Is There a Glass Ceiling for Women Veterans?


From Combat to Cubicle – Is There a Glass Ceiling for Women Veterans?

A couple of weeks ago I was honored to partake in an important yet vital Women Veterans Listening Session – Barriers, Challenges and Successes in Federal Hiring sponsored by OPM. I must say that OPM Director Ms. Katherine Archuleta was very gracious and down to earth as was her session companion Catherine Emerson, CHCO from DHS. These two ladies were charged and energetic with their mission to hire more women veterans in the federal government. If all hiring managers were as gracious and welcoming as these two ladies then my bet is that we would have more women veterans serving our country after the uniform. After all, it makes sense to have a balanced workforce but more than that, the federal government has already invested a significant sum in our education and professional development.

After I left the military, I meandered through the corporate world, unemployment, self-employment, motherhood and finally got through my education completing my Bachelor and then Masters Degrees. If I were still in the military I would have had the opportunity to apply to Officer’s Candidates School (OCS). As I made the transition to federal government work I applied and graduated from the Presidential Management Fellows Program (PMF). Sounds like a great opportunity but I wonder, at what point am I able to cross this great divide from bargaining unit employee aka enlisted in military speak to management aka officer ranks? I have crossed the range of careers from paralegal in the Army where the civilian world did not recognize my legal experience to becoming a business analyst in the corporate world, I owned a construction company but lacked the bonding for federal contracts and then finally landed my first federal job as a contract specialist with ICE and GSA, and then moving over to HUD as a Portfolio Management Specialist.

My personal goal is to make a transition and become more than where I am in my professional career. In doing so I believe I have taken steps to bridge any educational gaps, I’ve taken on service opportunities to step outside my normal work position.  Before attending the listening session, I pondered the notion of how to make the transition to management? Though when I was at the listening session I began to wonder, is there a glass ceiling for women veterans within the Federal Government? How many make the leap from employee to management and if so, what did you do to get there?

I think it is not only important to focus on the numbers of women entering the federal government after their military service but to also grow the women who successfully make the transition to continue their service to their country albeit no longer in uniform. You see, we, or at least I, still view my service in the Federal Government as still serving our nation just not in uniform. Now I do not by any means imply that I nor any of my fellow women veterans are “owed” anything. God knows we have sacrificed a bunch already in our lives but we would never say we are owed anything but our healthcare from our physical sacrifices.

Getting our feet in the door in the federal government is one thing and very important mind you. It excites me that there are some activities happening to open the doors for more fellow women veterans to enter the Federal workforce however it should not stop there. Let us approach this in a way to keep the doors open to move up the career ladder. Most of us are well seasoned professionals, capable of enduring many types of work environments and situations. In light of this upcoming Veterans Day, I urge hiring managers out there to seek out women veterans as potential candidates in your hiring decisions. You may very well be pleasantly surprised at just how capable we will serve and with the energy needed as your agency goes through a changing environment.

By the way, I really hope I get to continue in working with the OPM listening group for women veterans. A coworker and I have made the transition to federal employment post boots but we are still hoping to move up in the ranks of the federal workforce. Just saying…..

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Mark Hammer

You ask an excellent question.

Oftimes there are large groups facing hurdles, and we tend to overlook the different subgroups within that broader group. So, we may broach the “persons with disabilities” group as if it were monolithic, disregarding the different subgroups, such as perceptual-motor handicaps vs neuropsychological/psychiatric disabilities. Similarly, “veterans” is not a monolithic demographic, and conceivably male and female veterans face different kinds and degrees of obstacle, not just because they are veterans, and maybe not even just because they are female, but because men and women are placed within the military in differential fashion, and leave the military for different reasons (and perhaps at different ages too).

Yup, an excellent question.

Eva Fulton

Thank you Mark for your response. Oft times I realize it is easy to make that sort of leap, that there is a nexus. though since I am so closely related to the situation it was hard to determine whether obese rightly asking the question without making an unjust assumption. We have so many hurdles to overcome but we can only hope to make a difference for our fellow veterans. That’s what Ihope to do with my blog.

Mark Hammer

In the Canadian federal context, we have something akin to “veterans preference”. Former members of the military (and the RCMP) who have received a medical discharge, are entitled to priority consideration, ahead of other candidates, for federal civilian positions. Such priority entitlements are also given to federal employees declared surplus due to their program being sunsetted, or “workforce adjustments”, as well as those who have had to relocate away from their job for family reasons, and several other subgroups. My understanding is that, traditionally, over 2/3 of such discharged vets who do get civilian positions are eventually placed within the Department of National Defense. The challenge presently faced, however, is that the Public Service overall, has undergone significant cuts in all agencies (including the civilian side of Defense), such that veterans are in competition with many skilled public servants that were declared surplus during the recent downsizing. That is not to suggest any difference in competence, but I suspect many hiring managers, if faced with a choice between a candidate already familiar with the business lines and practices of their agency, and a vet, are likely to lean towards the surplus public servant, simply because it seems like a better and smoother fit (our own public service legislation does not require managers to use “top-down” selection, but permits them to select among qualified candidates based on “best fit”). If there is any sort of silver lining, it is that our military is not nearly as large as your own, so the number of vets is much smaller. Still, the right thing to do is still the right thing to do, whether it involves thousands or millions.

