A Joke That Wasn’t, and a State Department Dialogue That Is Long Overdue

Posted: 2:41 am ET
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Apparently, there was a recent Sounding Board (SB) post about how “a DS agent made a rape joke in front of a whole class (60+) without thinking anything of the joke.”

It took us a while but we finally got the SB post dug up what was said during the Security Overseas Seminar (SOS), which is designed to meet the security awareness needs of U.S. Government personnel and their families going overseas.

An employee posted on the Secretary’s Sounding Board that she first attended the SOS seminar five years ago and felt that the “Sexual Assault  & Rape” session was “both incomplete and demeaning to sexual assault victims (who the instructor largely assumed were always female).” During her most recent attendance, she writes that she was “disappointed by the same message: there are ways to prevent sexual assault/rape, no mention of what the Regional Security Officer can/will do,” and “no mention of the Health Unit’s, etc. involvement.”

The majority of the course is said to be focused on what employees and family members can do to prevent sexual assault: institute the “buddy system,” avoid isolated areas, dress like a local, etc.  The employee asks what about the 84% of all reported sexual assault/rapes being committed by someone that the victim trusted, or women who were raped in an open and crowded area in Germany or “are we saying that women from cultures where they are required to cover from head to toe never get raped because they are entirely hidden?” The SB post says that the employee asked the instructor “why were we not discussing the main cause of sexual assault/rape: gender socialization, particularly focusing on male privilege and entitlement to women’s bodies?”   The instructor reportedly responded that “we cannot change an entire culture in an hour” to which the employee agreed but urge that “we nevertheless begin a dialogue on this topic.”

That’s not, of course, the end of this story.  The following is from the same SB writer sent to us by a Foggy Bottom nightingale:

“The next day, I overheard four people (3 men and 1 woman) exchanging pejorative comments about what I had said. One of the men (a DS [Diplomatic Security] agent who as RSO [regional security officer] will be a victim’s first recourse in the event of a crisis) exclaimed that he would like to “see how I do in Port Moresby.” Allow me to break down this hurtful comment: he wants to see how I do in a country where women can still be tortured to death on charges of witchcraft when a natural death occurs in the family; a country where the Australian health attach showed up at a diplomatic reception after abandoning her car when she was randomly targeted in a mob rush while driving. Because I wanted to begin a dialogue on male privilege, its effects on rape culture, and how I found “tips” on “sexual assault/rape prevention” to be a covert form of victim-shaming, this man, this Diplomatic Security agent, commented on how he wanted to see me, a woman, fare in a country that is known for its hight incidents of rape against ex-pat women. And this gentleman is my colleague, not an obnoxious drunk man at a local dive bar. When I turned around and asked if they wanted to discuss what I had said, one said he didn’t see the point, the other told me how my comment was inappropriate in an one-hour session. No further comments made. How is this dialogue not overdue? (Note: I am not seeking to shame or put-down my colleagues for saying what they assumed was far and away from my hearing range. This is more to highlight the amount of tension surrounding this topic.”

Hey — if one cannot talk about this topic in an SOS session, where are you supposed to discuss this?

We wrote to the Office of Civil Rights under Secretary Kerry’s office (S/OCR) asking what response it made (if any) to the Sounding Board post. That was, oh, weeks ago so we figure we’re not going to hear from S/OCR.

The nightingale also said that “any time a female coworker brings up EEO, rape culture, or feminism in general,” DS agents the employee worked with allegedly make comments like “Ugh, don’t work with her, she’ll EEO you.” or “She probably has a ton of files on men”.   Our correspondent told us that she could think of a number of situations “with bullying, harrasment, and such” that were all documented by supervisors but nothing was done about them.  Our writer also alleged that “a good portion joke about rape or sexual assault on a daily basis.”

Which is why we wanted to hear from the State Department office tasked as the main contact point for questions or concerns about sexual harassment and EEO matters.

But hey, nada. Yok.

What’s even more troubling is when we see these reviews for the State Department over at InHerSight.com:

“I, and a lot of other females, are considering leaving, or have left, because of the misogyny. Diplomatic Security is the absolute worst.” – See more at: https://www.inhersight.com/company/us-department-of-state#sthash.5rVrFJHX.dpuf

“Working in a predominately male field means tacky and disrespectful jokes regardless if the two females (who are of equal or higher grade) are in earshot or not. 50% of the men who work in this office are prior military folks who have a disrespectful attitude towards females and men without military experience. Despite being the “State Department” which is usually more liberal and tolerant, the Bureau that I work in is the exact opposite. It shows through upper management all the way down to the bullpen workers.” – See more at: https://www.inhersight.com/company/us-department-of-state#sthash.5rVrFJHX.dpuf

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 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?




3 responses

  1. While I’m not arguing that misogyny is NOT a problem in State generally, and DS in particular, I can only say that I haven’t personally seen it. In fact, most of the female agents I’ve encountered are absolutely stellar performers, and widely recognized as such.

    The only case that I’ve seen of a female agent being talked about “behind her back” was during a training course where said agent repeatedly failed to meet the physical fitness and shooting standards and, before finally being dropped, complained of negative stereotypes about women, even as she herself perpetuated them by her performance (or lack thereof). Also, for the record there were other female agents in the course who performed superbly, and I think one of the real problems with DS is that hard standards, especially in physical fitness and marksmanship, are not seriously enforced for men OR women (i.e. recorded on EERs, loss of LEAP/carry authority, and ultimately termination).

    Ultimately, the main problem that I see with State, like many bureaucracies, is that it prioritizes organizational convenience over taking care of individuals and families, despite paying lip-service to “work-life balance” (e.g. not having universal GO tokens to covers transfers between posts, pathetic “efforts” on EFM clearances and hiring, no Business Class for 14+ hours PCS travel, etc).

    OTOH, even in the absence of gender norms, in a job that involves constant moves around the globe every few years, it’s always going to be difficult for the trailing spouse to have a meaningful career, and thus will be relationships will be difficult. Ironically, in that sense DS is arguably one of the best places in State to have a spouse with a real career, simply because the majority of the postings are domestic, and thus offer somewhat more stability.

  2. DS –

    This post (the one about the security seminar) was a big topic at the breakfast table this morning… as it touches on all the hot button issues that animate inter and intra State issues these days. I’ll have a longer response, but shortly after reading that, this came across the news ticker… let’s just say this person’s commentary in her seminar sparked some opinions from a pretty wide swath of both the SA 20 crowd and other places, which was quite surprising. I think one of the big issues hinted at in this post, but not articulated, is not just the department’s issues with women (well documented) but the vast gulf of perception about the world as seen from Foggy Bottom versus SA 20 (DSS)..

    And then I see this…

    http://bigstory.ap.org/article/237fa4c447d74698804be210512c3e d1/rampaging-south-sudan-troops-raped-foreigners-killed-local?utm_campaign= SocialFlow

    Quite the cognitive whiplash, going from a dispute in a classroom about the proper place to discuss intersectional feminist theory, to reading about rampaging rape squads of South Sudanese soldiers. Not that there’s any problem with that discussion. But it seems that the insensitivity here is not one sided in that particular scenario..

    What’s the line from Orwell? True pacifism is only possible when people have money and guns between them and reality? I’ll look it up. It’s a good one.

    We are off to Sud Afrique in a few days for several weeks. Will try to pen a more lengthy reply soon. As usual thanks for all your work.

    All the best, and semper vigilans- MVS

  3. Bear in mind that the attrition rate for the State Department does NOT include those who remain in federal service. So the attrition rate for DS might be higher if those who have left have stayed with the federal government.