As the New York Times article states, the appointment of Carla Provost to Chief of the U.S. Border Patrol is a historical moment. Women in the Patrol are a rare sight as they make up only 5% of the force. Climbing the ladder from station level to sector, women become even more scarce. Moving from sector to national staff, women are literally non-existent.
So, you might think that as a former female Border Patrol Agent myself, I would be proud to see that Provost had been appointed as the first ever female chief. In truth, part of me was. After all, I know how rare it is for a female agent to obtain any rank.
Provost entered the patrol shortly before I did in the mid-nineties. Even though we were in different stations (she in Douglas, AZ and I in Campo, CA) and even though I left after six years of service, I know she experienced roughly the same situations I did. I can see it in her sun-damaged skin that is tattooed with the same stress lines that I see looking back at me every morning. I see it in her poorly-fitted, cheap green uniform that she is none-the-less proud to wear. I recognize myself in her no-longer academy fit body that has been broken down by years of injuries, both mental and physical.
But those shared experiences are where my pride in her appointment ends. My support for her as a chief depends on what she does with her position, not just what her gender is or in the similarities I can see between us.
So far, Provost has been a disappointment.
As the Times article points out, Provost likes to claim that her rise through the ranks is demonstrative of how there is no gender bias in the Patrol. She gives stereotypical, propagandist reasons for the low female agent population that the agency has spouted for decades:
“Ms. Provost cites a number of reasons, among them the remote, rugged locations. It’s often solitary duty, with large stretches of time patrolling alone, facing constant threats from dangerous drug and human smuggling organizations.”
She even went so far as to claim: “You have to be someone who wants to be outdoors, who likes to work in rough conditions.”
All of which is standard male Patrol jargon for “put up and shut up, little lady.” Not once did Provost give voice to the daily sexual harassment that female agents endure. Not once did she call out those male agents who have condoned and contributed to the culture of sexual assault within the Patrol. Her silence on this matter is the same as condoning it, and it is shameful.
Chief Provost must deal with the Patrol’s sexist culture.
Chief Provost has the unique opportunity to make some substantive changes within the Border Patrol. If she claims to have never witnessed or known of sexual assaults or harassment against female agents by male agents, she is lying. Every agent, male or female, is aware that female agents are seen as threats. They are viewed as potential equal opportunity filers. Male managerial agents are taught to always have another male agent around when they speak to a female agent, or to at least keep their office door open for fear of being accused of sexual harassment and or assault. As I can personally attest to and have witnessed with other female agents, when a female agent does come forward or files charges against a male agent, she is automatically labeled a liar and harassed throughout her career.
Sexual harassment and assault of its female agents is a cultural aspect of the Border Patrol and Provost knows this. When male agents pass their trainee status, it is custom for the male supervisors to treat them to a night of drinks and prostitutes in Mexico. It is also common for male agents to make dates with women they arrest after they get off duty. None of this has changed. The hazing of female agents continues to go unchecked some twenty years after Provost and I entered the Patrol.
Chief Provost likes to say that there are no male or female agents, just agents. If she wants to boost and retain female agents, she first must stop this ridiculous propagandist argument that there is no difference between male and female agents. If this were the case, male agents would be sexually assaulted and harassed at the same rate, but they are not. Chief Provost’s own claim that women don’t want to join or stay in the Patrol because it involves work in remote, rough terrain or that it is lonely and dangerous is sexist in and of itself. She knows this argument is a load of bullshit and should be ashamed for even uttering it.
Chief Provost must start in the academies. Trainees must be instructed that any form of harassment or assault against each other will not be tolerated. Entire classes of male and female trainees must attend classes on sexual harassment and assault and how to file grievances should they need to do so. Those who further harass and label victims as troublemakers and such should be fired as well. Any agents found to be breaking the law by going to Mexico for graduation prostitute parties, hazing or dating those they arrest should be fired and prosecuted. Any agents furthering the atmosphere that female agents cannot be trusted because they will file allegations should be fired.
Carla Provost has the same opportunities as past chiefs to make major, sorely needed changes within the Patrol. As the first female chief, she has the unique ability to change the culture of violence and harassment of female agents and thus increase their numbers should she choose to do so.
I’m just not convinced she cares to do so.