Cavorting with prostitutes on the job isn't all that different from holding a business meeting in a topless joint: Both are hyper-sexualized 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 U.S. News & World Report contained allegations of heavy drinking, pornography viewing at work and security lapses.
Some former agents acknowledge a close-knit atmosphere where employees travel, dine and socialize together — sometimes in the form of so-called "wheels up" parties held in foreign countries after the departure of a president or other person under protection. But they say the prostitution scandal does not represent a cultural problem or reflect a broader disdain for women.
The Secret Service began adding women in the early 1970s, as 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 is co-author of "Standing Next to History: An Agent's Life Inside the Secret Service." New recruits were expected to prove themselves.
"We wanted to look at them — see what kind of shape they were in, how they fit, what their manner was. That goes on — and it should," said Petro, who after Vietnam spent 23 years with the agency as an agent and manager, helping protect Reagan.
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 comfortable and respectable enough that Petro said he always felt comfortable bringing his wife and daughter on trips to Reagan's ranch in Santa Barbara.
"There were a couple of guys who brought their wives and kids," Petro said. "That puts the brake on a lot of things."
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. How much it 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."
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