Monday, August 15, 2016

DS Female Attrition: "How Would You Know If You're Not Even Looking?"

Diplopundit discusses the recent - recent as of a couple weeks ago, as I recall - Sounding Board post by an employee who had attended the Safety Overseas Seminar and encountered what she believed to be incomplete instruction and demeaning behavior. See A Joke That Wasn’t, and a State Department Dialogue That Is Long Overdue.

Much of the Sounding Board post and its subsequent comments were directed towards Diplomatic Security, which has yet to respond in any way, so far as I can tell.

Diplopundit concludes with a question about female recruitment and retention in DS:
We asked the State Department about the gender composition of DSS agents in Diplomatic Security: 90.18% male and 9.82% female. We also asked about the attrition rate by gender at the bureau. Below is what we’re officially told:

DS reports that they do not have information related to special agent attrition rate by gender. They do not keep those statistics, but note that the overall Special Agent attrition rate for 2015 was 3.66%.

The State Department’s DGHR should be able to run these numbers. That’s a very low attrition rate but — don’t you want to know who and why these employees are leaving? If a bureau is overwhelmingly male, and if the entire attrition rate is, for instance, composed of all female employees, aren’t you going to wonder why?

But how would you know if you’re not even looking?

The InHerSight reviews [here] are pretty broad but are troubling nonetheless. The first step in fixing a problem is recognizing that there is a problem. Is there?

Who’s going to volunteer to look into this if we can’t even get S/OCR to respond to a public inquiry?

So less than ten percent of DS Special Agents are female? That seems to match my casual observation. (The percentage appears to be even lower among Security Engineering Officers, I think.) Consider the kinda-sorta comparable percentage of women in the U.S. military, which is 14.6 for the active military and 19.5 percent for the reserves.

Either few women are entering agent classes, or else they're leaving in very high numbers. Whichever it is, I agree that DS and DGHR ought to be interested in why.


Anonymous said...

If DS doesn't care enough why anyone leaves, why would they care about a particular class (gender, age, race, etc) of a person leaving? Current DS leadership wants people "committed" to the agency above all other considerations, akin to some kind of military service or religious order. I mean that attrition number only covers people leaving federal service, not those transferring to another agency; therefore the "official" rate doesn't accurately reflect reality.

TSB said...


Thanks very much for your comment. I hadn't considered that the official attrition number might not include transfers to other agencies. Converting to Civil Service or going to other FS specialist tracks would also be unreported, I suppose. I've known female agents to go both those routes. Some male agents as well, but not nearly as many.

Back in the Inman / '80s era there was a rash of new agent departures right before the 5 year mark, and that made DS concerned enough to make some policy changes. If the current leadership had to face the real attrition rate, whatever it is, maybe they'd bring about some reforms?

Anonymous said...

TSB, that's a very good point about DS leadership facing facts vs reality. Approximately 40 agents just resigned to join the USMS over the past two weeks, but they won't be reflected in the attrition number as they're transferring to GS. These departing folks will leave, and I suspect that the reasons will not be captured, analyzed, or even discussed. Current DS leadership doesn't seem to want facts to interfere with their reality.

James said...

Sorry to barge in fellows, but what is USMS?

TSB said...

James: The U.S. Marshals Service. That could be a good match for DS agents, because both services do international fugitive investigation, dignitary protection, etc.

Trivia bonus point: in the movie U.S. Marshals, the bad guy (Robert Downey Jr) was a DS agent.

TSB said...


It surprises me to hear of so many DS losses all at once. You know that has to have gotten attention. DS leadership ought to be looking down the road to the day after we close out our involvement in so many Overseas Contingency Operations and transition to a normal operational tempo. I think the last 'normal' was around 1999.

Anonymous said...

One can only hope that a mass departure like that would garner attention, but I don't see any leadership addressing the matter with the rank and file. I know there are several other tranches of agents waiting for class dates from HSI, ATF, DEA and other smaller agencies. Perhaps several mass exoduses will be a wake up call that the previous 5ish years of steady hiring and little competition from other agencies is over. Maybe the issues with maltreatment of personnel can finally be addressed.

