When A. Tonya Odom joined the FBI in 2008, the former civil rights attorney and administrative judge wanted to help lead efforts to increase diversity within the 100-year-old agency’s traditionally male, largely white ranks.
Her work at the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which enforces federal laws against job discrimination, led to her role as chief of a special program unit in the Bureau’s Office of Equal Employment Opportunity Affairs. Then in 2012—after successfully lobbying to create a new Office of Diversity and Inclusion—Odom was selected to lead it as the Bureau’s first chief diversity officer.
Last October, Odom returned to the Office of Equal Employment Opportunity Affairs—this time as assistant director. Looking back on her eight years as the FBI’s leading advocate for diversity and inclusion, Odom is measured but optimistic on efforts to move the diversity needle at the FBI and how far the Bureau still has to go.
Q. What were some of the early challenges to establishing the Office of Diversity and Inclusion?
Odom: One of the first things I did was to lobby to have diversity as a core value. Existing core values included respect, integrity, fairness, and compassion, among others. Initially, there was a little pushback, because some people thought diversity was encompassed in all the other values. Making diversity a core value elevated the office and made it relevant. Before, diversity was not thought of as mission-critical or really helping us to do better as an organization. We were able to demonstrate that diversity enhanced our ability to connect with the communities we protect and serve.
Q. The FBI has struggled to improve diversity, particularly among special agents, where 83.4% are white, 4.4% are Black, and 67% are men. The figures are slightly better for intelligence analysts and professional staff. How do you interpret that?
Odom: It is frustrating. Our workforce is not that diverse. But we’ve also got to think about how we measure progress. And one of our big projects is a barrier analysis that looks at the entire employee lifecycle—from recruiting to promotion—to understand where we have roadblocks. There are barriers where individuals, based on their race or gender or ethnicity, are not going through those gates at the same rate. Our recruitment of women and minorities special agents has gone up significantly, but they don't all show up at new agent training. We’ve got to look at where we’re losing people and then see what we can do to improve that process.
“In order for us to really see that needle move, everybody’s got to be involved.”
A. Tonya Odom, assistant director, Office of Equal Employment Opportunity Affairs
Q. What are some other measures of progress?
Odom: We have grown significantly in a number of ways. We’re not just talking about ethnic and racial diversity, but also diversity in terms of gender, sexual orientation, ability, and other dimensions of diversity. So, we’ve grown with respect to how we view diversity. We have also significantly enhanced our data collection and analysis capabilities.
And, with the office’s growth in scope and stature, we’ve helped executives and front line employees alike to understand that diversity and inclusion is everyone’s responsibility. That’s still a challenge for us—that sense of shared responsibility. But in order for us to really see that needle move, everybody’s got to be involved. That said, we were named one of the top diversity employers in government last year for our efforts reaching out to women and minorities. More than 40% of special agent applicants since 2016 are minorities, and we’ve increased the number of minorities at every level in the Bureau over the same time period.
And the applicant pool for female special agents has grown since 2016 from 10% in 2016 to 37%. I’m not saying we are there and that we’re doing great, because we’re not, quite frankly. But there are some important, visible differences, and we are on the path to even bigger accomplishments.
‘A Family Like No Other’
To learn more about the the FBI's efforts to increase diversity—and to view demographic statistics about special agents, intelligence analysts, and professional staff—visit fbijobs.gov.
Q. Can you describe some of the initiatives?
Odom: The FBI now has diversity recruitment plans with recruitment goals for each of the field offices. They are based on a field office’s historical recruitment and the office’s area demographics. That’s something I had been advocating for quite some time. We also created Diversity Agent Recruitment events held by field offices to support the hiring goals. We want to help our workforce in each part of the country reflect the diversity of the communities we serve. We also conduct bias training for decision makers, which are interactive workshops designed to explore the impact of bias on decision-making and provide strategies for mitigating bias in our personal and professional lives.
The FBI is also increasing its recruiting at historically Black colleges and universities. And in June, after the murder of George Floyd, we established the Equity Working Group to examine issues that affect Black employment. The group works with other special advocacy groups here, including FBI African American Millennials, the Black Affairs Diversity Committee, and the Black Female Special Agents. The groups have helped inform our Cross-Cultural Mentorship Program, which seeks to increase the pipeline of female and minority candidates for senior leadership positions.
Q. Do you feel like there’s unfinished business as you transition away from the Office of Diversity and Inclusion back to the Office of Equal Employment Opportunity Affairs?
Odom: I feel like over a period of time I gained a lot of trust and confidence, and that got results. Taking into account the whole diversity journey from where we started to where we are now—you come to realize this is a long road. Change is incremental. I’m proud of the achievements so far and I appreciate all those who will come after me to continue the journey. Years ago, you didn't hear people talk about diversity. You didn’t have the assistant director of the Human Resources Division and other executives looking at how different policies and practices impact diversity. I think we should all be encouraged that we are moving in the right direction.
I think the culture now at the Bureau in terms of diversity and inclusion is ripe for success. I think we have really good people in positions of leadership that have demonstrated or expressed their commitment to diversity. And that’s important. Because if we have the support, we can really effectuate change.
“Change is incremental. I’m proud of the achievements so far and I appreciate all those who will come after me to continue the journey.”
A. Tonya Odom