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Can women save the US Secret Service?

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Deborah Cowan
WVoN co-editor 

The global reputation of America’s Secret Service has taken something of a pounding recently thanks to the prostitution ignominy in Colombia (see WVoN story).

Secret agents were found to have procured (although allegedly not properly paid for) the services of local sex workers.

Scandal has since abounded as to the regularity of such practices, with ‘unnamed sources’ claiming that the behaviour is part of the Secret Service culture.

With heads hung in collective shame, the agency responsible for protecting the President has issued new codes of conduct.

Agents will now be banned from excessive drinking and prohibitive measures have been applied to foreign travel, such as bringing foreign nationals to hotel rooms or visiting establishments of ‘ill repute’.

There are also plans afoot to provide so-called ‘chaperones’ on future trips.

But if these practices are widespread and, as suggested, deeply historical, will these measures be tough enough to change such an entrenched ‘macho’ culture?

Would having more women in the Secret Service make scandals like this less likely to happen?

In this instance, Representative Carolyn Maloney of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee thinks so, saying that the probability of the scandal happening ‘would have been reduced significantly’ had there been more women on the Colombian protection detail.

She went on to say ‘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.

‘When you have a diversity of people there, it brings more accountability. What you see is a lack of accountability in this.’

Fellow Democrat Sheila Jackson Lee agreed, saying that greater gender diversity can set a different tone in “recreational liberties.”   That’s one way of putting it.

Eleanor Holmes Norton, Delegate to the United States Congress called on Secret Service director Mark Sullivan last week to more aggressively hire and promote women.

Norton said it was “significant” that it was, in fact, a woman, Paula Reid, who was initially in charge of investigating the prostitution scandal in Colombia.

Apparently she “lost no time” in sending home a Secret Service unit for their alleged conduct.

As a woman, Reid has drawn her own share of criticism- a former agent was cited as saying “If every boss was Paula Reid, the Secret Service would never have a problem. It would be a lot more boring, but never a problem.”

Well, if not actively engaging in the purchase of sex for money, and not behaving like misogynistic ‘lads’ makes agents boring, then who’s going to cry about it?

These men are Secret Service agents, charged with the task of protecting America’s most powerful man, at the risk of their own lives if necessary.  They are not James Bond.

It should be no surprise that macho practices exist in organisations like the Secret Service, given that it is predominantly male – only about a tenth of field agents and uniformed officers are women.

According to the Secret Service website, diversity “is a continued agency priority that is critical to our success.”

The website also promotes “a comprehensive, proactive, model Equal Opportunity Program that is integrated into the agency’s mission.”

So why is its record so bad?

After serving 31 years in the Service, Barbara Riggs retired in 2006 as the agency’s highest-ranking female, deputy director.  She says “Being a special agent in the Secret Service, it’s not just a job, it’s not just a career.  It’s a lifestyle.”

She also says that the nature of the presidential protection detail makes it even more stressful than other law enforcement roles.

“That requires people to be away from home for a significant amount of time,” she added. “There are some people who don’t want to make that commitment.” Particularly for women who are primary caregivers, “that’s a difficult position to be in.”

Nevertheless, it does seem that the image of the Secret Service is stuck firmly in the 1950s, when women were almost invisible in the workplace and boys will be boys.

So would the increased presence of women tone down the behaviour of their male colleagues?

Well, as a CNN article pointed out, ‘it’s hard to imagine an organisation where the women head out to a brothel together……’

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