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Letterman and the Diversity Issue at Homeland Security

Ed O'Keefe | The Washington Post via YellowBrix

October 15, 2009

Is David Letterman to blame for the lack of diversity at the Department of Homeland Security?

The talk show host’s recent admission of trysts with women who worked for him, a Republican lawmaker said Wednesday, has provoked not outrage among his fans and the media, but rather a sense of reluctant acceptance. And Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.) suggested that such a reaction helps promote a belief among women that they have to endure sexual discrimination in order to advance their careers.

“If that message goes out to women — that a hostile environment as far as a person in authority making it clear how you advance — that is a terrible, terrible message,” he said.

Lungren, a member of the House Homeland Security Committee, is especially concerned because the DHS workforce is mostly white and primarily male. The six-year-old department employs more than 170,000 people in roughly two dozen agencies and offices, making it the third-largest federal department. But women account for 32 percent of DHS employees, more than 10 points less than the percentage in civilian and government jobs.

Homeland Security Deputy Secretary Jane Holl Lute assured committee members Wednesday that she will not tolerate a Letterman-like environment at the DHS.

“It is my personal commitment — it’s certainly the secretary’s personal commitment — that Homeland Security will not only be a department where diversity can thrive, but where we are the leading edge of best practice in the federal government for a diverse workforce,” Lute said.

Lute added that she and DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano are committed to fixing the gender and racial disparities.

“We don’t need a notice for a congressional hearing to know that we have a challenge and a problem with diversity at Homeland Security,” she said.

House members conducted Wednesday’s hearing to follow up on several reports that highlight the department’s lingering inability to recruit and retain women and minorities. (Diary readers may recall that this column discussed the lagging number of Latinos in the federal government just last week.)

Rep. Yvette D. Clarke (D-N.Y.) noted that it could be harder to attract female recruits because of the law enforcement culture that fosters “the same old, same old male-dominated institution building.” She seemed unimpressed by Lute’s assurances that things will change.

“Being a woman in a nontraditional role myself, I just seem to hear the same commentary over and over. Maybe I’m hypersensitive, but it just appears that way,” Clarke said.

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