Anonymous said...

There is some misinformation in the comments above. It's not true that 40 agents have left DS for the Marshals. Some 40 agents are on the hiring list for the Marshals, but it remains to be seen how many will take the job. I know of one agent that as a matter of course always has a job application in at other agencies just in case he gets fed up with DS. He's on that list but doesn't expect to take the offer if and when the Marshals call.

Attrition in general - I feel DS will always have higher attrition rates. Some don't realize that many DS agents took the job because it was the first federal law enforcement agency that offered them a job. They had no intention of going overseas. Others may have thought DS was great, but when you tell your spouse they are going to need to quit their job to follow the agentto darkest Africa for two years and the spouse starts crying hysterically, well, you start to think maybe DS isn't so great. (On the flip side, one of those wives that was crying in the airport as they left the US for Africa soon became quite fond of tennis lessons at the club and having a swimming pool and cheap child care, so go figure.)

Female attrition- I was hired in the 2008-2010 push. Our classes were more than 10% women, though I sure the lack of hiring of women from the previous generation brings the percentage down. My class of 48 had nine women, all single and childless.

From talking to female DS agents, I believe attrition in their ranks will always be higher than with men. Several female agents have bemoaned to me how difficult it is to single overseas. Let's face it, DS agents are posted to some places where the dating pool is pretty much limited to the embassy community. (However, single DS men seems to be more willing to date in the local population and thus tolerate it better.) I don't know how to say this without appearing sexist, but female agents hear the clock ticking and are more reluctant to spend multiple tours at small embassies in shitholes.

(The same things impact female FSOs and attrition in the rest of the foreign service, but DS agents are more likely to be posted to shitholes than the rest of the foreign service. My last African post had more DS agents than political officers and consular officers combined. DS agents don't outnumber POL officers in Paris or London.)

One friend once told me she knew she would resign if she didn't get married in five years. Another female agents had a job application going with the FBI because she didn't want to be overseas with no prospects of finding a husband (she ended up taking a 1811 DS job with will keep her domestic the rest of her career.)

Anonymous said...

One more thing about the Marshals. I think that was a special lateral announcement that attracted so many DS agents. It's always been hard to get on with the Marshalls (either they were hiring off of old vacancy announcements, or you had to be a previous intern, or a military veteran. Or simply they weren't hiring. I know back when I was going through the DS hiring process (and applying to other Fed agencies), the Marshals weren't accepting applications.

Contrary to what others have written on various other blogs, I think the current ennui among DS agents has to with three things:

1. We won't get promoted as quickly as the previous generation due to the hiring push of 2008-2010. You have a large bubble of FS3s. DS can only create so many FS2 positions. Previous generation just needed a pulse to make their 2 (or even 1).

2. We can't stay overseas as much.

3. We won't be RSOs as quickly, if at all. I think you'll see a lot of good DS agents retire with 20 years and that will never have been an RSO.

I think those things, more so than lack of transparency or lack of faith in leadership, are the big drivers behind job dissatisfaction.

TSB said...

Anonymous - thanks for your very informative comments. It's understandable that agents would keep a few irons in the fire with other agencies, especially given the very long hiring process. What you describe about some agents taking the first job they were offered and having no intention of going overseas is exactly the situation I recall from the 'Inman 80s' when DS was first hiring (after emerging from the old SY Office); so many left just before the then-mandatory overseas tour at the five year mark that DS management finally made some hiring and career management changes.

Single females throughout the Foreign Service do indeed have that overseas dating pool problem. I knew several female agents back in 80s and early 90s, when they were far from common, and nearly all of them went civil service or resigned. Why that isn't as much a problem for men I don't know, but it isn't. In fact, you can usually guess where a male FSO's first overseas tour was by looking at the nationality of his wife.

The systemic problems about hiring bubbles, terminal 2s, and lack of overseas spots are all bad enough for morale to begin with. Add any management-induced anxiety on top of that, and we should expect a lot of dissatisfaction.