6 Obstacles Facing Women in Federal Workplace Examined in New Report

Are working women better off in the public sector or the private sector?

A new report by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) identifies and examines six major obstacles hindering equal opportunities for women in the federal workforce, in addition to highlighting stakeholder recommendations.

The good news for Uncle Sam is that working women generally fare better in the public sector compared to the private sector. Among other things, female feds earn more on the dollar, on average, than do their private sector counterparts.

The gender wage gap is double for women in the private sector (about 23-cents on the dollar) versus that of female feds (about 11-cents on the dollar), according to the GAO — as I pointed out in a previous post commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Equal Pay Act in June.

Female Feds “Have Made Enormous Strides”

Carlton Hadden, Director of the EEOC’s Office of Federal Operations (OFO), stated in a press release on the new report:

  • “While women have made enormous strides in federal employment, there are still significant obstacles which hinder their advancement.”
  • “This effort is the latest step in an ongoing dialogue with the EEOC’s stakeholders to effectuate a model federal workplace for all employees.”

The report points out, among other things:

  • “In 2011, women comprised 43.81% of the federal workforce. Despite this, preliminary data for 2011 shows that women only comprised 37.77% of GS-14 and GS-15 positions, and 30.03% of Senior Executive Service positions.”

  • “Further, the average General Schedule and Related (GSR) grade for women was 9.6, more than one grade below the average grade level for men of 10.7.(3)”

6 Obstacles Facing Female Feds

Following are the six obstacles identified in the EEOC’s Women’s Work Group Report:

1) Inflexible workplace policies create challenges for women with caregiver obligations in the federal workforce.

2) Higher-level and management positions remain harder to obtain for women.

3) Women are underrepresented in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields in the federal workforce.

4) Women and men do not earn the same average salary in the federal government.

5) Unconscious gender biases and stereotypical perceptions about women still play an important role in employment decisions in the federal sector.

6) There is a perception that federal agencies lack commitment to achieving equal opportunities for women in the federal workplace.


1) Do you agree with the obstacles and issues identified in the report?

2) Do you agree with the recommendations of EEOC’s dialogue partners?

3) Are there any other EEO obstacles facing federally employed women?

4) If you are a federally employed woman what personal barriers — if any — have you confronted in career advancement?

5) Do you think there’s a “glass ceiling” for women in federal government?


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Mark Hammer

A decade back, we had a visit from then head of OPM, Janice LaChance. (Drove us crazy to hear it pronounced AS la-CHANCE instead of La-SHAHNSS, but that’s a separate linguistic matter. 🙂 ) She gave a presentation on all the wonderful things OPM was doing or set to implement. Nice talk, and great intentions.

That morning, however, I had just finished reading a report prepared for the British public service on barriers to women’s advancement within their own PS. One of the things it had pointed out, on the basis of extensive focus group consultation, was that management culture tended to be a big barrier. It wasn’t outright discriminatory in the classic sense of rejecting women. Rather, the cultural emblems that designated one as “management material” were decidedly male-advantaged. So, not being able to attend meetings on Saturdays, or remain at meetings beyond 5:00PM were treated as omens that one wasn’t necessarily cut out for this line of work. As I’m fond of wryly noting to colleagues, the difficulty many women have in climbing the ladder stems from the fact that so very few have wives.

Mme. LaChance talked up the good things they were expecting or had done with respect to “family friendly” policies. She also noted the implementation of a pay-for-performance regimen (or at least an intent to do so). When question period came around, I mentioned the report I had just read, and suggested that pay-for-performance couldn’t really live easily under the same roof as family-friendly, chiefly because much of what is viewed as “performance” is often quite unfriendly towards family life. She begrudgingly acknowledged this, and stated that cultural definitions of what counts as performance would need to change for these two directions to coexist better.

Within our own pubic service here in Canada, the overall sex balance has been steadily shifting in favour of women, who now make up the majority of pubic servants. If we look blindly at promotion rates, women have a moderately higher promotion rate than men. I think there are a number of counter-intuitive factors that result in this.

