Earlier this year, Obama received a great deal of criticism from the left and right alike concerning the gender gap in his cabinet, especially following his nomination of Chuck Hagel for Defense Secretary. Currently, only 5 of the 23 Cabinet Officers and Cabinet-Level Officers are women.
For someone who campaigned on a platform that was largely concerned with equality and civil rights, this disparity was a surprise. Though it should be mentioned, Obama has to choose from the experts of each field (or risk the nomination being vetoed). If women are barred from reaching top-level positions in policy, the group of people that Obama can pick from is already incredibly biased towards men.
Perhaps partly in response to these concerns, the White House announced on March 25th that Julia Pierson was appointed to the position of Director of United States Secret Service. Julia is an incredibly strong candidate and fully deserving of the position. She’s been in the Secret Service for 30 years and was personally responsible for protecting the President during 9/11, not to mention being the highest ranking woman in the Secret Service before her appointment.
The hope is that she will succeed in improving the Secret Service’s image following the April 2012 scandal involving agents soliciting prostitutes in Columbia and then refusing to pay. The scandal has hurt the reputation of the Secret Service abroad and called into question the way that stereotypically hyper-masculine traits are favored in the Secret Service. Pierson is thus tasked with creating a culture in the Secret Service that is more professional and presents a better image of the American Federal Government.
The previous Secret Service Director, Mark Sullivan, believed that the Secret Service did not have a “culture of impropriety”, as it’s been called. Senator Susan Collins disagrees, saying:
The facts so far lead me to conclude that, while not at all representative of the majority of Secret Service personnel, this misconduct was almost certainly not an isolated incident. The numbers [of agents] involved, as well as the participation of two senior supervisors, lead me to believe that this was not a one-time event. Rather, it suggests an issue of culture. Two of the participants were supervisors – one with 22 years of service and the other with 21 – and both were married. That surely sends a message to the rank and file that this kind of activity is tolerated on the road.
If it is the case that Secret Service agents have a history of receiving services from sex workers and then refusing to pay them, the culture towards women in this setting is not terribly different from what we’ve seen occurring in the military. It’s certainly possible; in 2011, a Secret Service agent used his authority and power to sexually abuse an arrested woman for 8 months, promising her a lighter sentence if she complied.
It’s not uncommon for hyper-masculine environments that give all members a great deal of power to breed a corrupt culture like we’ve seen in the military and in the Secret Service. Though Pierson’s position is a powerful one, it may not have to ability to root out the unprofessional attitudes and behaviors displayed by many. That said, it’s clear that the complacency of superior officers allows this culture to perpetuate, so it’s possible that a crackdown by Julia on the top levels of management could put an end to the embarrassing and inappropriate scandals.
We can only hope this will be the case.
Written by Sara Wofford