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Women are underrepresented in federal leadership positions, making up just 27.3% of the U.S. Congress in 20211 and 39% of the Senior Executive Service—the highest level of our government’s career workforce—in 2022. While various sociological and psychological theories offer insight into why these persistent gender gaps exist, a potential strategy to solve this issue is for researchers and federal agencies to better understand how federal leaders view themselves, as well as how they are viewed by their colleagues, direct reports and supervisors.
Historically, the common conception of what it means to be a leader has been built on characteristics typically associated with white men. Understanding women’s experiences in federal leadership roles, and the barriers and challenges they face, is critical to creating a federal workforce that reflects the diversity of the United States and is better equipped to serve people with different backgrounds and needs.
Collecting and analyzing this information will enable organizations that support the federal government and its institutions—and our government itself—to address the societal barriers that contribute to gender disparities in federal leadership roles and to build a more effective federal workplace.
This is the fourth brief in the Partnership for Public Service’s LeadHERship series, which offers best practices and lessons learned. For more information about this series, please review our introductory brief.
The Partnership for Public Service developed the Public Service Leadership Model used in leadership training programs since 2019. The model is grounded in two core values—stewardship of public trust and commitment to public good, and four key competencies—becoming self-aware, engaging others, leading change and achieving results. A proprietary Public Service Leadership 360 assessment tool was also developed based on this model. During the past several years, this tool has been used for assessing leadership skills of more than 2,000 federal government leaders, generating a unique data set that we have used to identify trends in public service leadership.
For the “LeadHERship in the Federal Government: How Women Lead” series, we complemented this data set with 13 interviews and a focus group of women leaders to specifically highlight the experiences of women in federal leadership positions. One of our goals for this project was to identify best practices and offer suggestions for how individuals and organizations can support more inclusive leadership. This fourth brief in the series focuses precisely on that part of our work.
Advice based on the workplace experiences of our research participants is included throughout the previous briefs in this series. Here we focus on the lessons learned and best practices shared from women leaders in the federal government.
The tools and strategies presented below are likely to be most effective in supporting more inclusive leadership if they are adopted at the individual, as well as team and agency levels. At the higher levels, this includes organizational policies and programmatic design. While we focus most sections on the leader or individual level, we also offer suggestions for teams and organizations that came specifically from the women leaders in our sample.
These best practices are derived from our data on women federal leaders based on the significant differences in men’s and women’s experiences that we uncovered. However, we also found differences in professional experiences at the intersection of race and gender for women, as well as for men of diverse racial or ethnic backgrounds. The points raised below are relevant for those groups, along with other individuals starting on their journey to federal leadership, and those who are considering the possibility of entering the federal workforce.
If put into action, any improvements for the leadership experience of women or employees of diverse racial or ethnic backgrounds will not only benefit them, but all staff by supporting a more inclusive leadership culture as well as systems and policies affecting leaders in organizations. These actions also support the Biden administration’s executive order focused on building a federal workforce that is representative of the population of the U.S. A more diverse and inclusive federal workforce will be better equipped to serve our diverse nation in a responsive and equitable way.
Below are four areas of best practices and lessons learned derived from the women federal leaders that we interviewed or those who participated in our focus group, that are directed at improving the culture of inclusion in the workplace. These are focused on the individual, team, agency and the entire social structure since our data supports the fact that no single isolated solution will be effective. Rather, a system-wide approach is needed to result in positive change for women and all federal leaders.
Since a focus of our entire LeadHERship series suggests that an important area of opportunity for improving inclusion and equity exists at the leader level, we conclude each section with some questions for leaders to ask themselves as they work to support their teams, and especially women.
A successful workplace that supports federal employees in their efforts to thrive and advance professionally starts with recognizing that every person has multiple facets to their lives and separating those from the work environment is often impossible. One of our participants suggested that honoring the whole person includes being consistent and reliable in providing opportunities for federal employees to take care of life outside of work (childcare, eldercare, self-care, etc.).
Many of the women leaders interviewed discussed the topic of balancing work and life. As one participant said, “There might not always be a work-life balance, but as long as there’s harmony [it’s okay].” Women leaders also shared the importance of leading by example by setting boundaries at work and adhering to them.
“What we do to support women at work is only a part of the solution, what we do to support women at home is equally important.”
-Shared by one woman federal leader.
