The percentage of women in federal law enforcement has gone down since 2008.

The percentage of women in federal law enforcement has gone down since 2008. JoeLena / Getty Images

Meet the Nonprofit Leader Who Is Working to Reverse the ‘Dismal’ Numbers of Women in Federal Law Enforcement

Cathy Sanz’s organization provides training, scholarships, networking and mentorship opportunities to help women “go for it” in their careers.

The percentage of women in federal law enforcement jobs has decreased since 2008 despite broader government efforts to improve gender equity, and one nonprofit is working hard to reverse that trend.  

“It's kind of dismal,” said Cathy Sanz, president of the Women in Federal Law Enforcement, of the roughly 13% of federal law enforcement officers who are female, which is down from 16.4% in 2008. “There hasn't been a lot of progress, even in the state and local arena, it's at 12% and it's been at 12% since 2007.”

Sanz’s group has roots that date back to the 1970s, shortly after women were first allowed to work in federal law enforcement. The organization provides training programs, scholarships, networking and mentorship opportunities. 

“Our annual leadership training focuses on helping women develop the skills that they need in order to assume higher positions within their agencies,” Sanz told Government Executive. “We also focus a section of our training on you and your career and that goes from everything from preparing for retirement…because [women] will more than likely have to have a second career because they're just going to live that long.”

When asked what advice she would give young women considering a career in federal law enforcement, she said to “go for it” because there are organizations out there like hers that will help them through the process. 

Sanz says her organization always stands ready to assist the federal agencies with their gender diversity initiatives. The Biden administration has made diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility in the federal workforce a priority and one example for law enforcement in particular is the Homeland Security Department, which is looking to increase the representation of female law enforcement officers in new hires.

Government Executive interviewed Sanz recently about her organization’s work and the state of women in federal law enforcement. What follows are highlights of the interview, edited lightly for clarity. 

GE: Could you give an overview of the organization?

CS: The organization actually started back in about 1978 as an [Office of Personnel Management] task force. Women had been barred from being hired as law enforcement officers prior to 1971. So, in 1969, President Nixon signed an executive order and the first women were hired in ‘71 and ‘72. So, the OPM task force was designed to look at how do we recruit, retain, promote, and just plain get more women into the federal law enforcement sector? Then as often happens in the government, the task force became an interagency committee…We stayed as an interagency committee until about 1999 when we left the government and stepped out as a nonprofit organization.

GE: How did you get involved with it? 

CS: I actually got involved because my boss assigned me…I became the agency representative to the organization for the [then] U.S. Customs Service. I've been with them in some capacity since that time. Since about 1998, I think. So, I've held a number of positions on the executive committee when I was still in the government. When I retired, I served on the board. I became the vice president for a very short time. I've been the president for almost 10 years now.

GE: Do you have any numbers on the current state of women in federal law enforcement agencies? And if so, do you have any idea of how that's changed over the years?

CS: Yes, we do keep track. We know that currently it's about 13.1% [officers who are female] and that is down from 16.4% … [in] 2008, I believe. Every four years the Justice Department had been counting the women in the agencies. Of course, now that's also voluntary, so many agencies didn't report. So, the figure is estimated on the total number that do the reporting.

It's kind of dismal. There hasn't been a lot of progress, even in the state and local arena, it's at 12% and it's been at 12% since 2007. And we've also seen that trend amongst the minority groups. So, when you look at Black and African American officers, they're at 12%; Hispanic officers are about the same percentage; women are the same and it just hasn't moved since 2007. While we [in the federal government] might be a little bit higher, we pretty much mirror what's going on in the profession.

GE: Why do you think that there has been this decrease? Do you have any specific factors you could point to?

CS: On the federal side, the way we hire: we have these huge hiring frenzies because of politics and budgets and then there's a surge and then the politics change. And so does the appropriation of that agency. So, you go into these big swings, these big highs and lows. You get a lot of freezes and so when you don't have consistent hirings you get these huge valleys. And so, what may happen is you have this big uptick of minority candidates and they get up to the top and everybody thinks, “Oh, great. We've done such a fantastic job in creating diversity.” And then in two or three years, they're all retired. And because you had been at a very low par after you had initially hired that crew, then you sweep back down and it's like you never did anything. You start all over again. So that's a continuing issue and we just don't do a good job at recruiting. 

