Lack of women in Secret Service?

Prostitution scandal may be shedding light on gender gap

Just 11 percent of Secret Service agents and uniformed officers are female, and the recent Colombia prostitution scandal involving the agency could damage efforts to close the gender gap. Here, an agent introduces herself to Chicago Police in May 2007 outside the home of then-Democratic Sen. Barack Obama. Enlarge photo

CHARLES REX ARBOGAST/Associated Press file photo

Just 11 percent of Secret Service agents and uniformed officers are female, and the recent Colombia prostitution scandal involving the agency could damage efforts to close the gender gap. Here, an agent introduces herself to Chicago Police in May 2007 outside the home of then-Democratic Sen. Barack Obama.

WASHINGTON – Secret Service agents often are portrayed in popular culture as disciplined, unflappable, loyal – and male. A spiraling prostitution scandal that has highlighted the dearth of women in the agency that protects the president and dignitaries has many wondering: Would more females in the ranks prevent future dishonor?

Only about a tenth of field agents and uniformed officers are women, a shortage some attribute to travel demands that can be especially taxing on women balancing families and careers. A scandal that risks portraying the agency as unfriendly to women, however, could set back efforts to close the gender gap.

“I can’t help but think that there would be some progress if there was more diversity and if there were more women that were there,” said Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. “When you have a diversity of people there, it brings more accountability. What you see is a lack of accountability in this.”

Women make up about 25 percent of the agency’s workforce, but only about 11 percent of agents and uniformed officers, said spokesman Ed Donovan. That’s significantly lower than the 19 percent of female special agents in the FBI, though higher than the 9.7 percent of special agents who are women in the Drug Enforcement Administration. The Secret Service does not provide gender breakdowns on the agents assigned to presidential details, though women have been included on those assignments for years.

The agency has aggressively recruited women, targeting female-oriented career fairs and sending brochures to colleges.

“We all recognize that we want to get more women into the Secret Service,” Donovan said.

But that wasn’t easy even before the prostitution embarrassment in Colombia, which arose the morning of April 12 when a Secret Service officer and a prostitute publicly argued about payment in a hotel hallway. A dozen Secret Service employees and a dozen military personnel have been implicated.

Although Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said it appeared to be isolated, the agency has since confirmed it’s investigating if employees hired prostitutes and strippers ahead of President Barack Obama’s visit to El Salvador last year.Other incidents over the last 15 years haven’t helped the Secret Service come off as welcoming to women. Emails filed as part of a race-discrimination lawsuit show workers sharing racially and sexually inappropriate jokes. An alcohol-soaked bar brawl involving off-duty agents in 2002 involved allegations that an agent had bitten off part of a man’s ear – though no charges were brought and a jury sided with the agent in a civil trial. A 2002 U.S. News & World Report contained allegations of heavy drinking, pornography viewing at work and security lapses.

Some former agents acknowledge a close-knit atmosphere where employees travel, dine and socialize together – sometimes in the form of so-called “wheels-up” parties held in foreign countries after the departure of a president or other person under protection. But they say the prostitution scandal does not represent a cultural problem or reflect a broader disdain for women.

The Secret Service began adding women in the early 1970s, as returning Vietnam War veterans signed up in bunches. Just as they do now, agents prided themselves on being physically strong and on a strict selection process for the presidential detail, said Joseph Petro, who joined in 1971 and is co-author of “Standing Next to History: An Agent’s Life Inside the Secret Service.” New recruits were expected to prove themselves.

“We wanted to look at them – see what kind of shape they were in, how they fit, what their manner was. That goes on – and it should,” said Petro, who after Vietnam spent 23 years with the agency as an agent and manager, helping protect Reagan.

Some women had it tough in the early years, he recalled, bumping up against “hard-headed” men who had never worked with women. But some found niches through special skills, like horseback riding, and the atmosphere was comfortable and respectable enough that Petro said he always felt comfortable bringing his wife and daughter on trips to Reagan’s ranch in Santa Barbara.

“There were a couple of guys who brought their wives and kids,” Petro said. “That puts the brake on a lot of things.”

In the latest debacle, the Secret Service has forced eight employees from their jobs and was seeking to revoke the security clearance of another employee, which would effectively force him to resign. Three others have been cleared of serious wrongdoing. How much it sets back efforts to recruit women may depend on the pervasiveness of inappropriate behavior, Milgram said.

“It’s a way of operating,” she said, “that I think most of us would consider a way that was left behind 30 years ago.”