Government’s lack of diversity in leadership positions
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Government’s lack of diversity in leadership positions

March 11, 2019 | Updated on July 1, 2021
, Wendy Ginsberg

Federal government leadership has a diversity problem.

During this Women’s History Month, we may be celebrating major accomplishments women have made in years past, but there remains a current-day challenge: Women represent slightly more than half of the U.S. population, yet they are sorely underrepresented in the federal government’s highest career leadership positions.

As of June 2018, women held only 34 percent of the government’s more than 7,100 Senior Executive Service positions, according to the Office of Personnel Management. On the next rungs of the career ladder—supervisor and manager positions—woman filled only 33 percent of the more than 241,000 government jobs at those levels.

Percentage-wise, women fared better in the overall federal workforce, making up 43 percent of the roughly 2 million federal government employees. However, they mostly fill positions at the lower end of the pay scale.

Our government may be doing itself a disservice in this regard. Study after study has demonstrated the benefits leadership diversity brings to business’ bottom lines.

In 2015, for example, McKinsey found that companies that had the most gender diversity in their leadership positions experienced a 15 percent higher financial return, on average, than the industry median.

Other research determined that more diverse teams make better business decisions up to 87 percent of the time–and they do it twice as fast with half the meetings.

Research the Partnership for Public Service and Booz Allen Hamilton released in 2018 also found evidence that a diverse workforce is a key element contributing to an innovative federal workplace.

The low numbers of women in the federal government are not the only issue. There is also an imbalance in the numbers of federal employees who are minorities.

Minorities comprised nearly 40 percent of the U.S. population, yet accounted for just 22 percent of senior leadership jobs, according OPM’s 2018 numbers. And they made up only 30 percent of supervisor or manager positions, even though minorities—defined by OPM as nonwhite employees—comprise 38 percent of the federal workforce.

Federal agencies need to do more to cultivate and attract diverse leaders. They need to examine why women and minorities don’t make it into the upper echelons of government and what can be done to rectify the situation.

As a starting point, leaders could establish diversity and inclusion committees, if their agencies don’t have them, and ask these committees for ideas on how to make their organizations more attractive to a wider range of talent. Diversity and inclusion training for staff, leaders and hiring managers could also be useful.

Agencies also should examine whether they unintentionally advance people from particular demographic groups.

Increasing diversity takes work, but it’s important work.

A diversity of talent, whether it’s by age, race, military experience, gender, or traits and experiences, provides government with different and fresh perspectives. Organizations can only benefit by cultivating and developing future leaders with a wide variety of backgrounds and experiences.

Wendy Ginsberg is a former senior program manager with the Partnership for Public Service.