Despite expanding rapidly over the past two decades, federal law enforcement agencies remain almost as male-dominated as they were during the Clinton administration, according to a new POLITICO survey — the first to assess the gender gap in federal law enforcement in nearly a decade. In 1996, women held about 14 percent of the country’s federal law enforcement jobs; today, women represent just 15 percent. At this rate, it will be 700 years before women hold half of these jobs.
From Customs and Border Protection to the Secret Service, large agencies are trundling along in a sort of time machine, with men dominating the ranks in ways they no longer do across the rest of government or even many large police departments. On a percentage basis, there are now more female members of Congress than female officers at the Drug Enforcement Administration.
The lowest ratio of all belongs to the Border Patrol. Just 5 percent of its agents are female, which means the Border Patrol employs fewer women than the U.S. Marines (at 8 percent). The active-duty military has three times as many women as the Border Patrol, on a proportional basis (at 16 percent).
There is no conclusive evidence that women are any better or worse at policing than men. Some studies have shown that women are less likely to be involved in police shootings or to prompt a complaint from civilians, but most of those studies are dated and the sample sizes are very small. As most cops will tell you, training and supervision matter more than biology, and the variation between individuals is much greater than between genders.
But there is reason to believe that a law enforcement agency that does not remotely resemble the population it serves risks losing the trust of those people. After last year’s presidential election, Hillary Clinton and others have accused former FBI Director James Comey of bowing to pressure from the bureau’s conservative New York City field office when he reopened an investigation into her private-server emails days before the election. Some critics noted that the claim might be easier to dismiss if the Bureau were not 80 percent male and 80 percent white.
Beyond symbolism, these imbalances also raise questions about the competence of these agencies. At the most obvious level, female agents are needed to do invasive searches of women — a not-uncommon occurrence at the border in particular (and one reason why Israel’s Border Guard Police has nearly 25 percent women). In other agencies, female officers are critical for undercover work. Most importantly, any organization that fails to engage half the population in its hiring is leaving behind serious talent.
Somewhat surprisingly, given the agency’s paltry percentage of female agents, the Border Patrol’s newest acting chief is a woman — for the first time in the agency’s 93-year history. Carla Provost is a veteran agent who commands respect up and down the ranks, and has vowed to do better. “There’s more we can do to recruit women,” she told POLITICO in an interview in her office in Washington this fall. “The more women, the more African-Americans, the more different groups — it just makes us better.”
Agents who don’t fit the stereotype can defuse tense situations, she says. “There’s a different approach when a female agent comes onto the scene,” Provost says. “I experienced this myself. In stressful situations, sometimes it’s a calming effect.” But the agency’s history suggests change will be difficult. When Provost started as a new agent 22 years ago, the Border Patrol had 5 percent women—the same ratio it has today.
At the other end of the spectrum, the most gender-balanced outfits include federal probation and pretrial services, whose officers are perfectly balanced at 50 percent women, as well as IRS special agents and various offices of inspectors general, which boast 28 percent women or more. But at the largest federal law enforcement agencies, the percentages of women have barely changed since the last such survey, conducted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics in 2008.
Coming at a time when the Department of Justice has been urging local police departments to diversify their own ranks, this enduring imbalance is ironic — and a little mysterious.
Overall, the federal government is unusually equitable when it comes to gender. Women hold 43 percent of the jobs and more than a third of the leadership roles. Female government executives actually earn slightly more than their male counterparts.
It’s no surprise that more men go into law enforcement than women, but that doesn’t explain why the San Diego and Detroit police departments have more women on a percentage basis than the FBI. There seems to be something uniquely intractable about federal law enforcement, suggesting a problem beyond the simple math of gender equality. Combined, federal law enforcement agencies represent a police force almost three times the size of the New York City Police Department, with vast powers to arrest and detain civilians. The more skewed their demographics, generally speaking, the less effective they will be.
“I do think people want the government to look like them,” says Julie Myers Wood, the former head of Immigration and Customs Enforcement under President George W. Bush. “On the cases I worked, sometimes the strongest agents were men and sometimes women. It’s the mixture that’s valuable. We’re enforcing all of our laws.”
Earlier this year, President Donald Trump issued executive orders directing the Department of Homeland Security to hire 5,000 more Border Patrol agents and 10,000 more immigration officers. Given these agencies’ longstanding troubles attracting and onboarding qualified candidates, they would need to persuade more than a million Americans to apply just to get anywhere near those goals, according to a July report from the Department’s Office of the Inspector General. Given past application rates, the chances of reaching those numbers before the hiring window ends in 2019 are virtually zero.
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