Breaking Into the Boys’ Club

In one of the final scenes of Mad Men’s pilot episode, after undergoing a barrage of sexual harassment on her first day and being encouraged to play up her “assets,” Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) places her hand on top of Don’s (Jon Hamm) suggesting that she believes she has to make herself available to him. Thankfully, we’ve come a long way since women needed to use their bodies to get ahead, and most of that series could be a primer on how not to behave in today’s workplace.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that things have become easy for women. The federal government is still largely a “boys’ club”—in 2012, only 37 percent of new hires were women, compared with 43 percent in 2002, according to the Merit Systems Protection Board (similar data from OPM found that less than 44% of the current federal workforce is comprised of females). This means fewer women in entry-level jobs and fewer women rising through the ranks into leadership positions. There are a couple of major contributing factors, including a push to hire more veterans (active-duty military is currently 80% male) combined with increased hiring in male-dominated fields such as engineering, IT, and law enforcement.

If you’re a woman in the federal government today, chances are a large cohort of your colleagues and superiors are male. So, what tactics can you use to get ahead?

Don’t Wait for Opportunity

Your boss won’t always be equitable when spreading the work around, so don’t be afraid to ask for that project or a new role you want. Sure, working hard is important for making a name for yourself, but so is standing up and claiming what’s yours. This extends to asking for a raise or promotion when you think you deserve it (just be sure you have an argument prepared to back it up).

Find a Mentor

Find someone in your organization whom you trust, or someone who is in a position you aspire to, who can act as your mentor. Share your career goals, discuss your challenges, but also showcase what you’re doing well. If you show that you can work hard, be dependable, but also take advice and guidance, not only will your mentor help lead you where you want to go, he or she will discuss you with senior leaders or others who can help you advance.

Say “No” When Necessary

You might be trying to impress your boss with all of the things you can balance at work (not to mention your kids, household, hobbies, etc.) but you can’t afford to say yes to every project. Eventually, you’ll drop the ball or submit subpar work, and that won’t be good for your career or the agency.

Use Your Strengths

This is advice for anyone looking to advance his or her career. But for women, it can be particularly important. You have skills that might be seen as stereotypical—women are traditionally more empathetic, have a better read on group dynamics, and better respond to individual emotions—but that doesn’t mean you can’t use them to your advantage. The information you can gain through these strengths can all be valuable information for your boss, if he asks. Just don’t become a tattletale or a gossiper.

Better Yourself…

If you think about where you want to go in your career, is there anything holding you back? This can be a skill, a fear, anything. If you can identify what essential elements you need to move ahead, develop a plan on how to get them. Take a public speaking course to increase your confidence and conviction, sit through a webinar on software you’re unfamiliar with, attend a networking event, ask to join a project team, or volunteer with an organization to learn more about how your agency impacts its mission. All of these new experiences are building blocks toward developing yourself into an essential employee that any agency would be happy to have.

…But Be Yourself

Throughout your career, you’ll be asked to leave your comfort zone. But that doesn’t mean you have to change yourself into someone you aren’t. Women have unique skills and abilities that are crucial to the federal workforce. In finding new ways to get ahead, you’ll be leaving behind doubts and fears that everyone (no matter their gender) has, and developing an internal and external awareness of what will make you stand out.

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Andrew Krzmarzick

Great post, Heather. A couple great associations for networking with other rising women in government include Federally Employed Women and Executive Women in Government – perfect places to find a mentor, too!

Tanaya Lanning

I enjoyed this post very much, especially the last part about being yourself, because at the end of the day, no one else can do exactly what you can, so bring it all to the table, every day!

I’m not sure if it’s common verbiage in Federal work, but I would gently challenge the use of the word superior when referring to somone who holds a supervisory or managerial role in the work place though, especially with regards to matters of inequality or inequity. Half of the battle is setting our self image up for success. Of course, the word superior will hold more or less weight to different people, and some people will be very good at taking the word just to mean a matter of rank, but in general, I think a lot of people will take it to mean that one thing is better than another, which can be a very detrimental outlook to hold for a woman who is trying to break into the boys club.

Government employee

Although I appreciate the writer is trying to be helpful, the reality is that this is just another article suggesting that women ARE the problem or are not doing the right things. There is a flood of these type of messages out on social media deflecting attention away from the real problem.The reality is that in most cases, women can do and be all of the above, but if the system is run by people who are biased against women – it is still impossible to get ahead. It’s the systemic discrimination that we must address if we want to make progress, in government or elsewhere. Also, a little slip of the tongue there in the third from last paragraph reveals the writer’s inherent bias – the assumption that the boss is a “he.”