By Robert Windrem, Investigative Reporter, NBC News
When John Brennan sits down at his daily 8:30 a.m. senior staff meeting at CIA headquarters, America's top spy sees something none of his predecessors ever saw.
On Brennan’s left is Avril Haines, deputy director of the CIA -- and a woman. On his right, is Meroe Park, executive director of the agency -- also a woman. In a third chair at the seventh-floor conference room table sits Director of Intelligence Fran Moore, the CIA’s chief analyst -- yes, a woman.
In fact, on most days, says Moore, the majority of the two dozen people in the room are women. Aided by her longtime colleague Sue Gordon, the CIA’s director of support, Moore ticked off the titles of the agency’s new female elite – but not their names, some of which are classified.
"So our deputy director, our executive director, our chief information officer, our director of support, our director for intelligence, our H.R. director...
Sue took over. "Our deputy chief financial officer," added Gordon, "the chief of staff . . ."
“On any given day,” said Moore, “you can have women in just about any chair."
As recently as 20 years ago, there were no women in the upper ranks of the CIA. Now three of the top four officers and five of the top eight are women, and when Director Brennan’s out of the country, Avril Haines runs the show. An agency that once oozed machismo is now almost half female, and has become the home of “the Sisterhood,” the powerful band of women who tracked bin Laden to his hideout.
"I want to attract the best and brightest here to CIA.'s very complex and very important mission," Brennan told Ann Curry of NBC News, explaining his motivation for encouraging the rise of women. "I want people who have experience of living overseas, of knowing other languages, of expertise in particular types of technology, who have a thirst for learning, who have a thirst for understanding the world and how it is evolving."
The attitude may have been a little different during the first few decades of the agency’s life. Founded in 1947, the CIA has always had more women than most Fortune 500 companies. In the 1950s, when the payrolls of private companies were 30 percent female, the CIA’s tally was 40 percent.
The executive and undercover ranks, however, were largely closed to women. In 1992, the overall number was still 40 percent, but females were still rare in the most important and sensitive jobs. Only 10 percent of upper management was female, and the number was lower for the clandestine services.
Now nearly half of the total workforce, 46 percent, is female. But the more telling statistics are by department. Forty-seven percent of the agency’s intelligence analysts are women, and 59 percent of the support staff, which handles everything from security to communications to safe houses, is female. Among the agency’s actual spies – the undercover operatives in the National Clandestine Service -- the figure has risen to 40 percent.
Most importantly, CIA women have taken on critical roles, from leading the "targeting teams" that helped take down al Qaeda’s leader to serving as station chiefs in sensitive locations. Women now make up a third of the agency's senior staff, triple the level of 20 years ago.
The CIA is intensely proud of those developments, recently sponsoring a multimedia event at Smith College to honor the women of the CIA, called "From Typists to Trailblazers." The last two directors, Brennan and his predecessor, Gen. David Petraeus, are mainly responsible for the influx of women in the executive conference room.
But amid the milestones, there have been stumbling blocks. Gordon, who will soon assume the newly created position of agency cyber czar, recalls one of her early assignments in the clandestine service.
"I was selected to go to an assignment in the field that involved some physical exertion,” she said. “We went into a small room, and there was a suitcase sitting in the corner. There were four of us, three guys and me. And they said, 'Pick up that suitcase,' to me."
Gordon, a 6-foot former power forward on the Duke University women’s basketball team, picked up the suitcase, and said, “What?”
“And then [one of the men] said, 'Can you carry it up five flights of stairs with 70 pounds of equipment on your back?' And I said, ‘I'm pretty sure I can.’ And he said, 'Well, OK.' And I'm like, 'Are you gonna ask the guys?' And he's like, 'No, I'm pretty sure they can.' I'm like, 'No way. Fred no way can carry that upstairs'."
Moore said that in the first decade of her career, the ‘90s, the glass ceiling was still low and barely cracked.
"Marriage by itself was not an issue," she noted. "But if you intended to have children that maybe you wouldn't be able to give your all. And it became clear to me that there were more subtle issues like that.”
One former high-ranking CIA official, who had a seat at the director’s morning meeting during the 1990s, said he personally had difficulty getting women appointed to senior management. There was, he said, a sharp gender divide.
“The guys in power regarded one woman as too aggressive,” said the official. “She viewed them as bureaucrats conditioned to bring caution to power. “
In 1994, women in the Clandestine Service, the CIA’s most secret ranks, filed a charge of sexual discrimination with the agency’s equal employment office. The CIA ultimately settled and agreed to pay several hundred women more than $1 million and make changes to its promotional practices.
But then women began to rise in the ranks, and as they did, said Moore, they started to change the culture. The CIA started to improve its work/life balance, which benefited both male and female employees.
"It's a collaborative effort to do the work, but it has to be a collaborative effort to make the work/life balance work too," she said. "So if you have to go pick up your child, we need to make sure there's somebody else that can stay -- to make sure that your piece gets through the product-review process before it ends up on the president's desk tomorrow."
The payoff is the success of the mission, particularly the agency’s biggest modern coup. Osama Bin Laden, like other al Qaeda leaders like Abu Musab al Zarqawi of Iraq, was caught by a so-called "Sisterhood" of al Qaeda specialists.
Nada Bakos, who led the Zarqawi "targeting team" and is now writing a book on the role of women in the war on al Qaeda, recalls that three quarters of the officers who worked for her were female. They not only tracked his whereabouts, but his finances, his followers, and his international ambitions, including where he wanted to strike. Ultimately, said Bakos, after false leads, near-misses and "lots of frustration," Zarqawi was killed in a U.S. air strike in June 2006.
The rise of women, particularly in the fight against al Qaeda, has not been without cost. In 2009, two senior women officers were among seven who were killed in an attack by an al Qaeda double agent at Camp Chapman near Khost, Afghanistan.
But the CIA’s women have advanced so far that there’s only one job left to covet. What about a woman in the big chair at those 8:30 meetings?
"If I step out of this building today and get hit by a truck, there's gonna be an acting director who happens to be a woman," said Brennan. "And I am so glad that Avril Haines is the deputy because I have supreme confidence that if for whatever reason I wasn't able to discharge my duties tomorrow, Avril would be able to step in. And this mission, this organization would not lose a beat."
More from NBC News Investigations: