By Stephanie Gosk, Sarah Fitzpatrick, Julia Ainsley and Kenzi Abou-Sabe
WASHINGTON — Sixteen women who trained to become FBI agents and analysts have come forward in a lawsuit filed Wednesday accusing the bureau of gender discrimination in how it trains and evaluates female candidates.
The women, seven of whom still work at the FBI, detail incidents where they say they were punished for behavior their male counterparts got away with. They also describe what they say is a male-biased review process, and even overt sexual harassment.
Ten of the former trainees agreed to be interviewed exclusively by NBC News. Five of them asked not to be identified by their full names.
The former trainees said their experiences at the FBI's training academy in Quantico, Virginia, left them feeling powerless and angry. "They made me feel like I was worthless and disposable," said one plaintiff, who asked to be identified only as "Ava."
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One of the women, Lauren Rose, provided an email she says she received from then-FBI Director James Comey in response to her frustrations at being dismissed from training after serving with the FBI for nearly six years.
Rose described unsuccessful attempts to speak with a supervisor to get clarity about the decision to dismiss her one week before graduation in May 2015. She says Comey responded in a lengthy message, telling her "I believe I have thoughtful leaders at Training Division, who apply tremendous care to such decisions," and he would therefore not question their actions.
According to the complaint, Comey encouraged Rose to "stare hard at the situation and what it teaches you, especially about your strengths and weaknesses."
Rose also alleges that Mark Morgan, now the acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, took issue with Rose’s "attitude" during her oral presentation, but provided “no substantiation to support why he felt that way.” At the time in 2015, Morgan was a deputy assistant director of the FBI and handled new recruits for the bureau.
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Another woman in the lawsuit, Paula Bird, claims she received demerits for not using a flashlight in a dark setting during a deadly force scenario. A male colleague made the same mistake that day and was not penalized, according to court papers filed in federal court in Washington on Wednesday evening.
"It became very clear that there were people that they considered that needed to be watched, and that group would have majority females," said Bird, who graduated from college at 19 and law school at 22. "You're in the group that, 'You don't know what you're doing, you're not very good, and we're going to watch every move you make because we're expecting you to fail.'"
Another former new agent trainee, who is referred to as Jane Doe 1 in the lawsuit, described sexual harassment from four male classmates who tried to convince her to have sexual intercourse with them. Jane Doe 1 says she had to have a friend escort her to her room because one of the classmates would follow her at night.
The lawsuit alleges that over 100 women who recently enrolled at the FBI's Basic Field Training Course in Quantico as new agent trainees or new intelligence analyst trainees have encountered some form of gender discrimination, and that the problem is worse for women of color or those with disabilities. It is a proposed class action lawsuit, but the class is not yet certified.
"The FBI has intentionally allowed the Good Old Boy Network to flourish unrestrained at the FBI Academy," alleges the suit. "Training Division staff, including instructors, supervisors, field counselors, managers, and review board members, frequently dismiss mistakes made by male trainees as isolated incidents, determine male trainees to be retrainable, and retain them at the Academy at a disproportionately higher rate than their female trainee counterparts."
The plaintiffs, who were trainees at Quantico from 2015 to 2018, estimate that 80 percent of the trainees from their classes who were discharged prior to graduation were female.
According to statistics provided by the FBI, in recent years the average graduating class has been about 20 percent female. In fiscal year 2019 to date, according to the bureau, females have accounted for 32 percent of the enrollment in the training course.
“If it was currently based on merit, we wouldn’t be filing a lawsuit, said Clare Coetzer, adding that the subjective nature of evaluation was ripe for abuse by the predominantly male instructors. “They pick and choose who they want to leave.”
Women also said they experienced retaliation by their superiors when they spoke up about alleged discrimination.
Erika Wesley said she felt obligated to tell a superior about “excessive discrimination” against a female co-worker. Wesley said that when she told her female unit chief, however, “She looked me in the eyes and said: ‘You coming forward and speaking up will not go without consequence. I hope it was worth it.’ … And from there on out I was targeted. I was marginalized. I was isolated. I was harassed constantly.”
Without additional data from the bureau, it's not possible to confirm a pattern. For fiscal year 2019, however, if the beginning enrollment is 32 percent female and the graduating class is once again 20 percent female, it would mean females were discharged at a higher rate.
The FBI did not respond to questions from NBC News about the specific allegations because it does not comment on pending litigation as a matter of policy.
"While we are unable to comment on litigation," said the bureau in a statement, "the FBI is committed to fostering a work environment where all of our employees are valued and respected. Diversity is one of our core values, and to effectively accomplish our mission of protecting the American people we need people of different genders, backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives."
The plaintiffs in the lawsuit are being funded in part by the Time's Up Legal Defense Fund, which seeks to aid women who are the alleged victims of sexual harassment and retaliation across industries.
The attorney representing the proposed class of new trainees, David Shaffer, said the FBI has not been willing to discuss these current complaints.
"Everybody wants to sweep it under the rug," Shaffer said.
Paula Bird, who still works at the FBI, said the bureau should take a look at itself. "We're an agency that investigates. If somebody's making a claim — multiple somebodies who are qualified for hiring and qualified for positions ... investigate it. And see if there's any truth to it."
The women said they hoped their lawsuit would spur changes at the FBI. “I don’t want future daughters of America to have to deal with what we all went through,” said Danielle Snider. “I want girls that have these dreams from when they’re young to become FBI special agents to go out there with gender not being a deciding factor.”
Stephanie Gosk is an NBC News correspondent based in New York City. She contributes to “Nightly News with Lester Holt,” “TODAY” and MSNBC.
Sarah Fitzpatrick is an investigative producer for NBC News. She previously worked for 60 Minutes and CBS News.
Julia Ainsley is a correspondent covering the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice for the NBC News Investigative Unit.
Kenzi Abou-Sabe is a reporter with the NBC News Investigative Unit.