New Blacks in Government President Reflects on Her Career During Women’s History Month
She was the first African American female to be appointed to the position of managing associate general counsel at the Government Accountability Office.
Shirley Jones became national president of Blacks in Government in January and during this Women’s History Month reflected on her over three-decade career in government, barriers she broke and where diversity needs to improve.
She has spent her entire career in government at the Governmental Accountability Office. “I am very proud that in February of 2019, I was appointed by the U.S. comptroller general to the Senior Executive Service making me the first African American female in the agency’s now 100 year history to be appointed to the position of managing associate general counsel,” she said.
Jones noted, however, that “despite progress in gender equality, according to [the Office of Personnel Management’s] latest federal employment data, the federal Senior Executive Service is still largely male (66.2%) and white (78.8%).”
She said she is feeling optimistic about the Biden administration's emphasis on diversity, as seen by his Cabinet and other top appointment selections and rescission of former President Trump’s executive order that banned certain employee diversity training for federal agencies, contractors, grant recipients and the military.
“It will, of course, take more than diversity and inclusion training to more fully address these barriers, but it is an important first step,” Jones said.
Government Executive interviewed Jones earlier this month. The following transcript has been edited lightly for length and clarity.
Can you give me an overview of your career in government?
I have spent my entire government career at the U.S. Government Accountability Office, almost 33 years now. Having started as a GS-7 summer legal associate in 1988, I have been living out my childhood dream of becoming a lawyer, a dream that ultimately grew into becoming a lawyer who would help the government be accountable to, and representative of, the people that it serves. And, I am very proud that in February of 2019, I was appointed by the U.S. comptroller general to the Senior Executive Service making me the first African American female in the agency’s now 100-year history to be appointed to the position of managing associate general counsel. As such, within GAO’s Office of General Counsel, I have management and leadership responsibility for three of the office’s legal teams focused on budget and appropriations law and congressional oversight.
In addition, after 25 years of membership, I am proudly serving as the 15th National President of Blacks in Government, a position I assumed on January 1, 2021. And, through my work at GAO supporting the Congress and the American people and my work in [Blacks in Government] supporting greater diversity, equity and inclusion, I am indeed living out my childhood dream.
What observations have you made over the years about women in the federal government?
Despite progress in gender equality, according to OPM’s latest federal employment data, the federal Senior Executive Service is still largely male (66.2%) and white (78.8%). As such, there is very limited diversity in decision making at the highest levels in the federal government. And, while the overall distribution of federal employees has women at 43.4%, minority women are still underrepresented within those numbers.
What are some of the challenges women face?
Despite progress in gender equality, women still face microaggressions and stereotypes in the workplace. Many women find it hard to get a word in edgewise through repeated interruptions, being over talked or subjected to mansplaining. But, if they adopt the same aggressive approach to getting airtime they are labeled competitive, difficult to work with, or even a bully. And, once a woman is labeled a bully for the same or even lesser actions than her male counterparts, it is a perception that is difficult to shake.
Honestly, I also don’t think society really sees women as leaders in the same manner as they do the 6’ 2” white male. When I read articles about the benefits of gender diversity and having more women in the workplace, I see references to greater employee engagement, increased workplace flexibilities and enhanced collaboration. Those are all great, but women want to be credited for the same leadership skills and expertise that men are credited for.
How can recruitment and retention improve, not just for gender diversity, but racial diversity too?
While agencies happily and readily report that there have been increases in women and minority representation in hiring, a closer look at the demographic data from OPM shows disturbing gaps. For example, for African American employment that representation is largely relegated to lower graded administrative, clerical and blue-collar positions. The data shows that much work still needs to be done to address systemic barriers to minority recruitment, hiring, promotion, retention, training, and other developmental opportunities like details and rotational assignments that lead to advancement. Importantly, more diversity in decision making at the highest levels of government where it is particularly lacking would provide a broader perspective on where to recruit, more equity in determining who gets an interview, more equity in determining who gets hired, and more equity in how opportunities for development and advancement are distributed once hired.
Does the political party in power have any impact on women’s experiences working in the federal government?
Yes, I applaud the Biden administration for making racial equity a priority across the board and for taking swift action to reinstate diversity and inclusion training at a time when our country needs it most. Of course, any focus on diversity must broadly include different races and ethnic backgrounds, as well as gender, age, religion and sexual orientation. And, diversity and inclusion training is an invaluable tool in addressing systemic barriers by providing practical insights into unconscious bias and actions that can be taken to minimize the effects of it. It will, of course, take more than diversity and inclusion training to more fully address these barriers, but it is an important first step. As such the administration and both parties should focus sustained attention on addressing diversity, equity, and inclusion issues within government and in all aspects of life.
How, if at all, has the coronavirus pandemic impacted women and/or racial and ethnic minorities' experiences working in the federal government? Does it seem they're facing challenges that whites and/or men are not?
Women and minorities who are traditionally marginalized in the workplace can be pushed further into the shadows during a pandemic when most of us are working remotely. More importantly, African Americans have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19. We also know that women, whether single parents or within two parent households, are usually the caregivers who are disproportionately taking charge of homeschooling the children. Those factors can further push women and minorities into the shadows and negatively impact their advancement.
Data from OPM shows that overall percentages of racial and ethnic minorities, women in GS 13-15 positions, and racial and ethnic minorities in GS 13-15 positions have increased over the past decade-plus and the percentage of women overall has remained relatively the same. Can I get your reaction to that?
The data shows a positive upward trend in the hiring of both women and racial minorities and that’s great. However, the Senior Executive Service is still largely male (66.2%) and white (78.8%). And, a further look at the data for African Americans separately shows that the increases are largely in the lower graded administrative, clerical, and blue-collar positions. The data always looks better when racial minorities are all lumped together. Lastly, the percentage of women in the workforce has been relatively stable for the last decade, so I am not surprised there has been no change in the data over a 1-year period.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I am an example that our agencies are making strides toward greater diversity, equity, and inclusion, and recognizing that excellence is colorblind and gender neutral. And, that’s why I use the platform that I have as a senior executive and as president of [Blacks in Government] to remind us to keep a collective focus on both equity and excellence, because they are not competing objectives.