Breaking Through

Women have come a long way in the top ranks, but the SES still is mostly male.

Car owners know a tiny chip in their windshield will expand into a deadly spider web of cracks sooner or later. Those cracks, however small, eventually will shatter the glass.

The same is not always true of the metaphorical glass ceiling, and if it does break, it usually takes a lot longer. That's been the case with the snail-like increase in women serving in senior-level jobs in the federal government during the past decade. According to the Office of Personnel Management, women made up 31.3 percent of the Senior Executive Service in fiscal 2010, up 0.7 percent from fiscal 2009. Statistically, that change is pretty meaningless, especially when one considers that nearly 70 percent of the SES is male. By contrast, women dominate entry-level jobs in government: In fiscal 2010, women made up 66 percent of all employees in General Schedule and related grades 1 through 4, and 61.2 percent of all workers in grades 5 through 8.

Still, the number of women within government's highest ranks continues to inch up year after year. Women made big gains in the SES in the decade between 1992 and 2002-jumping from 12.3 percent to 25.4 percent. Since then the increase has been incremental. "It's going up, but in our view, is still woefully short of where it should be," says Janet Kopenhaver, Washington representative for the advocacy group Federally Employed Women. Part of the issue is the turnover rate in the SES isn't high once career executives reach that pinnacle. "The SES is slow to change," says an OPM spokesperson.

A larger problem, Kopenhaver and others say, is the lack of training and mentoring programs for women at all levels of the workforce. She says the absence of official mentoring in some agencies is connected to the decline of the Federal Women's Program, which was created in the 1960s to boost career development opportunities for women in the federal government and incorporated into the 1972 Equal Employment Opportunity Act. OPM and FEW are working together on new guidance for agencies to revive the program, Kopenhaver says. The program might be on life support at many agencies, but during the past few years, Congress and the executive branch have emphasized diversity, particularly among the highest tier of employees. OPM works with agencies to design Candidate Development Programs that can help them identify and prepare senior executives. A provision in the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act called for the creation of an Office of Minority and Women Inclusion at agencies such as the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, Federal Housing Finance Agency, and the Securities and Exchange Commission. A few years ago, Congress passed legislation requiring OPM to open an office that would promote diversity in the SES.

Grooming already successful career civil servants for the SES, while necessary, doesn't address the challenge of preparing and nurturing employees at the lower end of the pay scale. A senior-level female employee at Treasury, who has worked in at least two other agencies in and outside Washington, says the government does not do enough to retain women or help them shape a career in public service. "The government does a very poor job on their internal mentoring, and when they do, most often it is limited to the higher grades," she says. The employee, who took an entry-level government job at the start of her federal career because she was a single mother at the time and "needed a steady paycheck," says she sought out training opportunities and promotions on her own and also benefited from the Upward Mobility Program. She remembers as an entry-level clerk asking her supervisor for managerial training-a request that was laughed at and dismissed, she says.

Times have changed for many women in the public and private sectors, mostly for the better. But that doesn't mean everyone who wants training receives it. As the saying goes, training is the first thing organizations eliminate when money is tight, which is certainly the case now in government. Still, women have made strides. A May 2011 report from the Merit Systems Protection Board concluded that the pay and experience gaps between men and women have narrowed since its 1992 study on women in federal government. "In fact, progress has far outpaced the projections of MSPB's 1992 study, and the representation of women in the SES compares favorably with their representation in similar positions in the [national] labor force," the report stated.

Interestingly, though, women in the upper echelons of government continue to perform "traditionally female" jobs, often in human resources, health or social services, more so than in the fields of engineering, transportation or law enforcement, according to the 2011 MSPB report, which could account for some of the slow growth in the ranks of SES women during the past decade.

That wasn't the case, however, for Mary Loiselle and Kristine Marcy, two female senior executives, who are now retired. Loiselle, who left government as the principal deputy associate director of enforcement and removal operations in the Homeland Security Department's Immigration and Customs Enforcement, started her career as an immigration inspector in Niagara Falls, N.Y., in the late 1970s. "I never fought the female fight," she says. "I just did my job." Loiselle says her mentors were mostly men, given the field she was in, and she worked her way through the ranks of the former Immigration and Naturalization Service and then later DHS. Partly, she was simply in the right place at the right time and seized opportunities, she says. Loiselle points out that she received promotions, in at least in one case, because men had turned them down first. "I thought, 'What the heck?' You can't win unless you play," she recalls.

It also helped that Loiselle was willing to move to other agencies and locations to further her career, coming to Washington in 2004. Marcy, who worked at 10 agencies throughout her government career and was a charter member of the SES, says most of her jobs were unusual and challenging, motivating her to stay in public service. "I didn't get what people meant by bureaucracy," says Marcy, who most recently served as interim president and chief executive officer of the National Academy of Public Administration. Marcy helped stand up the departments of Energy and Education, and was chief operating officer at the Small Business Administration before she retired in 2001.

Being flexible, moving around and seeking out mentors were critical factors in the successful careers of Loiselle, Marcy and the senior-level Treasury employee. They all took chances and have become mentors to men and women in federal government. Of course, it's easier said than done, especially when combined with the juggling act many women with jobs and families have to perform to get ahead.

Perhaps getting more women into the SES comes down to finding the right skills at the right time. Government needs thrifty and organized souls now more than ever. And as Marcy puts it, "If you're in budget, you can work anyplace."

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec