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Why a female Secret Service leader matters

President Barack Obama shakes hands with the new director of the U.S. Secret Service, Julia Pierson. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

President Obama on Tuesday named the first woman to lead the Secret Service. Julia Pierson, a 30-year veteran of the agency and current chief of staff to retiring director Mark Sullivan, will be appointed to the position, which does not require Senate confirmation.

The news would garner little more than a few “that’s great for women” nods, if it weren’t for the agency’s recent past. Last year, the Secret Service became embroiled in a highly embarrassing scandal after several agents brought prostitutes to their hotel rooms while preparing for the president’s visit to Cartagena, Colombia. In its aftermath, the reported “wheels up, rings off” motto became fodder for stories about in the agency. The Secret Service is frequently described now with the modifiers “macho” or “male dominated.”

Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section. View Archive

As a result, Pierson’s appointment will be seen by many — fairly or not — as an attempt to correct such a culture. Of course, some will say that her gender shouldn’t matter at all. What matters will be her record at modernizing the agency’s infrastructure and, of course, protecting the president, his family and other leaders.

I agree that should surely matter most. But here’s the thing: Her gender does make a difference.

I’m not saying I think it’s why she got the job. Although some agents have questioned Pierson’s in-the-trenches experience, this is the person the president has chosen to run the organization protecting his family — I highly doubt he would make a token pick of someone not eminently qualified for the job. I’m also not saying that putting a woman at the top of the agency is the only way to change a reportedly boy’s-club culture. There are surely plenty of ethical, integrity-driven male leaders who could transform the agency equally well.

But having a woman lead the Secret Service will have an impact. It’s a historic choice that is getting plenty of attention, which should help to promote the number of women in the agency’s ranks. According to a story in the Washington Post from last April, roughly 90 percent of Secret Service agents are men, and about 75 percent of the agency’s entire workforce is male. Whether or not Pierson herself actually promotes more women, her position should help attract more to work there, creating a greater pool of female candidates for leadership roles. It should also remind women already in the agency that they, too, can reach for positions of power.

Now, I doubt Pierson will change the Secret Service’s so-called “male-dominated” culture overnight. The only way to do so is to insist on infallible ethical standards among the force and, as part of the current leadership, she may not be able to bust up agency norms the same way an outsider could. But over time, Pierson’s appointment should at least help to bring in more women-and more women as leaders — who will, if their numbers are big enough, put their own imprint on the culture.

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