GE: Do you think retention could also be an issue and help explain why the numbers are so low for women? Or harassment or discrimination that women see in the workforce?

CS: It can be. We see fluctuations in [retention]…There’s no one window. Everybody handles things differently. Some of the biggest issues that we see—and we actually did a study a long time ago on why women stay—and one [reason] they stay is because they're not going to let the men win. They knew they were being discriminated against. They knew they weren't being integrated and they just refused to quit. But when they do decide to go, interestingly enough, people think that women leave more often than men do, and actually men and women leave their jobs at about the same rate in law enforcement.

And for the same reasons. And one of the highest reasons for leaving is just plain poor supervision and management. Everybody thinks, “Oh, it's family and things like that.” Yes, they do leave for those reasons, but universally [poor management is] one of the biggest reasons people leave. And they just go to another agency.

One of the benefits in the federal sector is for example, when you're a special agent, well, there's a lot of agencies with special agents. And so, you can just transfer to another agency. So, you can find somebody that meets your needs. I mean, when we started and we were all 21, 22 years old, we could do anything and go anywhere. And then when we all become 28 or 30 years old, we suddenly are all married and we have kids and we have all these other issues that are starting to pop up. The agency never changes. The agency wants you to be where it wants you to be and sometimes you just can't do it. And so, the alternative is you go find another agency.

GE: What are some of the programs that your organization offers your members and are there any other types of resources to help women in law enforcement agencies?

CS: Well, the first thing is we're an education foundation as a nonprofit, so we do get limited in some of the things that we can do. So, we can't go advocate on [Capitol] Hill, we can't lobby, that type of thing and so we also can't represent our membership in any action. We can't defend them or anything like that. What we do is we have relationships with other organizations or entities, law firms, and that can provide them that type of direct help.

Our annual leadership training focuses on helping women develop the skills that they need in order to assume higher positions within their agencies. Part of that training also includes the cutting-edge law enforcement things. You can't lead your agency if you don't understand what your job is. So, we try to keep people abreast of what's going on in the profession. And then we also focus a section of our training on you and your career and that goes from everything from preparing for retirement…because [women] will more than likely have to have a second career because they're just going to live that long. And so, preparing to move from the government law enforcement position to the private sector can be quite a task for a career law enforcement officer. 

We provide networking events. We have a scholarship program for both members and regular students. For our membership, they can put themselves in for a scholarship or they can sponsor somebody. So, if you had a niece, you could sponsor a niece for a scholarship. And that's for any member, they don't have to be a gun carrier. They can be one of the support positions in a law enforcement agency…And then we do fundraising for our scholarship program. We have a silent auction. We have a golf tournament, which will be held in October this year out in Rehoboth beach. The networking and the mentoring is almost on an as needed basis because we're still a relatively small organization, so I don't have a couple of dozen mentors in my back pocket. So as women contact us and discuss their needs, I try to pair them with people or help them myself. I spend a lot of time doing a lot of federal resume work with people, preparing them for promotions and things like that.

GE: The Biden administration has put a huge emphasis on diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility, particularly in the federal workforce with the executive order that came out last year. It's only been about a year, but have you seen that to be effective so far? Or do you think that that can be effective for what you're looking to do?

CS: Well, we've always helped the agencies. For example, when the Border Patrol did their women's only announcement, which was the first time in the federal government anybody had ever tried it, I worked with [Customs and Border Protection] and provided them with information that they needed to do the justification. And we've gone in and talked with any organization that's been looking at how to increase their recruitment and retention capabilities. What's coming down the forefront? How are things being impacted?

[With the executive order] I think the agencies had due dates to get their plans in. So, it's still a little early and so I expect to see activity bubbling up as people are trying to implement their programs and we'll be there to support them." 

GE: What advice would you give a young woman who's interested in going into law enforcement and isn't sure if she wants to join the federal government?  

CS: Go for it. There are organizations like ours. You can contact us and we'll start walking you through the process. I've counseled a number of young women about whether or not the agency that they think they want to go to is the match for them. And that's just from experience. If it looks like they really want that job, we'll start putting them with people that can talk to them in depth about what it is like to be a special agent with the [Drug Enforcement Administration or Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives or FBI or Homeland Security Investigations] or the others. And we talk very frankly about the pros and cons of the job and, and what's your life going to be like?