. The reality is a zillion times more interesting than that.” For her, “working out the missing pieces to a jigsaw puzzle . . . the bits of information that explain why countries do things or why particular hostile leaders might have the intent they do . . . sitting down with someone over a couple of hours’ meeting . . . and finding that out together, I mean that’s magic.”

Reaching this point was not easy. Rebecca joined SIS in a cohort of 11; only one other recruit was female. The rules at the time still required that her fiancé be vetted and, recently while going through old papers, she found her “permission to marry” form. In the 1990s, she became, by accident, something of a trailblazer when she was one of the first to have a baby overseas. She had three months of maternity leave, during which she was still expected to maintain contact with agents, leaving her husband with the baby while she went out for evening meetings. Parental benefits have come a long way, with more generous paid leave and up to a year of unpaid leave as well. Cover staff are posted out to handle agent relationships during maternity absences, and “it doesn’t put the burden nearly as much on the individual”, she says.

When her children were teenagers, Rebecca decided to tell them that she was a spy. “They were super sensible, and I judged the information wasn’t going to be a burden for them, that they wouldn’t tell everybody.” While some spies choose never to tell their kids, she wanted them to know the “peculiar demands” on her working life.

Our walk continues past the House of Lords, where Rebecca, a passionate gardener, pauses to snap off a head of fennel seeds from a desiccated stem. She wraps it neatly in a tissue and puts it in her handbag to plant later. She has tried, as the deputy, to nurture talented women. But there are still not as many applications from women for senior jobs as she’d like. While diversity is the mantra of many organisations, she argues that for SIS, it is critical. “There is no line of business that needs difference of perspective more than ours does,” she says. “There’s never one perfect way of doing something. We need more women. We need more ethnic minorities. We need more people who have come up through completely different social routes.” To this end, MI6 has tried targeting recent female university graduates and even posted an advert on Mumsnet, the online parenting forum, appealing for people with “creativity, insight, curiosity, empathy and intuition” to consider working as intelligence officers.

Rebecca is sure that a woman will be in the running to be the next C, even if she herself will not be on the shortlist. (While I was writing this piece, Rebecca retired from MI6. She was the first woman to be appointed deputy chief, and the post, filled at C’s discretion, is now vacant.) She worries that women are still excluding themselves from intelligence work “because they think, I’m not the image you see on the television of the spy”.

But the cultural depictions are changing. In the most recent film, No Time to Die, Bond is replaced by a brilliant, black, female SIS officer who regards him as sleazy and frankly geriatric. Even le Carré suggested in a 2008 New Yorker essay that MI6’s intelligence failures in Iraq — the service’s most excruciating episode since Kim Philby was exposed as a Soviet double agent half a century before — were partly the fault of an ossified, male arrogance: “Were wise women present when the notorious and acutely embarrassing Iraq Dossier . . . was composed?” he asked. “It’s the men who are mostly to blame.”

The most interesting things about spies are the things they cannot talk about. The more time I spend with Rebecca, Kathy and Ada, the more I want to ask them. But I am not allowed to know much about either the highs or the lows of their careers. I do not know how many terrorist plots they have foiled or which operations make them feel the proudest. I am not told about the risks agents take and how many have died working for SIS, or how that feels. They will not tell me about the ethical trade-offs they have to make under pressure or how close they have come to capture or physical harm.

Of all our conversations, those about the dangers of the job are the most awkward. Kathy, who has worked in conflict zones, says she has “never felt” like she was risking her life. Further probing does not reveal much. “You’re sitting in a hotel room wondering who the knock on the door is going to be, and whether it’s going to be the person you expect and hope, or whether it’s somebody else, like a local police service,” she explains. “So there’s probably a nervous energy rather than a fear for your physical safety.”

Even for a self-confessed optimist, there is a sense of unreality about how Kathy describes her work. “I very rarely feel stressed in my job,” she tells me on one occasion. Rebecca says simply: “I’ve had terrible days, but I’ve never had a boring one.” 

These three women must be some of the best in their field, but I have no idea what this has cost them or their families. Many successful women spies, I am told, are single. Others struggle to balance the demands of a life overseas with their partners’ careers and their children’s education. This is not just true for women – and men – working in intelligence, but for those in many other expatriate jobs. Do the knife-edge recruitments, the foreign adventures and the satisfaction of thwarted plots make up for the everyday lies, the dangers, the secrets held from your loved ones? Even if women make excellent spies, how many would want to do this work, and why?

Ada comes the closest to answering. At the end of our interview she takes off her Q lanyard, pries her security pass from its holder and shows me a dog-eared card hidden underneath. A passage from Teddy Roosevelt’s “Citizenship in a Republic” speech is printed on it. It is not the critic who counts, the former president told his audience in 1910, but the man “who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly . . . who, at the best, knows in the end the triumph of high achievement and, who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly”.

I feel I finally understand what it is to be a spy: a doer rather than a talker, a fighter rather than an observer. I say goodbye to Ada, descend in the lifts, cross the lobby to the airlock gates, hand my security badge to my escort and walk out past the guards. It is only when I am disgorged on to the darkening street that I realise the protagonist in the motivational speech is yet another male myth born of privilege. Another James Bond, another George Smiley, another fiction glorifying what Roosevelt called “the men who quell the storm and ride the thunder”. If there is to be any real equality for the women who spy for their country, then they must wrest it from the past. It is time for a new story.

Helen Warrell is the FT’s assistant opinion editor and former defence & security editor

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