There is presently a piece of legislation under consideration (Bill C-27 for those who wish to follow it, that would extend the priority entitlements of veterans from 2 years (as is the case currently the case for all those who have such entitlements) to 5 years. Since most of the civilian cuts were to have been made between 2012 and 2014, in principle that should permit vets to have sufficient consideration for any civilian openings after all the dust from the public service cuts has settled. We will be monitoring the staffing activity relevant to this legislation, when it becomes implemented, and hope that it will provide a suitable remedy for both the women and men who have dedicated themselves to the defense of the highest values of the nation.

Eva Fulton

It sounds like exciting things are happening in Canada as well! That is great news for Veterans making the transition to civilian life. I have a friend I served with in Desert Shield/Storm in Saudi who made that transition in Canada when he graduated from college some years ago. I guess the difference for many of us is that we are catching up on the education process, not lacking so much of the professional gains and then working towards closing the other gaps like career positions. There’s hope all around for sure, but if we never ask the questions then I suspect we never get any closer to our goals.


First and foremost, Thank You for you military service. This was our honor.
Moving forward, thank you for you continued service to your country. Pulbic service is a field requiring dedication and personal pride.
I would hope that your pay scale is not gender-based but rather performance based. Sadly I see that performance is not rewarded as it should be.
I hope you can grow professionally in you job and move up into managment.
Once more, Thank You!

Eva Fulton

Thank you Robert for your sincere reply. I hope and will continue to work for a bright future. I fully believe that me, my sister and brother veterans (not to leave anyone out) have a lot to offer if given the chance.

Eva Fulton

That’s an awesome article and very well to the point! I know recent veterans who are having extreme difficulty in finding meaningful work largely in part because of their disabilities. Although they would love to work and have some purpose, their injuries prevent them from really being employable. for those of us who do find jobs I believe it is important to find ways to help us move up the chain for several reasons 1) that there is hope and no glass ceiling 2) continuity 3) Return on investment for the Federal government


My background is similar to yours: prior military enlisted, worked my way through school to attain B.S. and M.S., didn’t initially enter civil service, worked private sector for a bit first. Except I’m male, so, obviously, our experiences are not exactly correlative. Full disclosure, I came in as a GS-7 under VRA in 1990, and 8 years away from retirement, I’ve been a GS-13 for two years, averaging a little over 5 years at every grade level, with four promotions 7 to 9, 9 to 11, 11 to 12, 12 to 13. I have very little hope of making 14 before retirement, as I see many 14 and 15 positions being downgraded, with the DoD in a drawdown mode for the foreseeable future.
And I feel my experience is slightly better than normal. Although I have seen other people “work their way up through the ranks” in civil service…in my experience, such success stories have been rare. I was privileged to know one extraordinary individual (female) who started out as a GS-4 secretary and retired as a GS-12 supervisor, in an entirely different field—being promoted 6 times—but I have seen the vast majority of people come in at one rank and move up with maybe three promotions in their entire career–if that. I have known several dozen who never advanced at all, staying in the same JOB (not JUST the same career or grade) for 25-30 years and then retiring.
So, my experience is that the possibilities for upward mobility for ANYONE in civil service are not particularly good, even if a person is ambitious and hardworking, often occurring more as a matter of fortuitous timing and luck than anything else. Those chances get worse if you are geographically bound (i.e. not willing to relocate for career progression)–and many Civil Service folks don’t want to move. Consequently, most people who enter in the grades lower than GS-7 never make it above that rank. Most people who end up retiring from the middle-management ranks come into Civil Service at the lower end of those ranks–GS-7 or GS-9–and retire as GS 11s or 12s. Most of the people I’ve met who are GS 14-15 ranks came in at higher grades (GS-12 or above) and most of the SES folks I’ve met came in at GS 14-15 and moved up from there.
That’s not a glass ceiling issue…that’s a problem with the design of the civil service system, overall.
I’d be interested to see an actual study on career progression through the civil service ranks, to determine if my observations, gathered over the course of a career, actually come close to matching reality. How many people starting out as GS-4s or GS-5s get promoted and by how many grades over their career? What is the starting grade of most people currently holding each grade–by job series–and after how many years? What is the average time-in-grade before a promotion in each career field?
Curiously, I was unable to find any studies or stats on upward mobility in civil service, and the last paper I’d seen written on the subject was decrying the failure and discontinuation of the formal, mandated upward mobility programs in place–and it was written in 1974. This inattention to what seems to be a fairly pervasive problem leads me to suspect no one really wants to look at that “issue” (translate as “failure”) too closely.
Without anything more to go on, though, I’d have to say your experience is possibly neither a result of your gender nor your service, just a result of choosing a career in civil service.