Certainly one of these is the types of work each sex is more, and less, inclined to enter. A quick scan of the sex distribution within our occupational groups finds:

3.03 women for every man in the “admin services group”

2.48 women for every man in the “program manager” group

3.61 women for every man in the “clerical and regulatory” group

2.87 men for every woman in the “computer systems” group

2.01 men for every woman in the “engineering and scientific support” group

13.5 men for every woman in the “general labour and trades” group

Not all occupational groups have the same extent of gender bias, with some being more evenly matched by sex than others (e.g., lawyers and biologists). Worth noting that those first three groups I listed make up somewhere around 40%+ of all public servants, though. There are roughly 1.2 men for every woman in the “executive” group. There are also roughly 1.29 women for every man in the national capitol region, Interestingly, similar sex ratios are found in some provinces, while others have the inverse. And roughly 43% of the total workforce is found in the capitol region.

I mention all of this because one always has to ask the question about how people get to middle and senior management positions, not just draw inferences from who ends up there. Some points of entry are more expedient routes to moving up, and some not so much.

Much of the office admin work is situated in the capitol, while the brunt of the blue collar and technical jobs are situated in regional/district offices. Promotion opportunities are much rarer in the smaller regional/district offices, where there are fewer agencies represented (hence less opportunity to “move out to move up”), and fewer openings higher up. One of the constraints to moving up in the regions is that it often necessitates moving to Ottawa, or one of the major metropolitan areas, where the housing cost differential may be prohibitive, or where the move itself may be highly disruptive to the family. And if the male member of the couple is the principal earner, there are disincentives to relocating and trading off her promotion opportunities for his current job.

Of course, not all promotions should be treated as equal. It is possible to be constantly promoted and still never get beyond a certain level. That IS, after all, why they call it a glass ceiling: nothing within one’s career up until that point had created the impression of limits.

David B. Grinberg

Thanks very much, Mark, for sharing your unique insights on this issue from a Canadian perspective.

The info and data about the Canadian government is interesting to consider when compared to the U.S. government. I like your point about gov employees being reticent on accepting promotions if it means moving to big cities where cost of living is much higher — even though the major cities in Canada look pretty nice to me, especially from an aesthetic viewpoint.

Again, many thanks — as always — for shedding more light on this topic.

Dale M. Posthumus

I have a bit of a problem with the obstacles here because some are not obstacles, but statements of condition.

1) Yes. Inflexibility on work structure is important. The private sector struggles with this, too, but generally has the management flexibility to address the problem. Some companies have very innovative approaches to work flexibility. Although work flexibility affects women much more, especially relative to childcare, it also affects to men.

2) This is a statement of the problem. The obstacle is the “why, what causes this difficulty”.

3) Although this can be seen as an obstacle to women gaining higher positions in STEM fields, I would argue this is more of a statement of a problem. Low percentage of women in STEM does not affect women in other fields. More importantly, the obstacle is why are women underrepresented. The solution may not be in what Federal managers can do in HR policies, if it is our cultural bias against girls getting into STEM in childhood through college.

4) Statement. Again, “why” what is the cause. I would also like to see better, more targeted statistics.

5) Obstacle. Bias will always be with us. How do we reduce the impact of those biases?

6) Obstacle, sort of. If the perception is real, then this is an obstacle.

As always, the statistics are insufficient. To get a better grasp on the problem and how we could solve it, we must look deeper. For example, low percentages of women in the Federal STEM profession is important. But I would like to know how the percentages of women in STEM management vs all women in STEM. How does this compare to the percentage of women in Federal management vs. all women in Federal employ? This will not only be more useful, it could lead to understandings that could help to address the problem.

Mark Hammer

David, not that the urban centres are unpleasant places to live, but if your home in a smaller city or town is worth, say, $240k on the local market, you have two kids in elementary grades a close walk from their school, and your partner has a decent job locally, just why exactly would you relocate to a city where an equivalent home in an equivalent neighbourhood would set you back at least $500k, all for a $20k/yr raise and no overtime pay; especially if it means uprooting your kids and obliging your partner to find another job?

What this points to, for me, is that appropriate analysis of potential barriers to women entering the upper rungs really needs to exclude those for whom the financial costs of relocation would play a role, and focus instead on those within zones of large-scale federal employment where a person would not have to relocate to move up. I mean you could ask people whether finances or uprooting family is a factor, but no one has asked that in the large-scale surveys. Far easier to take the data one already has and use only that data where relocation is not an issue, especially since one is still left with an awful lot of data.

