Deborah Pierce had her share of memorable experiences during 27 years in the FBI, but few matched the morning when Bureau Director Robert Mueller called to say she should go home and enjoy a beer. Never mind that she had worked an overnight shift and it was 8 a.m. — Mueller told Pierce to celebrate being tapped to run the FBI’s Minneapolis office.

Pierce believes that she is only the 10th woman ever to lead an FBI field office, and while it was a personal breakthrough for her, she says it also underscored a stark lack of diversity in the agency’s senior ranks.

Today, top FBI officials are calling that lack of diversity a crisis and have launched an ambitious effort to recruit more women and people of color to an agency famous for white men in dark suits. Some 83 percent of FBI agents are white, and in the Minneapolis field office roughly 80 percent of the workforce is white and male.

“We protect the American people so we need to look like the American people,” said Ann Saunders, one of four assistant special agents in charge in Minneapolis.

To achieve those goals, FBI officials have organized outreach efforts in communities of color across the country and set targets to increase the share of female agents from roughly 20 percent to 33 percent. In Minneapolis, the mandate includes boosting women’s representation among the office’s 180 agents from 15 percent to 21 percent.

The targets were set under former FBI Director James Comey, who made an impassioned case for greater diversity in the bureau’s ranks. And while the controversy over Comey’s recent firing could complicate recruitment efforts, officials say the bureau remains committed to those hiring goals.

The J. Edgar Hoover days

“Becoming a more diverse workforce … is one of our priority initiatives,” said Richard Thornton, special agent in charge for the Minneapolis division. “That doesn’t change with a change of administration, a change of director or a change of our roles.”

The FBI started this effort at a disadvantage. Under Director J. Edgar Hoover it never hired female agents on the belief that women couldn’t handle the physical rigors of making arrests and conducting raids. Until Hoover died in 1972, the bureau sought exemptions from federal equal employment regulations.

Pierce, who returned to Washington, D.C., after running the Minneapolis office, noticed the lingering effect.

“I could see when I was back in headquarters that there was a gap behind us — there weren’t many women nipping at my heels,” said Pierce, who retired as one of the bureau’s highest-ranking officials in 2006 and now leads a consulting firm in Minneapolis alongside a former CIA executive. “There are women there, but it seems like there was a drop-off in women in management ranks.”

In some ways, the FBI is still catching up to other federal agencies.

At the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, about 32 percent of all agents are women — and 28 percent of its St. Paul field division’s ranks are women. At the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, women make up 27 percent of all staff in Minneapolis and 35 percent nationally. The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said roughly two-thirds of its 6,000 agents are female.

Just this month, the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General announced that it is analyzing gender equity at federal law enforcement agencies to examine how promotions are doled out, the handling of discrimination complaints and staff perceptions.

Sharp career turn

So far this year, Saunders said, roughly 22 percent of applicants in the Minneapolis area have been women. But she said the division can’t control who gets assigned to which office after agents pass the FBI’s 21-week academy in Quantico, Va. In addition, new agents must spend at least their first year in the field away from their home communities.

The FBI is also challenged by a requirement that applicants have at least three years’ work experience before applying — making the average age of new hires close to 30.

“We’re going after a market of people that in many cases have already gone down a path and have a pre-established career,” Saunders said. “We’re saying … give up whatever you have, bring that to us, move somewhere else and maybe accept less pay.”

Saunders first considered the FBI about 20 years ago after visiting a booth at a career fair she worked while in human resources for a credit card company. She said she was surprised to learn that she didn’t need a law enforcement background to apply and that never having touched a firearm wasn’t a deal-breaker.

Saunders began her FBI career in Miami, tackling white-collar criminals, before investigating human trafficking. Thinking back on some of the child-exploitation cases she helped investigate, she said it was the sense of a larger purpose that pushed her to make the career change.

To diversify its ranks through recruiting, the bureau still relies heavily on career fairs, with at least 16 scheduled locally this year. But it has also expanded outreach to groups like the Minnesota Urban League and the Black Lawyers Association and is making a push to recruit more American Indian candidates.

And in an effort to retain agents, the FBI allows some to work part time if needed and transfers others whose spouse or domestic partner accepts a job in another city.

Men in black?

Last month, four women in senior leadership roles participated in a Facebook Live session to describe their own paths through the bureau’s ranks. Putting a broader range of faces out front may counteract well-worn images of white males in suits and sunglasses, said Courtney Bernal, the first official to supervise the Minneapolis office’s foreign language program.

“When you ask how someone picked an agency or a career in law enforcement it’s often because they made a connection with somebody,” she said.

A recruiting visit to the University of Maryland-Baltimore County campus was what hooked Sameera Gollapudi, now in her second year as an operational support technician for the FBI in Minneapolis. Gollapudi said she was attracted to the variety of jobs available and now, one year in, envisions a wide range of career possibilities.

A former history major, Gollapudi said she’s found plenty of support in Minneapolis and can imagine working in any number of roles for the FBI around the world.

“I feel confident about being able to reach out when I want to,” she said. “I like having that feeling of control over what I can accomplish and not feeling boxed in.”

 

Twitter: @smontemayor