With an inspiring career spanning 30 years, Dr. Mary Beth Wilkas Janke is one of a few women to join the ranks of the US Secret Service, as well as the only female agent to officially protect a foreign president abroad. Psychologist, author, forensic and security consultant, as Dr. Wilkas Janke says herself, she knows what it is to contend against great odds and challenge the status quo. Today, she will share some of her experiences working and thriving as a woman in executive protection.
Q: Your career is extremely impressive – working with the Secret Service as a Special Agent, teaching at George Washington University, training police and military forces, and even accepting private military contract work. What did it take to defy the odds and join the ranks as a female member of the Secret Service? And what important lesson can we take away from your experience?
First of all, thank you. I appreciate this interview and EP Wired Magazine recognizing and acknowledging the various facets of my career. It’s true – my career in the field of Executive Protection has been fairly unique and it started with my time as a Special Agent in the Washington Field Office of the United States Secret Service.
I became an agent in 1991 and female agents made up around 9% of the 2,000 agents – so there were only about 180 female agents total. There were definitely men who did not appreciate that women were also agents, that felt women did not belong in law enforcement, and that longed for the good old days of what they used to call, “Buicks, Booze, and Brawds”.
There was actually one male agent I was working with in a command post that outright told me we (women) ruined the Secret Service. My response to him was simply, “Well, I believe the best decision the Service ever made was to hire female agents”.
At least I got a smile, a chuckle, and a “I like you” out of him.
Now, not all male agents felt that way; there were many male agents who were very pro-female agent and that served as mentors to me, helped guide me through the maze of the Secret Service, and were solidly in my corner. I knew when I applied to be an Agent what I was walking into – a very male-dominated industry – and I chose that and everything that came with it.
I believe that is key – being honest and realistic about what you are walking into, recognizing that it is a choice, AND not expecting to have your butt kissed because you are a female. My “secret” to getting along with everyone was to keep my head down, do my job, and remind myself that I was competent and that I belonged there as much, if not more, than my male colleagues.
I was also an athlete all my life and, on every job I ever worked, I kept in shape. This is how I earned their respect, through hard work, self-confidence, and self-pride. That is the most important lesson a woman can take away from my experience – understand what you are getting into, do your job, and stay in shape.
Q: After a while with the Secret Service, you transitioned into the private sector as an international protective agent and investigator, later as a forensic and clinical psychologist. In what ways does your previous experience complement your career in academia and psychology?
Each role in my past careers – federal agent, international EP Agent, and private investigator – has definitely fed into my current work as a forensic and clinical psychologist. I learned and was exposed a very wide range of people in my previous careers and, because of this, nothing has really surprised or fazed me in my work in academia or psychology.
In addition, I have been fortunate to have traveled so much of the world – both through work missions and personal trips – that my understanding of different cultures, languages, and traditions is broader than many people in my field and I consider this a huge advantage for my students and therapy clients.
Q: Breaking into executive protection, or the security industry in general, isn’t always easy for female professionals. But, has the industry changed over the last decade or two? Do women now get the same protective job opportunities as men?
I can first speak from my personal experience. I was an EP agent back in the 90’s when there were so few of women in law enforcement and even fewer in EP in the private sector. I was extremely fortunate in that I was always busy and was offered roles and worked a wide variety of missions – from government contracts in foreign countries to wealthy private families here in the United States.
Let’s be honest – in the private sector, my credentials were unusual.
Being a former USSS Agent opened many doors for me because people respected the training and the job we did. Plus, with each mission, I built a pretty solid reputation – it didn’t matter whether I was in Port-au-Prince, Haiti or Sarasota, Florida, I pulled at least my share of the weight, I never whined, and I was a reliable (and fun) teammate.
Fast forward to the last decade or so and I do believe the industry has changed. There are more women in the military, more women in law enforcement, and more women in the world of international executive protection.
I still believe women fight for positions in the industry because EP is still perceived by many people as a profession for men. Nonetheless, if, as a woman, that’s what you want, please do not let the challenge of making your way into the industry stop you. Do what it takes – get reputable training, talk with people in the industry that can help guide you, and get into shape.
Q: Looking forward, how do you see women in executive protection changing the profession in the future? Firstly, do you think we will see more female EPAs in the years to come? Also, what do you think is the single greatest point of contention when it comes to making career choices like yours?
I see women changing the profession of EP by taking on more roles of greater responsibility. I believe by now, in the year 2023, women have proven that they are competent to lead protections teams, they can train just as hard as their male counterparts, and they are true assets in the industry.
The single greatest point of contention when it comes to making career choices like mine and other women in the EP industry is whether or not you want to have a family. EP is an extremely demanding career that doesn’t fit the societal norm as far as having a consistent family life – you are typically on the road a lot, you are not home every night for dinner, you miss many of your kids’ school events, and so on.
Also, as far as having a life outside of work, you will have a very hard time committing to anything, such as a weekly tennis group, because you rarely have a schedule where you know what time you will be free at the end of any given day. Your life really becomes that of your protectee. That’s the job.
Remember, though, it’s a choice so, like I mentioned earlier – be realistic about what you are walking into….