The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Women underrepresented in key jobs at FBI, DEA, ATF and Marshals Service

FBI agents look for evidence at a park in Alexandria, Va., on June 15, 2017. A gunman shot Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) and four others at the Park on June 14. (Bonnie Jo Mount/Washington Post)

Female FBI agents, DEA agents, ATF agents and deputy marshals are still distinct minorities in the ranks of law enforcement, according to a new audit that also found women are rarely promoted to key jobs at the nation’s premier law enforcement agencies.

Justice Department Inspector General Michael E. Horowitz issued a report Tuesday detailing stark differences between how women and men are employed in federal law enforcement.

In 2016, women comprised just 16 percent of criminal investigators employed at the agencies — even though women account for 57 percent of the rest of the agencies’ workforce.

Within the work cultures of those agencies, criminal investigators — special agents or deputy marshals — are widely regarded as the most important and influential employees, and the ones most likely to receive big promotions.

The numbers vary by agency. At the FBI, about 1 in 5 special agents are women. The ratio is about 1 in 10 for deputy marshals.

Women dominate other parts of federal law enforcement agencies. For instance, 84 percent of human resources specialists are women, the review found. And slightly more than half of intelligence analysts are women.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the inspector general found that most men at the agencies see the issue very differently than their female co-workers.

“We found that a majority of male staff, but a minority of female staff, felt their component was gender equitable and/or that gender equity was improving,” the report concluded. “Specifically, female criminal investigators believed that there was ongoing gender discrimination in their agencies or offices. A significant number of women across agencies and position types reported in our survey, interviews, and focus groups that they had experienced gender discrimination and differing treatment in some form, including in promotions and other workplace opportunities.”

Auditors were troubled that both men and women at the law enforcement agencies reported a general belief that “personnel decisions were driven more by ‘who you know’ than merit,” the report said.

While the number of female investigators remains low, it is even smaller within the senior ranks at most of the agencies. “We found that very few women headed larger offices,” the report found.

Among large field offices studied from 2011 to 2016, the study found one Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) office was led by a woman, one Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) office was led by two different women at different times, and two Marshals Service offices were led by women. The review found that of the four agencies, the Marshals tended to have the highest percentage of women in senior positions.

At the 29 largest FBI field offices, seven were led by women but only in two of the years studied.

“Further, the number of large field offices headed by [women] steadily decreased,” the inspector general found — from seven in 2013 to just one in 2016.

As a result, the inspector general recommended the agencies do more to recruit women, study what internal barriers may exist to promoting women and reduce those barriers. The inspector general’s office said it was generally satisfied that the agencies are working on those issues.

“We agree it is important to address the concerns and negative perceptions related to gender equity within the various DOJ law enforcement components, for the FBI to identify and address any barriers for women in hiring and promotion activities,” FBI acting section chief Thomas Seiler wrote in response to the report.

The Marshals Service said it hoped to be given authority to make its rules more flexible to hire more women but said there is no discrimination.

“Once on-board, no ‘glass ceiling’ or barriers exist that prevent women from advancing in the criminal investigator position or other professional series,” the agency said in a statement, noting that at the Marshals Service, the percentage of women in higher positions of authority doesn’t shrink the way it does at other agencies.