Secret Service needs more women in its ranks

Joe Davidson
Columnist April 24, 2012

Maybe the Secret Service has too much testosterone.

Would more female agents have made the sex scandal involving special agents and Colombian prostitutes less likely?

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about the federal workplace that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. View Archive

No one can answer that with any certainty, but the scandal does raise the issue of gender diversity among those who are willing to die for the president. There is very little diversity among them — about 90 percent of Secret Service agents are men.

The probability of the scandal happening “would have been reduced significantly” if there were more women on the Cartagena detail, said Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.).

Greater gender diversity can set a different tone in “recreational liberties,” said Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.)

Ironically, the first agent to investigate the scandal was a woman. Paula Reid, the special agent in charge of the Miami office who was in Cartagena at the time, ordered the offending personnel home.

Maloney cited a former agent quoted in Sunday’s Washington Post who said: “If every boss was Paula Reid, the Secret Service would never have a problem. It would be a lot more boring, but never a problem.”

Barbara Riggs was the agency’s highest-ranking female, deputy director, until her retirement in 2006 after 31 years of service. She said there’s no way to know whether more women in Cartagena would have made a difference, adding the question “does a disservice to men who serve honorably.”

When she joined the agency, women carrying guns was still a novel idea. The first woman in what is now the agency’s Uniformed Division was hired in 1970. The first five female special agents were sworn in the next year.

Of course, women also can act like “knuckleheads” — President Obama’s word. But there aren’t many of them to act good, bad or in any other way as agents in a force that still looks like a fraternity, a brotherhood, a good ol’ boys club.

It’s a status the agency says it wants to shake.

Diversity “is a continued agency priority that is critical to our success,” says its Web site, which also promotes “a comprehensive, proactive, model Equal Opportunity Program that is integrated into the agency’s mission.”

The agency runs the expected recruitment and diversity routes, but it doesn’t have many women to show for it.

Edwin M. Donovan, a special agent and spokesman for the agency, said its recruitment division targets pools of candidates in an effort to better diversify its workforce. Agency officials have engaged an outside recruitment service to find female applicants, and recruiters visit women’s colleges and participate in dozens of career fairs that focus on women.

Of those employed, seven of 45 special agents in charge of field offices are women, as are four deputy assistant directors out of 20. The chief of staff is a woman. About 25 percent of the whole workforce is female.

Those stats aren’t good, but at least they are a little better than the 11 percent women that Donovan said is the case with special agents.

So why is its record so bad?

Riggs cites the tremendous toll the job takes on personal lives.

“Being a special agent in the Secret Service, it’s not just a job, it’s not just a career,” she said. “It’s a lifestyle.”

The protection mission separates it even from other high-stress law-enforcement gigs.

“That requires people to be away from home for a significant amount of time,” she added. “There are some people who don’t want to make that commitment.” Particularly for women who are primary caregivers, “that’s a difficult position to be in.”

The 11 percent is a difficult position for the agency to be in.

“That doesn’t reflect America, and once you look at the overlay of race. . . . The Secret Service still has some work to do,” said Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.).

He recalled a visit to the agency training facility in Laurel where “there was not a single African American in the class, maybe two Hispanics and a few women. . . . It was so shocking . . . virtually devoid of diversity, whether it was gender or race.”

Black agents filed a racial bias lawsuit against the agency in 2000. It’s still active litigation.

Riggs said the percentage of female agents steadily increased when she was on the job. But then, “it hit that 11 or 12 percent and just plateaued.”

That plateau is not a great place to be.

“They need to be aggressive in their outreach,” Jackson Lee said. “They need to do more.”

Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson. Follow the Federal Diary on Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP

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