The Homeland Security Department has struggled to increase the number of women in its ranks.

The Homeland Security Department has struggled to increase the number of women in its ranks. ICE photo

Homeland Security Has a Problem Hiring and Keeping Women

The department is failing to address known barriers to a number of ethnic and racial groups, a watchdog report finds.

The Homeland Security Department is struggling to recruit and retain female employees, according to a new report, and is failing to address barriers that prevent employees of certain races and ethnicities from working at and advancing in the agency. 

An internal report completed in 2017 found that Homeland Security employed lower rates of female law enforcement officers than other federal agencies, according to the Government Accountability Office. Departmentwide, between 2014 and 2017, GAO found there was a "high rate of nonretirement separations for certain groups, particularly white women." Overall, GAO found “low participation rates” for white women in the department’s permanent workforce. 

The auditors found women were turned off from pursuing careers at the department in some cases because the work environments “made them choose between the job and family.” Hispanic women also left Homeland Security at a high rate, GAO said, in part because of possible harassment against both hispanic employees and women. Latina employees also encountered “glass walls” that prevented them from reaching mission-critical positions. 

Other issues that GAO identified as having prevented equal representation in the workforce include problems with management and a lack of alternative work schedules. Some issues were outside the department’s control, such as geographic locations of some jobs leading to “low hiring rates of racial groups in certain major occupations” and the physical requirements of certain law enforcement positions leading to difficulties in hiring disabled applicants.

Homeland Security has identified these barriers, GAO said, but has not taken sufficient steps to address them. The department also lacks performance metrics to track its efforts to tackle the issues, GAO said, and does not have plans to address nearly half of the 369 equal employment opportunity "deficiencies" across its components. Such red flags include, for example, EEO officers reporting to someone other than the component chief. More than one-third of the deficiencies identified were at the department headquarters. 

The department is also not spending sufficiently on its EEO program, GAO said, and it lacks enough staff to reach timely decisions on discrimination charges or to boost its alternative dispute resolution efforts. 

All of those failures have come with a cost: Homeland Security spent $30 million on judgments, awards and settlements on 81 discrimination cases between 2014 and 2017, GAO found. 

The department is making some progress, however. It has boosted minority representation by 3% and the female share of its workforce by 2% since 2015. Every minority group reported higher engagement scores in 2017 compared to 2014, GAO said. 

In response to the report, Homeland Security said its Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties "remains committed to supporting the department's mission to secure the nation while preserving individual liberty, fairness and equality under the law." The department agreed to institute performance metrics for eliminating barriers that certain groups face, address its EEO deficiencies, develop a staffing model for its EEO program and better respond to feedback from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.