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Associated Press
A female Secret Service agent introduces herself to Chicago Police outside the home of then-Sen. Barack Obama in Chicago in May 2007.

Wanted: More female agents

Secret Service scandal revives diversity issue

– Secret Service agents are often 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 that 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, spokesman Ed Donovan said. 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 unfolded two weeks ago when a dispute over payment between a prostitute and Secret Service officer spilled into a hotel hallway.

The agency on Friday announced stricter measures, including assigning chaperones on some trips to enforce new rules of conduct for agents and employees.

Paige Pinson, 45, spent 15 years with the agency and her father, W. Ralph Basham, is a former director. She said it wasn’t the culture that encouraged her to forgo her agent’s position. After all, male agents were loyal to each other and fiercely protective of her. She’d drink alongside them at bars and laughed at the “groupies” who fawned over their status.

It was, instead, the birth of her first child that inspired her to seek a less travel-intensive analyst’s position. She left the agency in 2009.

“You do miss birthdays, you do miss Christmas, and you miss piano recitals,” Pinson said, “and maybe women are just more sensitive to that than men can be.”

Cavorting with prostitutes on the job isn’t all that different from holding a business meeting in a topless joint: Both are hypersexualized activities that some men may condone but are bound to make women uncomfortable, said Donna Milgram, executive director of the National Institute for Women in Trades, Technology and Science.

“Whenever you have a culture in which it’s accepted that sexual activity as has been described is part of that culture – i.e. using local prostitutes – that is not going to be a culture in which women are going to be want to be in,” said Milgram, who has advised law enforcement agencies on recruiting and retaining women. “Those are generally not cultures that want to have women.”

Other incidents over the past 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 story in U.S. News & World Report contained allegations of heavy drinking, pornography viewing at work and security lapses.

The Secret Service began adding women in the early 1970s, said Joseph Petro, who joined in 1971 and a co-author of “Standing Next to History: An Agent’s Life Inside the Secret Service.” Recruits were expected to prove themselves.

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 genteel and respectable enough that Petro said he always felt comfortable bringing his wife and daughter on trips to former President Ronald Reagan’s ranch in Santa Barbara, Calif.

How much the latest debacle 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.”