How our government can embrace equity to advance women leaders
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How our government can embrace equity to advance women leaders

March 8, 2023 | Updated on February 26, 2024
Greta Okomo

International Women’s Day celebrates the significant achievements of women around the world. This year’s theme—#EmbraceEquity—provides an opportunity to examine the state of women in the federal workforce, specifically in leadership roles.

The state of women in the workplace

Despite their increased representation in the workforce and rising educational levels, women remain underrepresented in senior-level leadership roles in corporate America and in the U.S. government. For example, they make up less than 7% of Fortune 500 CEOs and around 25% of C-suite jobs in the top 1,000 companies. Within our federal government, women compose just one-third of the Supreme Court, 26% of the Senate and 23% of the House of Representatives.

Disparities in pay also exist, with women in the U.S. earning 83% of what white, non-Hispanic men earn, and women of color earning less than that. For Black, Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander women, that number is 63%; and it is Indigenous American women; and 55% for Hispanic women.

Together, this lack of representation and pay disparity are two of the many systemic barriers that women face to professional advancement in the U.S. workforce.

Perception is a barrier for women

The Partnership for Public Service’s LeadHERship series examined the experiences and challenges women in federal leadership positions face.

One critical factor is gender bias that affects how women leaders are perceived. For example, women scored higher than their male counterparts on several key leadership competencies but were still more likely to receive negative feedback about their job performance. The study thus concluded that the lack of representation of women in senior federal positions is less due to their leadership ability and more due to systemic and structural barriers that operate in the workplace.

Best practices to embrace equity in government

Given this finding, it is imperative that our federal government implement equitable hiring, workforce and performance management practices. These practices include:

  • Inclusive hiring practices. Organizations can start by writing inclusive job descriptions that do not use gendered language or including subjective criteria, such as being a friendly person. Companies can also use accessible software and platforms during the application process, and provide standardized interview questions to help offset biases that may emerge when hiring.
  • Equitable pay. Organizations should ensure that they compensate employees with similar job functions comparably, regardless of their gender, race, ethnicity, ability status, sexual orientation, or social or cultural background.
  • Equitable paths for promotion and advancement. Organizations should provide learning, leadership and career development programs to all employees at all levels to ensure equal opportunities for advancement and promotion.
  • Flexible work arrangements. Hybrid, remote and flexible work arrangements benefit all employees—but they often benefit women in particular because they are more likely to have caregiving responsibilities outside of the workplace. Several studies also reveal that women of color, people with disabilities, and other underrepresented groups encounter less bias and discrimination in remote positions.
  • Sponsor women leaders. Sponsors leverage their positional authority and influence to advocate for junior employees or protégés, which helps them attain opportunities and visibility that will advance their careers.

As we celebrate International Women’s Day, our federal government should reflect on how it can drive equity and remove barriers to women’s representation and success in the workplace and in leadership roles.

“LeadHERship in the Federal Government: How Women Lead” is a four-part series that examines the differences and similarities between how women and men understand and experience their roles as public service leaders, and explores the intersections between race, ethnicity and gender in public service leadership. To learn more about this research and how government can advance equity, check out the full LeadHERship series.

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