FBI agents work the scene of an attack on the Armed Forces Career Center in Chattanooga, Tenn., on July 16, 2015. (Tami Chappell/Reuters)
Columnist

Two new reports show how hard it is for women to shoot through Uncle Sam’s glass ceiling, even when they carry guns.

Studies by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Justice Department’s inspector general demonstrate that in federal public safety and law enforcement occupations, it’s still a man’s world — and men can be oblivious to the barriers they erect for women.

While “the majority of men in our focus groups and interviews told us that they had not previously thought about gender equity or discrimination,” the inspector general’s report said, “many women, especially Criminal Investigators, described their experiences with discrimination and gender bias in a manner that showed how significant and personal this topic was to them.”

This comment from Inspector General Michael Horowitz shows the degree of gender discrepancies: “In 2016, women held over 57 percent of non-Criminal Investigator positions, but they only held 16 percent of Criminal Investigator positions. And during the 6-year period we examined, there were few women leading field offices, field divisions, or districts in the four law enforcement components, and even fewer in headquarters executive positions leading operational units.”

And this EEOC finding: “Customs and Border Protection (CBP) had no women serving in the position of Customs and Border Protection Interdiction, and women comprised only 5% of Border Patrol Agents.”

Why are there so few women in these positions?

Ingrained sexism and gender discrimination come to mind.

After meeting with focus group participants, the EEOC offered more nuanced explanations. Its findings point to:

  • “Lack of work-life balance for women in public safety positions”
  • “Misperceptions that women are uncomfortable with carrying firearms”
  • “Misperceptions that women are uncomfortable with physically strenuous job functions”
  • “Hiring officials’ concerns that women cannot meet rigorous fitness exam requirements”
  • “Too few initiatives that are aimed at the recruitment of women”

Federally Employed Women, with the apt acronym “FEW,” said “misperceptions are issues that women have faced for a very long time. Gender bias does have a negative impact on developing initiatives that are aimed at the recruitment of qualified women for positions in law enforcement and other areas that are physically demanding.”

FEW’s president, Wanda Killingsworth, added that other departments should look to the Pentagon.

“The military is quickly becoming an example of how change can occur with women being instrumental in combat and exceeding in rank as officers,” she said.

The Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association did not reply to a request for comment.

Uncle Sam thinks himself a model employer. But he’s not there yet.

“One step to becoming a model employer,” the EEOC said, “is eliminating any barriers for protected groups to employment or advancement.”

Eliminating any barriers against women will take a long time in a male-empowered society. But the EEOC recommended steps agencies can take, including:

  • “Coordinating a Government-wide cadet program”
  • “Targeting outreach as early as the grade-school level”
  • “Targeting recruitment of women at the college level”
  • “Increasing the visibility of women recruiters”
  • “Setting diversity strategy goals tied to recruitment and hiring”
  • “Making an administration-wide push”
  • “Using one-stop, one-day hiring processes”
  • “Using social media”

The EEOC noted that not all agencies are failing to hire adequate numbers of women. The Interior Department’s Fish and Wildlife Service is “to be emulated,” the EEOC said, because 66 percent of its park rangers are women — “the highest female participation rate among public safety agencies.”

Emulating Fish and Wildlife might open the eyes of Justice Department men who think everything is fair.

Most male staffers thought their agencies were “gender-equitable,” according to IG interviews, focus groups and anonymous surveys. But they are blind to what women see.

While nearly two-thirds, 63 percent, “of men reported that their agency had a gender-equitable culture, only 40 percent of women and, more specifically, only 33 percent of female criminal investigators, reported that their agency was gender equitable,” the IG found.

“Further, a significant number of women across agencies and position types reported that they had experienced gender discrimination and differing treatment in some form, including in promotions and other career-enhancing opportunities,” according to the IG’s office. “Staff members from across agencies, position types, and genders told us they believed that personnel decisions, including promotions, were based more on personal relationships than merit.”

More than 40 percent of female criminal investigators said they had experienced gender discrimination in the previous five years.

A CBP statement said the agency “will continue to refine all phases of its process and find better, more effective ways to recruit, hire, and retain frontline personnel.  In addition to reinforcing the momentum of our many outreach and process efficiency efforts, we are exploring innovative practices regarding incentives and mobility options that will enhance our recruitment prospects and improve our workforce attrition rates.”

Each of the Justice Department’s law enforcement agencies — the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Marshals Service — agreed to the IG’s recommendations. The recommendations included identifying agency barriers to workforce equity, generating strategies and goals to address the barriers, developing plans to track and analyze demographic data on applicants and new hires, implementing methods to improve objectivity and transparency in the promotion process,and creating “methods to address perceptions of stigmatization and retaliation associated with the Equal Employment Opportunity complaint process.”

Agreeing to the recommendations is lip service. Acting counts.

“Although the components are taking steps to develop and implement recruitment plans designed to increase the diversity of their agencies, we found that they have not identified all the barriers to recruiting women that their individual agencies may face,” the IG report said. “Unless they tailor their efforts specifically to address their component’s barriers to recruiting women, these efforts may have limited success.”

Read more:

[#MeToo, #NoMore, now #HowMuch? What is the cost of sexual harassment?]

[Federal agency reports show ‘continuum of harm’ from workplace sexual misconduct]

[Uncle Sam is a slacker in policing sexual misconduct in agencies]