Women’s History Month: Advancing women in the federal government
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Women’s History Month: Advancing women in the federal government

March 4, 2022 | Updated on January 30, 2024
Elli Nikolopoulos

A few months ago, we highlighted the racial and ethnic disparities in California’s federal workforce. The data showed that Black, Latinx, Asian American and Pacific Islander, and American Indian or Alaskan Native workers disproportionately hold lower-level positions within the federal government’s main job classification system, the General Schedule. Conversely, white employees hold a majority of positions at the GS-14 and GS-15 levels, the system’s two highest grades.

Our 2020 “Fed Figures” report shows a similar relationship between GS level and differences in sex. The report—which uses Office of Personnel Management workforce data that is broken down into “male,” “female” and “unspecified” categories—shows that women make up a majority of GS-8 positions and below and that men occupy the majority of GS-9 positions and above.

These trends in California—home to the largest population of civilian federal workers outside the Washington, D.C., area—are representative of the federal government: Overall, there are fewer women employees, and they tend to hold more junior positions.

Solutions and opportunities

How can government increase the number and support the career prospects of women civil servants? Hiring more women is a start, but we need to empower current employees with resources and professional development training to help them advance in their careers.

Federally Employed Women aims to do just that. FEW is a nonprofit organization that works across the country to improve the status of women in the federal workforce through advocacy, compliance monitoring and training opportunities.

This training affords women the opportunity to develop skills and expand their understanding of relevant federal rules and issues that impact women. Employees who have participated in the programs credit them with improving their job performance, boosting their morale and identifying areas for personal growth along with tools to foster self-improvement.

FEW’s main training event is the Virtual Leadership Summit, which will be held virtually on July 18-22, 2022. This year’s theme is “Leadership Next Level: People, Purpose, Passion,” and is designed for entry-through senior-level employees. From developing new skills to networking with other federal employees, this is the perfect opportunity for those who wish to take the reins in promoting their own professional development.

Person versus system

While organizations like FEW do vital work, they do not address the institutional barriers that women must navigate in the federal workforce. Women in the federal government often face obstacles to promotion at lower GS levels and are less likely to be recruited to work in higher-level positions. They are also often perceived as being less committed to their jobs.

These barriers do not affect all women equally. Women from underrepresented communities face additional barriers to career advancement, as indicated by their lack of representation at higher GS levels compared with white women.

While some signs point to structural reform—such as President Biden’s executive order advancing diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility in the federal workforce—more reform is needed.

For Women’s History Month, our government should not only consider tools that women in the federal workforce can use to enhance their careers, but also continue to reduce barriers to careers in public service and professional advancement for women and all federal employees.  

Learn more about Federally Employed Women’s Virtual Leadership Summit.

Elli Nikolopoulos is an intern on the Partnership West team.

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