This also means:
Here are some specific examples of biases and barriers encountered by our participants that could be addressed if a whole person approach is taken in the workplace:
“We’re the people you come to say, ‘I have a problem, I need it solved,’ and I find that women tend to take on those tasks that are often thankless that are for the good of the institution.”
Below are some additional ideas shared by our research participants for strategies individual leaders, and the federal enterprise, can implement in support of the “whole person” approach:
Leadership is a group effort and collective success depends on working as a system. Each leader is a part of a whole, and even when they are at the top, there is always a legacy they rely on and a team supporting the work. In addition to focusing on leadership competencies and tools to improve leadership capabilities in their teams, leaders can focus on making sure everyone works as part of a cohesive entity and understands their role in the organization. Additionally, fostering a two-way conversation between a leader and their team will help make the federal government a more inclusive and effective workplace where all employees can thrive.
Here are some ideas shared by our research participants in support of this part-of-a-whole approach to leadership, which can be implemented by individual leaders:
Two very influential senior leaders tapped her on the shoulder and said, “You should put yourself forward, this is how to do it, and I want to support you” because there were few women in leadership positions then.
Additional ideas and suggestions focused on promotion, advancement and performance plans, highlighting the need to focus on the process and system include the following:
Flexibility and adaptability were frequently discussed in the context of achieving professional goals and becoming a successful leader. This section highlights recommendations for women at all levels of federal leadership. While we focus the first part of this section on the individual, the recommendations can also be used by federal leaders to better understand their employee’s professional development motivations and interests to help support them on their professional journey.
For women at all levels of the federal government this includes:
“Try to say yes when you can so you can say no when it matters.”
-Shared as a personal motto by one woman federal leader.
This at times means:
“You absolutely cannot wait for someone else to give you recognition and to notice what you are doing well. Self-promotion throughout your career is essential. There are many ways to do that, from getting on panels for internal events to being sure you are telling your boss what you did and not just hoping they notice.”
Also related to flexibility and adaptability, but from the perspective of leading others, the importance of deeply knowing the strength of one’s team members and making use of these accordingly was highlighted by our participants.
“I manage different people, and each person needs to be managed and led in a different way.”
Some key leadership skills were consistently mentioned as areas to focus attention on, both at the individual and the organizational level. This included confidence, active listening, humility, authenticity, integrity, humor and risk-taking. And as one woman leader stated when reflecting on her own leadership approach, “Remember to be human!”
Women leaders also shared the importance of being curious, open to feedback and scheduling time for continuous and intentional improvement. Below we share specific strategies for women, by the women in our sample, but they can also be incorporated by leaders at any level to support a more inclusive federal government.
LeadHERship, just like leadership, does not include one-size-fits all recommendations, but we hope our summary of best practices and lessons learned is useful for a wide variety of federal leaders. The more leaders regularly incorporate these best practices, the more inclusive the workplace will become.
We also encourage readers to join the discussion and share strategies that have been successful by using #LeadHERship on LinkedIn or connecting directly with the authors. As we have highlighted throughout our “LeadHERship in the Federal Government” series, creating a more inclusive federal workforce takes commitment at the individual, group and entire social system level. The more individuals, teams and agencies are committed to continuous improvement in this area, the more likely we will see a government that is truly representative of our society.
Emily Kalnicky oversees and advances efforts at the Partnership to understand and improve overall program effectiveness and mission achievement through monitoring and evaluation data. Her appreciation of the importance of using data to support decisions and improve effectiveness has spanned her career in nonprofits, academia, and government agencies. Kalnicky holds a Ph.D. in Ecology and has led behavioral research and evaluation studies across the globe. Emily’s favorite public servants are EPA scientists and staff committed to using data and a lens to environmental justice to serve the mission to protect human health and the environment for all.
Nadzeya Shutava works on several of the Partnership’s research projects, including the improvement of customer experience with federal services, leadership in government, as well as public opinion and government. She holds a Ph.D. in Social Sciences with a focus on political science, ethnography and social anthropology from the University of Tsukuba in Japan. Nadzeya is passionate about bringing academic research and public service practice closer together and believes in the potential of evidence-based policy making. Her favorite public servant is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who inspires Nadzeya with her charisma and relatability, both skillfully amplified through social media, and her talent of effectively communicating complex issues to broad audiences.
Loren DeJonge Schulman
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