Our executive group (males and females combined; sadly I can’t diaggregate the data) have routinely indicated conflict between work and family as the most frequently nominated obstacle to career progress, from among a large array offered up for consideration. Not only is it their #1 reason, but they nominate it moreso than other occupational groups do. It’s been pretty consistent since we started asking about it in 2002. More recent data indicates that those at the lowest rungs of the EX group are also more likely to nominate it than those at the highest. Of course, part of that is because those at the highest rungs don’t really have all that much “career progress” ahead of them, and those at the lowest rungs tend to be younger with a younger family. Like I say, I do not have the data for male and female executives separately, but it would not surprise me in the least if work/family conflict was an even more-frequently nominated reason for women, compared to men.

Mark Hammer

In response to the articles you cited, there are a few distinctions that need to be made. One is between public service and public sector. Someone who cleans sheets in a hospital or works in the lunchroom at a school is in the public sector, but they are not part of the core public administration. I mention this just to stop any generalization from any quantitative information I’m using (which is federal public service only), to the much broader population that draws a publicly-funded paycheck.

The second distinction that needs to be made is between the cumulative likelihood that a given point of entry will ever lead to a management position. There are a great many public-sector jobs employing more women than men that are essentially go-nowhere jobs. That is, they may provide stable employment and even competitive compensation and benefits, but the most they will ever lead to for just about anyone is line supervisor. This is in contrast to other types of entry jobs that provide a wealth of opportunities for those who are interested. I see plenty of young people in various entry-level jobs, with very modest education, who have any number of choices for upward mobility ahead of them. Not right away, but certainly eventually.

David B. Grinberg

Thanks for your responses, Mark.

First, I agree with you about families with kids living in the suburbs rather than big cities. Most families I know who reside in DC send their kids to private schools because the District public school system is so bad.

The suburbs just outside of DC, in Maryland and Virginia, have many public schools with excellent reputations. But the student body populations are overflowing and new funding is scarce. This creates problems for teachers with overcrowded classrooms that keep growing and growing.

Meanwhile, DC is seeing a resurgence of Millennials who want to “make Washington their own” according to an Oct. 20 cover story in the Washington Post Sunday Magazine entitled, “The District of Change.”

I also concur with your points about finances and relocation, as well as the significance of the work-life balance or “conflict” for female and male government employees. I wrote a blog post about this about a year ago entitled, “Defining Work-Life Balance in a Digital/Mobile World“. I’m also a big proponent of telework, flexible work schedules, and a results-only work environment (ROWE).

Secondly, thank you for clarifying the distinctions in the articles I cited. In the U.S. federal government women, people of color, and individuals with disabilities remain under-represented at the highest pay levels (SES and GS-15/14). This has been a perennial problem.

Again, many thanks for sharing your exemplary insights on these topics, Mark. Your feedback is greatly appreciated, as always!

Dale M. Posthumus

I believe one important obstacle to women’s advancement in Govt employ (all levels) is turnover. I know many people, women and men, who complain they are stuck at GS-12/GS-13 because the people above don’t move. The Govt labor force (federal, state, and local are virtually identical) does not turnover as much as it does in the private sector (generally half or less the rates in the private sector) and is realtively top heavy in baby boomers. So, if all of those men at GS-14/15 and in SES are staying through full retirement, it means a lack of positions becoming available to women. Perhaps with the baby boomer retirements often discussed, this may change, creating more opportunities. Once again, one of my favored reforms would be to make it easier for people to move in and out of govt employment as well as within govt.

David B. Grinberg

FYI — interesting study about pay gap narrowing for millennial women. USA Today reports (video/article):

  • “Millennial women and men have the narrowest gender wage gap on record, according to a study out Wednesday from the Pew Research Center.
  • Young adult women make 93 cents for every dollar a Millennial man makes. For all women, that number falls to 84 cents.
  • The research found Millennial women, ages 25 to 34, are entering the workforce better educated, receiving better pay, and are just as focused on their careers as young men.”

Any thoughts on this generally, or how it may apply to public sector employment for women in particular?