Expert Commentary

Women in the federal government: Ambitions and achievements

2011 report by the U.S. government on progress of women in federal hiring and attainment of higher-level positions.

How the federal government addresses issues of equality and diversity within its own ranks sends powerful signals across society. The federal government’s hiring practices in particular can serve as key indicators of progress.

In 1992, the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) issued a report, “A Question of Equity: Women and the Glass Ceiling in the Federal Government,” indicating that inequalities continued to persist. Due in part to that report, the federal government made significant efforts to eliminate gender inequalities.  In 2011, the MSPB published a follow-up report, “Women in the Federal Government: Ambitions and Achievements” (PDF), that examines the progress made in the last 20 years, the challenges that remain and possible methods to overcome these challenges to achieve true equality.

The report’s findings include:

  • Women have made considerable gains since 1992, when they represented just 35% of the professional, middle-tier federal workforce. Females “now hold approximately 44% of the positions in both professional and administrative occupations, which constitute the pipeline for positions at the highest grade and pay levels, including the Senior Executive Service.”
  • Despite these gains, women still only account for roughly 30% of the Senior Executive Service. Part of this might be due to lower willingness to relocate among female employees and the fact that “approximately 72% of positions in the career Senior Executive Service are located in the greater Washington, D.C., metropolitan area.”
  • Differences in pay have been reduced across the board. These “gains have been greatest in administrative occupations, where the median salary for women is now almost 93% of that for men, up from just over 83% in 1991.”
  • The difference between genders in the average years of service of employees in professional and administrative occupations has decreased by nearly five percentage points in professional positions; the difference has become inverse in administrative positions, with women having more years of work experience than their male counterparts on average.
  • Part of these shifts can be explained by the fact that “in the United States, women now account for a majority of college students and a majority of the college degrees conferred each year.” In 1991, only 52% of female federal employees had at least a four-year degree, compared to 74% of men; these percentages shifted by 2009 to 60% and 69%, respectively.
  • Despite many gains, women remain less likely to hold higher-paid positions:  “While women are a majority of employees in professional and administrative occupations that have a median salary between $70,000 and $79,999, they remain a distinct minority in occupations with a median salary of $90,000 or above.”
  • Even though women are equally as likely as men to hold the necessary qualifications for external hiring, “women are still somewhat more likely to be hired when an agency fills a position through internal hiring instead of external hiring, or fills a position at entry-level or mid-level instead of upper-level.”

Tags: gender, employment, women and work

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