Lawmaker: Pat-downs holding women back

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Female Transportation Security Administration (TSA) agents are being held back from potential promotions because they are needed for so many pat-downs, a Democratic lawmaker suggested this week. 

Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) said during a hearing on Tuesday that the agency's requirement that female agents conduct inspections only of female passengers is making it more difficult for them to advance their careers. 

“I recently met with Transportation Security Officers who relayed that female TSOs are finding it more difficult to be promoted, because they are held at the passenger checkpoints for pat-downs rather than gaining experience at other stations,” Lowey told Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson during the hearing on funding for the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the TSA.

“Approximately 33 percent of TSOs are women, and as only female TSOs are permitted to pat-downs of female travelers as well as being the preferred choice for pat-downs of children and the elderly — the result is that 33 percent of TSOs are responsible for over 50 percent of all the pat-downs,” Lowey continued.

“Having female TSOs conduct pat-downs of female passengers is certainly a well-intentioned policy, but I have heard continuing problems about its implementation.” 

Lowey said the preference for female TSA agents by many travelers who are selected for pat-downs is placing an undue burden on them to stay in place rather than rotate to different positions, like the agency’s other employees.  

“Due to the increased demand for female TSOs at passenger checkpoints, they tell me they are not rotating positions per TSA policy, because of insufficient number of TSOs on duty at passenger check points,” Lowey said. “The result is that female TSOs are not getting the experience at other stations to be considered for a promotion and are being denied shifts in position bids because they are disproportionately kept at the check points.”  

Johnson told Lowey he was not aware of the discrepancy between advancement opportunities for male and female TSA workers.  

“I had not heard that before,” the secretary said. “But I am not surprised, given the basic statistics. If 33 percent of TSOs are women and we want TSOs ... who are women to conduct pat-downs of women passengers, who are probably about 50 percent of aviation passengers, and if you add kids, that's in excess of 50 percent.” 

Johnson said he would “look into” the issues that were pointed out by Lowey, but he defended the TSA policy of having airline passengers be inspected by security officials of the same gender. 

“I wouldn't want to see male officers doing that with regard to women,” Johnson said of the possibility of men conducting TSA pat-downs on female passengers. 

“There is a certain logic to your question that requires that they be on the front lines of aviation security,” he continued. “I wouldn't want to see that deprive them of promotion opportunities. So I will look into that. That is an interesting comment, which I had not heard from the women in the force who I have chatted with at LAX and Dulles and elsewhere. 

"That doesn't mean it doesn't exist," Johnson said. "They just didn't raise it to me directly.”