(MENAFN - Khaleej Times) 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 dishonour?
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 Democratic Rep. Carolyn Maloney 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 per cent of the agency's workforce, but only about 11 per cent of agents and uniformed officers, said spokesman Ed Donovan. That's significantly lower than the 19 per cent of female special agents in the FBI, though higher than the 9.7 per cent 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.
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. A dozen Secret Service employees and a dozen enlisted 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. The agency on Friday also announced stricter measures, including assigning chaperones on some trips to enforce new rules of conduct for agents and employees.
The agency enjoys vaunted prestige in American popular culture, but the rigours of a protective detail - jet-setting the globe at a moment's notice to protect a dignitary, being on-call around the clock - isn't for everyone. That type of full-bore commitment leads to canceled vacations and blown-off family obligations and former agents say it can distinguish the Secret Service from other law enforcement agencies. Cavorting with prostitutes on the job isn't all that different from holding a business meeting in a topless joint: Both are hyper-sexualised 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.
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.
The Secret Service began adding women in the early 1970s, a time when 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 a co-author of "Standing Next to History: An Agent's Life Inside the Secret Service." New recruits were expected to prove themselves.
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.