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The 5 Things Successful Women in Government Do

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When it comes to women’s achievements, few compare to the rising roles of women in government. In Obama’s first term cabinet, five women were tasked with providing the president key insight into running government. Although the path to gender parity in government leadership positions is slow, women continue to make strides in in achieving top positions. However, January saw an exodus of high-profile female members of the president’s cabinet, including Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis and Deputy Chief of Staff Nancy-Ann DeParle. So far, no cabinet appointments have made up for the gap in exiting female leadership. White House press secretary Jay carney has asked the public to reserve judgment until more appointments are made.

With judgment reserved, one can’t help but wonder about women’s role in federal leadership. Often, high performing federal officials are plucked from agencies to fill second term appointments.  According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), women make up about 44 percent of the federal workforce. Therefore, women are almost on equal playing field with men to compete for these positions. And yet a gap persists.

Education is not the reason. On average, working women tend to be more educated than men.  In 1970, 22 percent of women in the labor force had either attended some college or graduated with a degree. By 2010, about 67 percent of women now have at least some college education.  

The much-maligned “Old Boys’ Club” may account for the problem and the solution. The “Old Boy’s Club” establishes relationships on the golf course and not in the office. It fosters relationship-building for the sake of business and much of the time, joins mentors with willing professional novices.

Therein lies the opportunity. In government and the corporate world alike, those who rise to top leadership positions don’t just get there via a laundry list of accomplishments. They ride there by taking initiative as well as with the help of their network. Building a network, however, is more than just exchanging business cards. Here are five things that all successful women do to rise to the top:

  • Just Ask. Providing killer performance on that last small project is a great start to getting your name out there. However, being known for organizing the filing cabinet or taking charge of the timelines won’t get you the exposure you need. One commonly cited impediment to female leadership growth is lack of exposure on high-profile projects. If there is a big project that you want to be a part of, make a case for your contribution. It is likely you will be welcomed with open arms.
  • Find a mentor. Unlike the private sector, agencies often don’t always have official programs that pair mentors with mentees. When trying to identify a mentor, think of those who have given you good advice, and who work outside of your department. The next time they give you a good tip, ask if you can call on them for their insight. In doing so, this begins a less formal process for building relationships and growing in your role.
  • Be Your Own Advocate. Be courageous. Nobody knows your contribution more than you do. People are busy and not all of your successes are known department-wide. Forget any inclination that you will sound selfish if you tout one of your successes. Step up to the plate and make sure your role in the last successful project is known.
  • Network With Other Women. In the workplace, female leaders beget more female leaders. As more and more women assuage the lingering cultural and institutional barriers to leadership, it paves the way for more mentorships and opportunities for other women. Not only that, but large events and conferences provide enormous opportunity for women to make professional connections. 
  • Be Supportive.  One common stereotype is that women compete more fiercely with other women for top positions. Not only is this anecdotal at best, but harmful if propagated. At a recent event hosted by Government Executive, I presented research conducted by the Government Business Council (GBC). Afterwards, I was overwhelmed with constructive feedback—especially from other women. Support all your colleagues when you can, professional karma isn’t the stuff of myths.

Excellence in Government will be providing another opportunity for women to network and learn best management practices. On May 13-14, men and women across government will join for a 2-day conference to take place at the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington, D.C. The event’s mission is to provide current and rising federal leaders with the latest skills and best practices. Find out more about it and sign up for updates on the conference at ExcellenceinGov.com. The conference is free to attendees.

Have any thoughts on what we should cover at Excellence in Government? We welcome your ideas, case studies, questions and feedback at contactus@excellenceingov.com.

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Dana Grinshpan is the Research Manager for the Government Business Council (GBC), the research division of Government Executive, where she specializes in primary research development and survey instrument creation. Prior to joining GBC, she worked for the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), assisting in the research and writing of work on South Asian regional cooperation. She has a Master of Arts in international security and political economics from the University of Chicago and graduated magna cum laude from Ohio State University where she holds a B.A. in international studies with a minor in Arabic.

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