WOMEN helped change MI5 and the image of the service for the better, says former director general Dame Stella Rimington.
The Edinburgh University graduate was speaking to an audience of 1,200 women at the annual Soroptimist International Great Britain & Ireland conference in Glasgow and argued that “female skills” were essential to recruiting “human sources”.
Women from 23 countries attended the gathering focusing on efforts to inspire and aid others around the globe.
Dame Stella, the first female director general of MI5 from 1992 to 1996 and now a best-selling author of spy thrillers, said over time women changed the intelligence service and brought it into the open.
She said: “Being a woman did manage to change the picture, it certainly changed the internal dynamics of MI5, which was moving on rapidly and by the time I left there were women doing all the work of the service. And it changed the image of the service in the world outside I think. And that was all very much for the better. And it set the foundation for the greater openness that we now see, with the now director general going on the Today programme and being interviewed and all this debate now about new legislation.”
She added: “When I joined MI5, there was no legislation at all - no law covering what we did, and now the world is completely different.”
Dame Stella outlined many examples through the decades of her career of not only being the first female in various posts but also the gradual changes in how MI5 operated and reacted to the world.
She said: “What MI5 tried to do was gather intelligence in all the classic ways - and they’re still the same ways now, even though the world has changed completely - by intercepting communications, by following people around, but by recruiting people, human sources.
“And human sources are still very important, even though the world is radically changed. So the one thing that it was a given that women could not do was recruit and run human sources.
“When you think about it, that is actually quite ridiculous, because the kind of qualities that you need to recruit and run human sources who by definition will be put in difficult and dangerous situations, because you’re trying to recruit the terrorist, say, to turn around and tell you what’s going on. . .
“And it needs just those kind of skills that we now talk about as the female skills: empathy, the ability to listen, sympathy, the general warmth as well I think as a degree of ruthlessness, which I always regarded as a female quality too.”
The conference also heard from Green & Blacks chocolate founder Jo Fairley and the Princess Royal.