In a federal lawsuit filed last week, a former FBI agent alleges that she was "discriminated against, harassed, and ultimately constructively discharged from her employment" because she was a woman who complained about a "hostile and intolerable" working environment.
In January 2013, Danielle Marks, who joined the FBI in 2010, arrived in Colorado to join the Metro Gang Task Force; she had transferred from Baltimore, where she was the only female agent on the squad. Her former supervisor said she got along well with her coworkers.
The environment in Denver, however, proved to be very different. According to Marks, three male agents, identified as Tobar, Sanin, and Alexander, refused to work with her on surveillance and wiretapping duties, oftentimes just not showing up for scheduled shifts with her. They also excluded her from operations planning because, the suit states, that kind of work "should be 'left up to the boys.'"
The plaintiff wasn't the only one to endure such misogynistic behavior. She reported overhearing the three agents having a discussion about the possibility of another female agent leaving to move closer to her boyfriend. Tobar—who, according to the suit, had on numerous occasions made it known he didn't think women could cut it as FBI agents—responded: "[G]ood, I hope she quits; she can stay home in the kitchen."
The suit also alleges the working environment "was replete with inappropriate sexual comments." For example, a female agent, Sara Aerts, brought a cake decorated in the shape of a penis and placed it on a male colleague's desk, calling him "the biggest dick on the task force."
Another female agent told Marks she heard a male agent tell Aerts, "Let me lick your pussy."
There were also rumors of an alleged relationship between an agent and an assistant US attorney that many of the men in the office felt they had to comment on, the suit states, including suggesting that the agent was out making the attorney's "trailer shake" or "laying the pipe" on her.
Rebecca Paynich is a criminal justice professor at Curry College in Massachusetts who's spent time researching the experiences of women who work in law enforcement. She tells Broadly that many of the female officers she's surveyed report enduring behaviors that are sexually harassing, such as having to hear dirty jokes and sexually suggestive remarks.
Women are also more likely to be talked down to, have their judgment questioned, and be interrupted or spoken over, Paynich says. However, very few actually lodge formal complaints in fear of retaliation, especially if management hasn't shown itself to be very supportive. This, Paynich says, reveals an organizational factor at play.
"From my research, the organizations that do not tolerate this kind of behavior have a lot less of it," she says, pointing to the need for policies and procedures. Without them, she says, "everything from the sexist jokes to putting women down to not giving women equal assignments … flourishes."
According to testimony given before Congress last year, the FBI has "a robust disciplinary process" when it comes to allegations of sexual harassment and sexual misconduct. "Our employees are expected to make the workplace a respectful, professional environment free from offensive behavior," associate deputy director Kevin L. Perkins said at the time.
But when Marks complained to her supervisors, nothing changed. Supervisory special agent Todd Wilcox repeatedly made excuses for Tobar, Sanin, and Alexander when they failed to show up to work with the plaintiff. He also told fellow management at a meeting that "Ms. Marks was mistreated because the male special agents did not like her," the suit alleges.
The plaintiff formally resigned from the FBI in October 2014 after an internal investigation into her allegations proved fruitless. She also filed a complaint with the FBI's Office of Equal Employment Opportunity Affairs.
The suit also suggests the offending agents were well aware of their behavior. Throughout Marks' tenure, "male special agents made inappropriate comments and then looked at Ms. Marks or Special Agent Aerts and said, 'I wonder how many zeroes will be at the end of that lawsuit check.' After a few months, male special agents made inappropriate comments and then said, 'Uh oh, add another zero.' All of the other male FBI special agents would laugh at this comment."
Marks is seeking compensatory damages, back pay, and reinstatement.