WASHINGTON — When the call came in that a bomb had exploded in Manhattan, Amy Hess quickly got to work.
She helped direct teams of FBI agents to New York to collect evidence, set up secure command posts in the streets so agents could discuss classified information, and alerted the digital forensics, fingerprint and facial recognition experts she manages in Quantico, Virginia, site of the FBI academy and its lab. By the next day, she and her team had played a crucial role in identifying Ahmad Khan Rahami, the man charged with planting the bomb along with a second, unexploded device.
"We pulled out all the stops," said Hess, who as head of the bureau's science and technology branch oversees more than 6,000 FBI employees.
Inside the FBI, women in particular look up to Hess, and not just because they have nicknamed her the "rocket scientist" with a degree in aeronautical and astronautical engineering from Purdue University. She is also the first woman to head the science branch — one of few female agents commanding such an important job at the FBI, a clubby agency where men are more predominant in senior positions than they were even three years ago.
Hess, 50, put it simply: "There is a lack of women in leadership roles."
Today at the FBI, women hold 12 percent of 220 senior agent positions, including nine who run field offices in places like Los Angeles; Oklahoma City; Louisville, Kentucky; and Knoxville, Tennessee. That is a decline from 2013, when women held about 20 percent of senior agent jobs and 15 women ran field offices.
"It seems to be going backwards," said Janice K. Fedarcyk, now retired, who ran the New York office, with about 2,000 employees, from 2010 to 2012. "They need to do something to turn that around.''
James B. Comey, the FBI director, has described the lack of women — and also minorities — in the FBI as a serious problem that can undermine investigations and keep the agency out of touch with the communities it serves. Of the bureau's 13,523 agents overall, 2,683 — or about 20 percent — are women. About 83 percent of the agents overall are white.
"The big challenge we've been confronting over the last two years is, how do we get women and people of color" to join the FBI, Comey said Oct. 16 at a conference of police chiefs in San Diego. "That's been our big trouble, and I've described it as a crisis."
In response, the FBI put a plan in place to try to increase the overall number of female agents to 33 percent. The bureau will also soon start providing field offices with recruitment data, something it had never done. That will allow the FBI to track where it has successfully recruited employees and perhaps tie the data to performance reviews and bonuses.
"Our ability to be believed is at risk," Comey said in a speech this year. "The FBI must be able to stand on any corner in the U.S. or before any jury and be believed."
The FBI has long struggled to promote women. It was not until after J. Edgar Hoover's death in 1972 that women were accepted as agents — the people at the agency who carry guns, run investigations and are at the heart of the FBI's macho culture. It took another two decades before Burdena G. Pasenelli, known as Birdie, was appointed the first female agent to run a field office. Her assignment? Anchorage, Alaska, which was not then, or now, at the center of the action.
But for women in the bureau, Pasenelli, who died this year, was a trailblazer.
"It opened the door for a lot women to think about the possibilities," said Stephanie Douglas, who in 2012 became the first woman to run the FBI's national security branch. Douglas, who worked with prosecutors to investigate the destruction of CIA videotapes that depicted the torture of terrorism suspects overseas, retired in 2013.
FBI officials say they cannot explain completely the step backward of women in leadership roles at the bureau, but they say retirements and the timing of openings are partly responsible. David Schlendorf, assistant director for the FBI's human resources division, called it a "worrisome" trend, although not intractable.
"I am optimistic we can do better," said Valerie Parlave, Schlendorf's boss, who in 2013 became the first woman to run the Washington field office.
Women cite three important reasons so few of them are in the FBI's senior ranks.
First, the FBI's path to promotion is often less appealing to women, more than a dozen former and current female agents said. FBI agents can be transferred at a moment's notice, which often requires leaving a family behind. Traditionally, that has meant that men in the bureau have to uproot without their children and spouses for long stretches of time, a sacrifice women may be less willing to make.
Douglas, who does not have children, said she once moved from San Francisco to Washington in four days and that she relocated four times from 2005 to 2013. Each time a call came, she feared that if she said no, she might not get another chance.
"The bureau is incredibly competitive," Douglas said. "If you don't take advantage of that opportunity, somebody else will."
Second, women say the FBI does not have enough high-ranking female role models or mentors. Although women hold senior agent jobs, a woman has never been in charge of a large FBI operational division like counterterrorism, which in the post-9/11 world has been dominated by men who went on to bigger jobs — including the FBI's No. 2 position, deputy director. A woman has never been deputy director, or director.
Fedarcyk, the former head of the New York field office who was also the top agent in charge of terrorism in Los Angeles and managed the bureau's effort to track terrorism financing, said her success was, in part, because people took an interest in her work and helped her along the way.
"I had a great career," she said. "There are a lot of different reasons why that is the case. Some women don't want to take that next step. Some guys don't want to take that next step. I was fortunate coming up in the bureau. I had strong mentors."
A third problem, women say, is that far fewer women apply for top FBI jobs than men. For every dozen or so applicants for a senior job, Hess said, only one or two are women.
In part, that is because there are fewer women in the agency to begin with, but women also shy away from applying for top FBI jobs, Hess said, for the same reason that many men do: They see sitting behind a desk, even with more seniority and pay, as inferior to what many consider the dream job of agent — working the streets, meeting with informants, making cases and putting criminals in jail.
"That's the reason you come into the bureau," said Hess, who once worked violent crimes, gangs and drugs and briefly ran FBI counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan. "Not to push paper." This month, Hess will take over the office in Louisville, Kentucky, the eighth move in her career.
At the FBI, there have been many challenges for women. Female agents have repeatedly sued the FBI for sexual harassment and discrimination. This year, a former agent accused her male co-workers in the Denver office of behaving inappropriately and making disparaging comments. According to the lawsuit, a male agent was overheard talking about a female colleague: "I hope she quits. She can stay home in the kitchen."
Beverly Andress, who joined the agency in 1983 and retired in 2006, recalled that she was often introduced as a "female agent" rather than just an agent. "You have to have a good sense of humor," she said. "It's a man's world."
FBI officials say that if the numbers are looked at as an average over the last decade, the agency has a better record of women in senior agent positions — about 16 percent — than other federal law enforcement agencies, including the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the Drug Enforcement Administration and Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Only the Secret Service had a slightly higher percentage of women in senior agent positions.
Female agents say they will know the FBI has made progress when a woman is finally put in charge of counterterrorism, criminal investigations, counterintelligence or is appointed as deputy director. For now, the stars in those divisions are overwhelmingly male.
"We are playing catch-up," said Voviette Morgan, a senior agent who runs the bureau's internal investigations section and is a seasoned counterterrorism investigator. "In 2016, I hate the fact we say firsts."
"We are behind the curve," Morgan added. "There is no doubt about it."