The invisible and persistent barriers to federal leadership
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The invisible and persistent barriers to federal leadership

January 17, 2023

While the Biden administration’s executive order brought renewed hope for a more diverse, equitable inclusive and accessible federal workforce, our recent research report, “Race, gender and public service leadership: Major findings from 360 assessment data,” highlights the persistent challenges for women and those with diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds—such as Black and African American; Hispanic, Latino and Latinx; American Indian; Asian American and Pacific Islander; and additional individuals—to advance to the highest levels of federal leadership.

It is imperative that organizations supporting the federal government—as well as the government itself—use data to understand and address the barriers that contribute to these gaps in representation.

Below we highlight three key actions agencies can take to meet this goal:

Examine your agency’s definition of effective leadership.

Throughout our LeadHERship series we highlight the fact that the definition of “leadership” has typically been grounded in stereotypical characteristics or attributes often linked to white men. For example, attributes such as being “warm” or “comforting”—traits historically given to women—are often perceived as incompatible with definitions of strong leadership focused on “assertiveness” and “competence.”

Our data not only highlights the persistence of these stereotypes, but also suggests that some words, such as “assertive,” may be used positively to highlight a leader who is a man and negatively to describe a leader who is a woman.

While these trends are not new, their persistence in the federal workforce highlights an opportunity to redefine the characteristics seen as critical to effective federal leadership and ensure that they are inclusive of all social identities, including those based on disability status, sexual orientation, age, race, gender and more.

Review processes to check implicit biases.

Given that the very definition of strong leadership is often grounded in implicit bias, it is critical that agencies review their performance management and feedback processes, and hiring, recruiting and leadership training strategies to ensure equity.

For example, our research found significant differences in the degree of positive or negative performance feedback provided to federal leaders based on race and gender. Additionally, when asked to describe a given federal leader using three adjectives, we found significant differences. As an example, we found that “intelligent” and “hardworking” were used significantly less for men of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds than for any other group in our sample.

These implicit biases are grounded in our collective history as a nation and remain insidious barriers to promotion, recruitment and retention in the federal government. The more agencies scrutinize their processes for these implicit biases, the more they will understand how to remove barriers to representation in federal leadership roles.

Understand the role of intersectionality.

Our data analysis highlights significant differences—based on gender—in how individuals rate their own performance versus how they are rated by others. Specifically, women were rated higher than men across all raters on all but one leadership competency- embracing risk and uncertainty. While understanding these differences is important to increasing gender equity in federal leadership, it is only one important piece of information.

We also found notable differences based on the intersection of a federal leader’s race and gender. As an example, women of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds were consistently rated higher by others compared with white women across the four key competencies and two core values of the Public Service Leadership Model. Federal leaders are individuals with many social identities, so any attempt to build more diverse leadership in government will most likely be successful if agencies analyze the compounding impact of multiple social identities rather than exploring how they operate in isolation within the workplace.

For more information on the trends we have identified in our federal leadership data, please check out our entire LeadHERship series.

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