One Key to Increasing Female Federal Hires: Deeper Understanding

It’s an unsettling fact: The percentage of female federal hires has decreased in recent years. In a 2014 report, the Merit Systems Protection Board highlighted the trend, saying that although women accounted for 43 percent of federal hires in 2000, by 2012 that number had fallen to 37 percent. There are a number of factors that are impacting this dynamic, and one may be the need to better understand the women that federal agencies are trying to attract.

Lessons from the Sports Industry

Women control 70 to 80 percent of consumer purchases and account for global incomes predicted to reach a whopping $18 trillion by 2018, according to a recent blog post by the online MBA for executives [email protected] Female fans represent a growing and increasingly lucrative demographic for the sports industry. That’s precisely why many big brands in this male-dominated sector have pivoted their marketing efforts to understand women better and attract them more effectively.

Although recruiting for federal jobs is a different animal, there may be lessons here for the public sector as well. That’s especially true when it comes to understanding who these female candidates are and what their needs may be. One technique that Adidas and others are using to gain such insights is ethnographic research. This approach involves a branch of anthropology that tries to understand how people live their lives in their own settings. Instead of performing market research from afar, ethnographic researchers visit consumers in their homes and offices to understand them better.

While this concept may be new to many in the public sector, the U.S. government is actually the largest employer of anthropologists in the world—and some of them have been applying their expertise to recruiting efforts for decades. According to a 2003 U.S. General Accounting Office  report, Ethnographic Studies Can Inform Agencies’ Actions, “To target recruiting efforts more effectively to young people, the Department of Defense (DOD) used ethnographic surveys to obtain in-depth information about the propensity to join the military from youths who had participated in an ongoing structured survey and their parents.”

Understanding Female Decision-Making

In addition to the use of ethnographic research in recruitment efforts, it may be helpful to better understand how women make decisions—especially if those doing the recruiting are men. In an article for Harvard Business Review, Cathy Benko and Bill Pelster—both Deloitte consultants—highlight how their company used research-based training to shift from a one-size-fits-all approach to better address issues that influence how prospective female clients make decisions. Although the example is geared toward female business executives, federal recruiters can apply such insights to their efforts, as well.

  • Build rapport. Recruiters should keep in mind that women like to get a sense of who an individual is beyond a job title. Taking the time to build rapport before plunging into the interview may make the difference between a yay or a nay when it comes to accepting an offer.


  • Be gender-aware. Although common, male-friendly rhetoric isn’t a good idea—so male recruiters beware. As Benko and Pelster note, “Generally speaking, women don’t respond as warmly to the conversational gambits that work with men, and they expect you to know that.”
  • Be thorough. Most women use a more integrative approach to solving problems, so it’s important to be prepared with the details they’ll be looking for. A thorough answer to a well-formed query sets the tone for the type of environment they can expect if they accept the position.


As the Merit Systems Protection Board notes in its most recent report, there is more than one factor influencing the drop in female hires in the public sector. However, by gaining a deeper understanding of the female candidates your agency is trying to recruit, you’ll increase your chances of adding the best and brightest women to your ranks.

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